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In English the letters C and G usually have different pronunciation before a/o/u and before e/i. The same is true for Romance languages - French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian etc.

What is the origin of this? I guess that it has something to do with different pronunciations of these letters in Latin, but is there a proper source that explains how did this happen in Latin and how did it come do English, too?

Thank you!

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2 Answers 2

The vowels represented in most European lanaguages (but not English) by /a/, /o/, and /u/ are back vowels: in pronouncing them the tongue is positioned back toward the throat. The vowels represented by /e/ and /i/ are front vowels: the tongue is positioned toward the front of the mouth.

The /k/ sound represented by Latin /c/ is articulated with the tongue at the back of the mouth. When the syllable /ka/ or /ko/ or /ku/ is uttered, the tongue doesn't have to move very far, if it all. But with the syllable /ke/ or /ki/, the tongue must shift rapidly toward the front of the mouth. The same is true with the voiced consonant /g/.

Consequently, there is a physiological tendency to alter the pronunciation of /k/,/g/ before /e/,/i/—to position the tongue further forward for the consonants in anticipation of the following vowel.

At some point during the Late Roman Empire this colloquial palatalization (reinforced by similar movements of other consonants) became the “accepted” pronunciation. /k/,/g/ before /e/,/i/ became /tʃ/,/dʒ/, evident in modern Ecclesiastical Latin. The pronunciation changed, but not the spelling: for to change the spelling would cut writers and readers off from their literary heritage.

These pronunciations were inherited (and developed further) by Latin's heirs, the Romance languages. And in due course they passed to English. When English literature revived a century or so after the Conquest, its writers were employing a language greatly enriched by French lexicon and were addressing an audience for whom the “literary” languages were French and Latin. These writers naturally adopted French orthography, and its distinct front and back pronunciations for /c/ and /g/.

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There’s more than just the Latin story. See the OED on the letter C, including: “Notice that Celtic languages still have a “hard c”. The Old English or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ writing was learned from the Celts, apparently of Ireland; hence C, c, in Old English, was also originally = /k/: the words kin, break, broken, thick, seek, were in OE. written cyn, brecan, brocen, þicc, séoc. But during the course of the OE. period, the k-sound before e and i became palatalized, and had by the 10th c. advanced nearly or quite to the sound of /tʃ/, though still written c, as in cir(i)ce, wrecc(e)a.” –  tchrist Nov 18 '12 at 13:11
. . . “These French inconsistencies as to C and K were, after the Norman Conquest, applied to the writing of English, which caused a considerable re-spelling of the Old English words. Thus while OE. candel, clif, corn, crop, cú, remained unchanged, Cent, cǽʒ (céʒ), cyng, brece, séoce, were now (without any change of sound) spelt Kent, keȝ, kyng, breke, seoke; even cniht was subsequently spelt kniht, knight, and þic, þicc, became thik, thikk, thick.” –  tchrist Nov 18 '12 at 13:14
There is much more besides, but here is a final bit of interest: “The sound /tʃ/ to which OE. palatalized c had advanced, also occurred in French, chiefly (in Central French) from Latin c before a. In French it was represented by ch, as in champ, cher:-L. camp-um, cār-um; and this spelling was now introduced into English: the Hatton Gospels, written about 1160, have in Matt. i-iii, child, chyld, riche, mychel, for the cild, rice, mycel, of the OE. version whence they were copied: this was, phonetically, an improvement.” –  tchrist Nov 18 '12 at 13:14
And here I was waiting for a centum–satem disquisition. :) –  tchrist Nov 18 '12 at 13:19
G has something of its own tale. Originally, it wasn’t even in Latin at all — notice how Gaius is abbreviated with just plain “C.” It is clear by Vulgar Latin that it must have been a palatal before front vowels, so stood for two different sounds there already, as it does throughout Romance. However, in Old English it was not just two but indeed four sounds: both guttural and palatal stops and spirants, all four of them voiced. –  tchrist Nov 18 '12 at 13:25

Well I shouldn't think it comes directly from Latin, as in classical Latin the letter 'c' was only ever used to represent 'k', and never 's'. But I would suspect that the differentiation in English was adopted from the later Romance languages. For example, our pronunciation of 'Caesar' is adopted from Romance 'Cesar' (say zar) or 'Cesare', whereas our spelling is unchanged from the Latin, whose closest modern approximate in pronunciation is probably the German 'Kaiser'.

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It doesn't come directly from Latin, as you say, but your argument is a non sequitur: classical Latin is not the only Latin. For around 1000 years, up to Erasmus' time, essentially nobody pronounced ce or gi with velar stops. –  Colin Fine Nov 19 '12 at 0:36

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