I have always been pronouncing the word "cello" and "ciao" with a /s/ sound but today I found out that they were actually /tʃ/ ⟨ch⟩.

It is /ˈtʃɛloʊ/ and /ˈtʃaʊ/. The letter C gives /tʃ/ sound rather than /s/ (which is what it should give before E and I). Almost all other words in which C comes before the letter E and I give /s/ sound. Examples: cell, fence, cent, city etc., the only common exception is "Celt" which has a /k/ sound.

I searched my question on Google and it gave me some similar questions in other platforms.

Same question on Quora:

One answer on Quora says:

It comes from Italian, and in Italian spelling, a c in front of an e or i is pronounced /tʃ/" but we have many other words that are from Italian in which the C comes before E and yet it gives /s/ sound like "concert" and some other.

It didn't convince me.

Wikipedia was also of no help.

So why is it pronounced with ⟨ch⟩ /tʃ/ and not /s/ ⟨s⟩?

Note: I know that English spelling is weird and does not represent English pronunciation but things have causes and reasons. I just want to know what "caused" it.


3 Answers 3


Cello comes from Italian where it's pronounced with /t͡ʃ/.

Concert comes from French where it's pronounced with /s/, concerto comes from Italian where it's pronounced with /t͡ʃ/.

According to Standford University Website, the letter c in Italian is pronounced /t͡ʃ/ when it's followed by i or e.

As John Lawler says in a comment (with little changes):

Concert comes from French, and gets pronounced with /s/ like French. Concerto comes from Italian, and gets pronounced with /tʃ/ like Italian. As noted, English spelling doesn't represent English pronunciation. But French and Italian spellings do, and we borrowed the spellings as well as the pronunciations.

It seems to me that Italian words don't change their pronunciations in English. Other example include pizza, palazzo, cello, crescendo, zucchini, Pinocchio etc.

  • (There are a few Italian words often pronounced differently in English, such as bruschetta /bruːʃetə/ and calzone /kalzəʊn/, as well as the notorious /ekspresoʊ/; and some like lasagne have changed both pronunciation and spelling. Although often the Italian pronunciation is also heard from some people; English-speakers seem to do better with Italian than French.)
    – Stuart F
    Jan 25 at 10:28

The full name of the instrument is "violoncello" in both English and Italian. This word is Italian and English has imported it with the Italian pronunciation. In Italian "-cello" is a diminutive suffix, so the name means small violon (not violin). "Cello" is an English (and German) abbreviation, and preserves the pronunciation of the "c".

  • 2
    It is indeed noteworthy that cello is a clipped version of violoncello, but how is that relevant to the pronounciation of c, which is what the question is about (and which is adequately explained in the already posted answer)?
    – jsw29
    Sep 6, 2020 at 16:28

I teach Latin and have studied how to pronounce Italian. Both Latin and Italian, which comes from Latin, have rules for where the letter c makes the "ch" sound when followed by e or i.

See the following sources:

  1. Italian Pronunciation Challenge: C / CH / CC
  2. Latin language (Lingua Latina).
  3. Latin phonology and othography
  • Of course, Latin pronunciation changed vastly over the millennia... Was "Caesar" actually pronounced "Kaiser" when Julius was living??
    – GEdgar
    Jan 22 at 21:37
  • 1
    @GEdgar German had to get it from somewhere. Jan 23 at 6:51
  • 1
    Church Latin is pronounced like modern standard Italian, but it was not always so. Jan 23 at 6:52
  • 1
    @GEdgar Yes, Caesar in ɢᴀɪᴠꜱ ɪᴠʟɪᴠꜱ ᴄᴀᴇꜱᴀʀ was indeed pronounced with /k/ during his own lifetime. One reason we know this is that when he wrote it in Greek, Caesar spelled his own name Γάιος Ιούλιος Καίσαρ , starting with Greek kappa per Wikipedia: “In Greek, during Caesar’s time, his family name was written Καίσαρ (Kaísar], reflecting its contemporary pronunciation. Thus, his name is pronounced in a similar way to the pronunciation of the German Kaiser ([kaɪ̯zɐ]) or Dutch keizer [kɛizɛ].”
    – tchrist
    Jan 23 at 14:06
  • @GEdgar Although written ‹c› in Classical Latin was always phonemic /k/, some tiny phonetic changes occurred—completely non-phonemically—before front vowels. Quoth Wikipedia: “/kʷ/ and [ɡʷ] were palatalized before a front vowel, becoming [kᶣ] and [ɡᶣ], as in quī [kᶣiː].” Listen to sound clips there contrasting phonetic [kʷ] with phonetic [kᶣ]. Over time Latin ‹c› before front vowels became [t͡s] in trad. German pron of L., [t͡ʃ] in Italianized Church L., [θ] in std. Northern Spanish, and /s/ in French.
    – tchrist
    Jan 23 at 14:25

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