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Does the letter 'C' make any sound that cannot be made by other letters?

"Cat" could be spelled "Kat," "Cinder" could be spelled "Sinder," and "Watch" could be spelled "Watsh."


Edit:

An excerpt from a comment by Kosmonaut:

There is no difference between ["ch" and "tch"]; both are /tʃ/. Thus, "witch" and "which" are pronounced exactly the same: [wɪtʃ]. (Actually some Southern American dialects pronounce "which" as [ʍɪtʃ], but that is only a difference in the "w" sound, not the /tʃ/.)

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You may find this interesting: Pronouncing the English alphabet –  KitFox Jun 8 '11 at 18:59
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Spelling reform plan: ojohaven.com/fun/spelling.html –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 8 '11 at 20:01
    
@z7sg: you should sign my petition! ;-) –  ESultanik Jun 8 '11 at 20:25
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Suppose that we're eliminating "C", how do you propose we spell "chair"? –  Lie Ryan Jun 8 '11 at 23:08
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There's also the /ts/ sound of "once" and "hence". –  Marthaª Jun 8 '11 at 23:42
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closed as not a real question by MrHen, Robusto, The Raven, Rhodri, kiamlaluno Jun 10 '11 at 0:09

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6 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Yes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it is the only one which changes from a "k"-sound to an "s"-sound when adding certain suffixes to the end of words like electric and plastic.

So if, say, plastic were changed to the more phonetically appropriate plastik, the derivation of plasticity would become (slightly) obscured, because, as far as I know, sounds represented by "k" at the end of a word never become "s", regardless of what sound comes after.

Such are the joys of the English alpha-, er, alfabet.

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This is not technically a unique sound, but it is two unique behaviors with the same root spelling (and distinct k or s). Accepted. –  user8809 Jun 8 '11 at 20:36
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This is not a bad remark.

  • All Germanic cognates of cat are indeed spelled with a 'k' (from P.Gmc. *kattuz, O.Fris. katte, O.N. köttr, Du. kat, O.H.G. kazza, Ger. Katze). The English word is spelled with a 'c' under the influence of Late Latin (cattus). See step 3 below.

  • All Germanic cognates of cinder are indeed spelled with an 's': P.Gmc. *sindran (cf. O.S. sinder, O.N. sindr, M.L.G., M.Du. sinder, O.H.G. sintar, Ger. Sinter. Initial s- changed to c- under influence of Fr. cendre "ashes. See step 4 below.

The letter 'C' has already disappeared from a lot of words.

Here are a few examples of the evolution of the spelling of some Old English words.

  • queen used to be spelled cwen (and mean "young woman").
  • quick used to be spelled cwic (and mean alive).
  • drink used to be spelled drinc.
  • bishop used to be spelled biscop (closer to "Episcopal").
  • ship used to be spelled scip.

Of course there is no single cause to all these changes. And even summarising them in a small answer is a huge challenge.

But there is an interesting section in the wikipedia article about the 'C' letter.

Yet I'd like to add a few background considerations.

  1. After the Anglo Saxon conquest of Britain in the 5th century, texts (very few have actually come down to us) were all written in the Runic Alphabet, because that was the alphabet in use in Germany (it had actually been borrowed from the Etruscan who add taken it from the Greeks who... who... Proto-Canaanite/Egyptians). In other words the Latin alphabet introduced by the Roman occupation fell into complete oblivion.

  2. When Pope Gregory sent out Augustine to convert the famously "non angli, sed angeli" heathens, the dominant writing system shifted back to the Latin alphabet. Within a few decades England quickly raised to the most culturally prominent country in Europe (its lavishly illuminated Bibles and other religious manuscripts can still be found in many European museums and libraries). But the language used for these masterpieces was still Latin. There are very few words of English in these texts.

  3. Then the Vikings raided the monasteries to plunder all their riches and in the process they killed a large proportion of scholars. As a result, when King Ælfred endeavoured to rekindle the light of English culture, he started writing texts in "Old Ænglisc" instead of Latin. For this purpose he naturally used the Latin alphabet with however the addition of a few runic characters (among which the 'ð' and the 'þ' for the sound 'th'). The 'c' was used for the sound /k/, 'cw' for /kw/ (queen), 'ce' and 'ci' for [tʃ] (child) and 'sc' for [ʃ] (ship). These conventions were inspired from Vulgar Latin.

  4. In Middle English (in the wake of the Norman invasion), under the influence of the French spelling system, English underwent a spelling reform which affected many words containing the letter 'c'.

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+1 for drinc / drink. Interesting. –  user8809 Jun 8 '11 at 19:23
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@user8809, Although your question has already gathered 4 close votes, it is perfectly valid (see my edited answer). –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 8 '11 at 21:09
    
I read it - very interesting. Thank you for the info and the solidarity. –  user8809 Jun 8 '11 at 21:28
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"C" is a letter and is used to make words. I am not sure what you are asking, here. A few thoughts:

  • watsh could be pronounced differently from watch
  • chariot has no appropriate substitute for the ch as kh would be very different
  • lock and black are interesting in the sense that the ck is used instead of either c or k
  • scissor likewise has sc instead of s

I remember seeing a list somewhere that pointed out the different behaviors of vowels near a c, k, ck or other variations. But in terms of 'C' technically serving a unique purpose, it certainly does now since it is the third letter of the alphabet and is used when writing hexadecimal numbers.

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+1 for the nod to hexadecimal. Of course, if we took it out, we'd just use A-G instead. –  KitFox Jun 8 '11 at 19:15
    
@Kit: That would cause some serious logistical issues... :P It would probably be "easier" to just replace the 'C' with a 'K' moving forward. –  MrHen Jun 8 '11 at 19:17
    
@MrHen But should we replace C with K or S? What does a hexadecimal C sound like exactly? –  KitFox Jun 8 '11 at 19:19
    
I do not understand the difference between "watch" and "watsh" - if there is one, can you explain it? –  user8809 Jun 8 '11 at 19:29
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+1 But forget hexadecimal, it's also a full-fledged programming language. With variants! –  Robusto Jun 8 '11 at 20:23
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The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité would seem obligatory.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it's written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say — said, pay — paid, laid but plaid.

Read the rest on the page behind the link. Here is part of the poem transcribed to the International Phonetic Alphabet:

British pronunciation (which the poem was meant for):

ˌdɪəɹɪst ˈkɹiːʧəɹ ɪn kɹɪ.ˈeɪʃn̩
ˌstʌdɪ.ɪŋ ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ pɹəˌnʌnsɪ.ˈeɪʃn̩
ˌaɪ wɪl ˈtiːʧ jʊ ɪn maɪ ˈvɜːs ˈsaʊndz laɪk ˈkɔːps ˈkɔː ˈhɔːs ənd ˈwɜːs

ˌaɪ wɪl ˈkiːp jʊ ˈsuːzɪ ˈbɪzɪ
ˌmeɪk jə ˈhɛd wɪð ˈhiːt ɡɹəʊ ˈdɪzɪ
ˈtɪəɹ ɪn ˌaɪ jə ˈdɹɛs wɪl ˈtɛə ˈkwɪə ˌfɛə ˈsɪə ˈhɪə maɪ ˈpɹɛə

ˈpɹeɪ kənˈsəʊl jə ˈlʌvɪŋ ˈpəʊ.ɪt
ˈmeɪk maɪ ˈkəʊt ˌlʊk ˈnjuː ˌdɪə ˈsəʊ ɪt
ˌʤʌst kəmˈpɛə ˈhɑːt ˈhɪəɹ ənd ˈhɜːd
ˈdaɪz ənd ˈdaɪ.ət ˈlɔːd ənd ˈwɜːd

ˈsɔːd ənd ˈswɔːd ɹɪˈteɪn ənd ˈbɹɪtn̩
ˈmaɪnd ðə ˈlætə ˌhaʊ ɪts ˈɹɪtn̩
ˈmeɪd həz ˈnɒt ðə ˈsaʊnd əv ˈbæd
ˈseɪ ˈsɛd ˈpeɪ ˈpeɪd ˈleɪd bət ˈplæd

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1  
Or maybe just an excerpt? –  Callithumpian Jun 8 '11 at 20:28
    
@Callithumpian: Fine, fine... I just couldn't resist. –  Cerberus Jun 8 '11 at 20:32
    
I understand (and didn't downvote, for the record). –  Callithumpian Jun 8 '11 at 20:46
    
@Callithumpian: Heh I appreciate it. –  Cerberus Jun 8 '11 at 22:42
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I think your case for watch -> watsh is mistaken.

The end of watch has a short ch sound. If I were drunk or particularly tired then I might pronounce it wahsh, but in trying to pronounce watsh in a normal state I end up practically ignoring the t all together.

Also, I find that if one tries to keep silent letters in mind when pronouncing words, then the pronunciation is distinct from if the letter were not there at all. So science sounds different (to me) to sience, for example.

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You've answered youself. Ch creates - among other pronunciations of this digraph - the sound tsh' which cannot be created otherwise. Like cheese, China and lots of other words. Sometimes it's used with t before, like in watch, scotch thus putting more stress on the t part of the sound.

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I personally cannot hear a difference between the "ch" in "watch" as opposed to "china." I do not hear more of a "t" sound - what is the difference? –  user8809 Jun 8 '11 at 19:26
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@user8809: Philoto is mistaken. There is no difference between them; both are /tʃ/. Thus, "witch" and "which" are pronounced exactly the same: [wɪtʃ]. (Actually some Southern American dialects pronounce "which" as [ʍɪtʃ], but that is only a difference in the "w" sound, not the /tʃ/.) –  Kosmonaut Jun 8 '11 at 19:34
    
@Kosmonaut: Thank you for the clarification. –  user8809 Jun 8 '11 at 19:57
    
@Kosmonaut On second thought yeah, there's no difference. Sometimes I tend to hear something where there's nothing to hear :) –  Philoto Jun 9 '11 at 7:02
    
You're not the only one; sometimes spelling can really affect speakers' perceptions of words. –  Kosmonaut Jun 9 '11 at 13:35
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