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Sometimes we use the soft sound, and sometimes the hard – but why? Is there any rule?

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I think this is a question better suited to ELL.SE. –  Andrew Leach Mar 9 '13 at 22:23
    
What is ELL.S.E –  Zafor Ahmed Mar 9 '13 at 22:25
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Check the link. It's the site for people learning English –  simchona Mar 9 '13 at 22:26
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@AndrewLeach: Maybe this would be better on ELL vs ELU, but I'd still hope the O.P. would do some basic research first. Typing "how to pronounce c in English" into Google returns millions of hits, and many of them – like this one – would answer this question just fine. –  J.R. Mar 9 '13 at 23:10
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Oh, by the way, "soft" and "hard" are not good terms for sounds. They're very impressionistic, and different people use them different ways. The correct term is the sound: /k/ versus /s/, for the most part. Neither is "harder" or "softer" than the other; it's much better not to make up technical terminology. –  John Lawler Mar 10 '13 at 0:31
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closed as general reference by Andrew Leach, Matt Эллен, StoneyB, MετάEd, tchrist Mar 10 '13 at 15:12

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

3 Answers

As I've had occasion to say before,

English spelling does not represent English pronunciation.

Consequently the letter C can represent
- the voiceless alveolar sibilant /s/, as in pace /pes/
- the voiceless velar stop /k/, as in caucus /'kɔkəs/
- (as part of CH) the voiceless palatal affricative /tʃ/, as in church /tʃərtʃ/

as well as other sounds, depending on where their spelling has been borrowed from.

There are etymological rules for pronunciation,

BUT ...

these rules require one to be able to recognize English words borrowed from Latin and Greek, and to distinguish them from English words that come directly from Germanic words. It also requires one to be able to rewind past sound changes and reinsert consonants and vowels that have disappeared in speech. This amounts to studying the history of the language, which is highly recommended and highly rewarding, but is very complex and takes many years to master.

So most people don't ever learn them, and get frustrated at spelling instead.

Once you have, however, you'll see that (if you avoid "CH"), "C" gets pronounced like /s/ before I and E, and like "K" before other vowels. "SC" is /sk/ unless it's a borrowed Italian word with "SCI", which is pronounced like she.

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Things like conscience — and delicious and efficient and all the rest like those — we got from French, not Italian. And then there’s scythe and scion. On the other hand, nobody fesses up to the origins of luscious. –  tchrist Mar 10 '13 at 0:33
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And scent, scene and scintillate. I don't think it's helpful to treat "SC" as a special case, though there are some particular words which are (including sceptical in British English). –  Colin Fine Mar 10 '13 at 21:33
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Yes, certainly there is a rule: the rule is to do so whenever the Dictionary tells you to, of course!

Beyond that. . . .

Once you consider coelacanth and czar, chemist and nonchalant, church and arcing, you will understand why the Poet says that “my advice is to give up”. — Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité

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I dont understand –  Zafor Ahmed Mar 9 '13 at 22:38
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@Zafor: In that sentence, each of the c's are making a different sound, sometimes on their own, and sometimes in conjunction with the adjacent h. When you consider arching, aching, acing, and arcing, you realize there's not much rhyme or reason about how to pronounce words in English – at least, "fixed rules" are few and far between. The poem in the link talks about, not just c, but many of the other oddities in English pronunciation, like ow, oo, ou, and ough. One rule I will give, though: at the end of a word, a c by itself (no h or e) will be hard, as in public. –  J.R. Mar 9 '13 at 22:53
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Phonetically, the letter c usually takes a hard sound when it comes before back vowels (a, u and o): car, coal, collect, calendar, curtain; and soft when it comes before the front vowels (e, and i); ceiling, cinder, circuit, certain.

Its not fair to name a few exceptions and say there are no rules. There are rules, and a few exceptions.

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