or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hard Facts

For the last couple of days I've made mention of the fact that Greek words which contained the letter "k" found that letter transformed into "c" as they moved through Latin. Reader Frank posted the following comment:

What I find funny about the Latin habit of changing a Greek "k" to a "c" is that there is no soft "c" sound in Latin. Classical Latin pronounced "c" like we do "k." One wonders why they bothered!

High time I addressed it, then.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, English once had a single symbol, "v", which represented the sounds of both modern "u" and "v", depending on the context. The same is true of "i" and "j", which is why you will see the Roman god Jupiter's name depicted as "IVPITER". This sort of thing is pretty common in languages as they evolve: symbols appear ("w", forged from a doubled "v"), change shape (the letter "G" was once a boxy, squared-off object), vanish ("Þ", the thorn, now represented as "th").

The opposite of that divergence also happens--two similar sounds come to be represented by the same symbol--and this is the explanation for the "c"/"k" anomaly in Latin. Classical Latin did have a slightly softened "c"/"k" sound (nothing like our soft, hissed "s"-like "c" as in "herbicide": it was still a hard consonant, similar to the sound of English "g" as in "go"*) which appeared before a few vowels and diphthongs, and the letter "c" was used to represent this sound. "K", identical in sound to ours, was used before all other vowels and consonants. Because the difference between these sounds was very slight--because they nearly converge--it eventually became the practice to represent both sounds with a single symbol, "c", letting the reader decide which sound is meant, just as we do in English with...well, just about every letter of the alphabet. (A vestigial "k" remained at the beginning of certain Latin words, such as kalends.)

That doesn't answer the question of why they chose "c" instead of "k", though. Perhaps "c" was easier to write: perhaps it looked less like Greek. I don't know.

* Yes, the Latin alphabet does have the letter "G", which represents the hard-"g"/softened-"k" sound. Before that symbol appeared in about the 3rd century BC, when Classical Latin was still Old Latin, "c" represented that sound.


Blogger Bright Beak said...

I wonder how much of the u/v thing was an artifact of the writing system in force before the advent of the ink/paper/round letter ease that came later?


Sunday, October 29, 2006 2:52:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home