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During most the first millennium CE, North and West Germanic languages were written in runic alphabets. Gradually, each language shifted from the runic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. The people who adapted the Latin alphabet for use with a new language chose which letters to align with which sounds. For the phoneme /k/, the Latin alphabet offered two choices: C and K. In most cases K was chosen, and to this day German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages make very sparing use of C, except in digraphs like CH. But for Old English, they opted for C, and in fact K is not even included in the Old English Latin alphabet. Why the difference?

--EDIT--

After some answers and a bit more research, it is clear that Old English used C, following the practice of the Insular Celtic languages, which followed the practice of Latin. So the question becomes: Why did the other Germanic languages use K? Why did they adopt the Latin alphabet but not the Latin practice of using C?

--EDIT--

After some more research, it seems that the most likely answer is the time in which these languages adopted the Latin alphabet, specifically, before or after the palatalization of /k/ and /g/ in Vulgar Latin. When the Celtic scribes learned the Latin alphabet, it was from Romans, so they based their letter choices on Latin. Later, in the Romance languages derived from Vulgar Latin, C could refer to either /k/ or a palatalized version like /tʃ/, while K was unchanged. Since these languages, such as Old French, were widespread at the time, the people adapting the Latin alphabet for continental Germanic languages saw C as an unneeded complexity and opted for the simpler option, K.

This is speculation on my part so if anybody has more definite information, it would be appreciated.

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    Maybe because England was part of the Roman empire; Germany was not. Dec 8, 2015 at 23:53
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    Note that dictionaries and the like for Old English or Old High German give normalized forms, which may mask variation. I know older texts from Germany sometimes used C more broadly (e.g. OHG tac = Modern German Tag); maybe this was also the case for Old English.
    – herisson
    Dec 8, 2015 at 23:58
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    Early OE writing was adapted from the practice of Irish and British clerics, who made very sparing use of K (as did Latin). It wasn't until the conquest put Norman and Norman-trained writers in the saddle that K came to be widely used. Dec 9, 2015 at 0:06
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    Regarding the new direction of the question: it may also be useful to compare the situation in most Slavic languages and other languages near them, where /k/ typically is represented by "k" and "c" is used for /ts/.
    – herisson
    Jan 1, 2016 at 19:42
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    Actually, perhaps with the edits, this question would be more suited to the Linguistics SE?
    – herisson
    Jan 1, 2016 at 19:47

4 Answers 4

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I have read that until the time of grammarian guru, Quintilian ( 1st century AD.) "c" and "k" were both used in Latin. However, Quintilian put it about that "k" was not to be used, only "c". Therefore, the Romance languages, descended from Latin, hardly ever use 'k".

High German was not really developed until Luther's time and afterwards, when Greek was part of classical education. German academia having, broken away from the Roman church were reading old Christian documents in Greek, and perhaps decided that the more ancient "k" usage in their "newer" language gave it some cachet.

The really interesting "c" and "k" usage, is in Ireland, where there are many place names and surnames beginning with 'K". How to explain it.

While rarely mentioned in potted histories, Caesar apparently said that, while the Britons only spoke their own language, some could write in Greek. Possibly the same in Ireland, the Greeks being great sailors and mapmakers. There is also Kieran and Ciaran, of course. Also 'Kells" according to Bede is an alternative spelling of Cells.

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  • *The letter K comes from the Greek letter Κ (kappa), which was taken from the Semitic kap, the symbol for an open hand.' This, in turn, was likely adapted by Semites who had lived in Egypt from the hieroglyph for "hand" representing D in the Egyptian word for hand, d-r-t. The Semites evidently assigned it the sound value /k/ instead, because their word for hand started with that sound.

  • In the earliest Latin inscriptions, the letters C, K and Q were all used to represent the sounds /k/ and /g/ (which were not differentiated in writing). Of these, Q was used to represent /k/ or /g/ before a rounded vowel, K before /a/, and C elsewhere. Later, the use of C and its variant G replaced most usages of K and Q. K survived only in a few fossilized forms such as Kalendae, "the calends".

  • When Greek words were taken into Latin, the Kappa was transliterated as a C. Loanwords from other alphabets with the sound /k/ were also transliterated with C. Hence, the Romance languages generally use C and have K only in later loanwords from other language groups.

  • The Celtic languages also tended to use C instead of K, and this influence carried over into Old English.

(Wikipedia)

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  • Were the Celtic languages written with the Latin alphabet before Old English was? Dec 9, 2015 at 14:27
  • ... so 'C' is not a tilted gamma, but a stemless kappa. 'G' is the stemless kappa with a small gamma grafted on, and 'K' is the old kappa with the stem intact. Is that right?
    – AmI
    Dec 9, 2015 at 20:29
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    @Aml This answer doesn't discuss the origin of C and G. According to Wikipedia, C is derived from the Greek gamma, and G is an invented variant of C, created to distinguish the Latin sounds /k/ and /ɡ/, which were not distinct in Etruscan. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C Dec 9, 2015 at 20:43
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    @Sam: the Roman presence in Britain dates to AD 43. The Anglo-Saxons (who brought Old English) didn't invade Britain until 400 years later. There was no pre-Roman Celtic writing in Britain, and it appears that the first Celtic inscriptions may be in the Latin alphabet. Dec 9, 2015 at 23:11
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Honestly, according to Wikipedia, C was always hard in Old English and K was only used in loanwords. So, I think that the Old English language was influenced by Latin.

Also, this is not entirely true, Dutch has always had C both hard and soft. Dutch uses C for both hard, including the Scots. And there were Dutch spelling reforms where "aktie" changed to "actie" in 1966. In Netherlands, the use of C was preferred because, they wanted their language different from German. Even Scots uses C for both soft and hard.

English, Dutch and Scots are the 3 least resistant to borrowing words from Latin or French. Swedish is a bit different because, C is only used for soft value so the word "Cycle" in Swedish is written, "Cykel". That's the same for Danish which only retains soft C but replaces hard C. Afrikaans, Icelandic, Faroese and even Norweigan are the most restrictive towards the use of letter C. Icelandic has no C in their alphabet, including Faroese. Norweigan Ch is written Sj or Tj and C is replaced with k or s.

The next is Afrikaans. In Afrikaans, C is also generally not used, except in the Ch digraph. Then is German which only uses C mostly in digraphs such as Sch, Ch and Ck, otherwise it is written k or z.

So, on a scale of being resistant to borrowing words from Latin/French, here is how I would put it:

Most Resistant: Afrikaans, Icelandic, Faroese

Very Resistant: Norwegian, German

Mid: Danish, Swedish

Not too Resistant: Dutch, Scots

Least Resistant: Old English, Modern English

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  • Dutch has adopted C (Ex:Cijfer, a Dutch word meaning digit). Scots language has adopted C. Swedish kind of adopted C, English did too Dec 30, 2022 at 4:02
  • Actually, the most common usage of K in Old English was probably in the word kyning, which was not a loanword. The letter K appears four times in Beowulf, each time in a form of the word kyning. On the other hand, the spelling cyning appears 51 times in the same manuscript, so it was still not at all common in the Old English period. Feb 27, 2023 at 10:38
  • @Akshat -- interestingly, Dutch is not always consistent in this: the related words "cirkel" (circle) and "circus" for instance, where one "k"-sound is written as a "k", and the other as a "c". But then again, which natural language is always consistent?
    – stevenvh
    Jun 24, 2023 at 5:15
  • @ stevenvh Welsh Jun 24, 2023 at 16:28
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I am curious to the evolution of this issue. In doing genealogical research for my family the German Kusters, Custer, Kester, etc. is in constant flux as to K or C around the the 14th and 15th centuries. They were a literate family so the disparity is confusing.

Farther back in time, my Kelly family of northern Ireland was decidedly a K in the 17th century, though old records show a Cellaigh or similar spelling.

With my first name being Kathleen I am, to this day, still asked if I am a K or a C.

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