Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
language and the people who contributed to that history.
In the last episode, we looked at how Jacob Grimm and other early linguists discovered
a very specific set of rules to identify the way in which ancient Indo-European words became
That included a set of specific sound changes which also permit linguists to reconstruct
large portions of the original ancient Indo-European language.
In this episode, I want to focus on one specific set of sound changes which early linguists
used to classify the Indo-European languages.
And then I want to digress a bit and explore this concept of sound changes a little bit
As you’ll see, some of the very same sound shifts that were identified within the original
Indo-European language are still reflected in certain aspects of modern English.
And specifically, we can see this same type of sound shift in the modern English letter
C, which is used to identify both the K sound and the S sound.
Have you ever wondered why we have a letter C at all?
Why not just a K or an S?
Well, I’ll answer that question in this episode.
This is the story of the Kentum versus the Satum languages, and the history of the letter
The letter C is one of the more challenging aspects of English for small children learning
to read and write English, and for that matter, some adult speakers of other languages who
are trying to learn English.
One of the first English words that children learn to spell is cat, and very early on,
they associate the letter C with the K sound, and they continue that association as they
learn words like car, cry, cup, cow, and many, many other words.
But they also learn words like city and face, and especially if they’re girls, they learn
to love Cinderella.
So they also learn to associate the letter C with the S sound, and some words like circle
and circus have two C’s, one that represents the S sound and one that represents the K
So sometimes, children ask what may seem like a pretty logical question.
Why do we even have a letter C?
Why not just use a letter K or a letter S?
Well, if we were inventing the English language today, or at least if we were inventing the
alphabet today, that may make sense.
But of course, we’re dealing with a language that’s been around for a long time.
And an alphabet that’s been around even longer.
So sometimes, we’re stuck with these peculiar rules that are tied to the history of the
language and the history of the alphabet.
Now one quick note before I go any further into this story.
As I’ve noted before, this is ultimately a history podcast, not a podcast about the proper
use of English or a podcast about linguistics.
But in this episode, I’m going to talk about one particular aspect of linguistics, a specific
sound change called assimilation.
Now I generally try to avoid technical issues related to linguistics, but I’m going to be
discussing that particular linguistic concept here.
I’ll try to do it in a way that it doesn’t begin to sound like a course on linguistics.
And if you stick with me through this episode, I think you’ll discover a lot about modern
English and specifically the reason why certain words in English are spelled and pronounced
the way they are.
The story begins where we left off in the last episode, with the comparison of Indo-European
languages and the attempt to reconstruct the original Indo-European language.
Very early on, linguists noted a trend.
And the trend concerned the word for hundred.
You may recall from the last episode that the Indo-European word for hundred was reconstructed
as kemptum from cognates found in eight different branches of the Indo-European family tree.
After the original Indo-European word for hundred was reconstructed, linguists then
looked at the next stage in the evolution of the word, which was the earliest versions
of the word in the separate Indo-European languages.
In other words, they looked at the earliest version of the word in Sanskrit, Persian,
And at this point, they noticed a very distinct split.
The word had changed very early on such that there was a general split in the way the first
consonant was pronounced.
Some of the languages used a hard k as the first consonant of the word, just like the
original Indo-European word.
But other languages used an s sound for the first consonant.
This distinction is best represented by two of the oldest Indo-European languages we have
In Latin, the word for hundred was kentum, spelled c-e-n-t-u-m.
Keep in mind that the c was always pronounced as a k in Latin.
In Sanskrit, the word was satum, spelled s-a-t-e-m.
So these early linguists looked at the various words for hundred across all the Indo-European
And they noted that all of the Indo-European languages in which the word hundred began
with an s, like satum in Sanskrit, were located in the eastern part of the Indo-European speaking
This included eastern European languages like Baltic and Slavic, Armenian and Albanian,
as well as the Indo-Iranian languages in Asia, like Persian and Sanskrit.
These early linguists then looked at all of the Indo-European languages in which the word
for hundred began with a k sound, like kentum in Latin.
And not surprisingly, all of those languages were spoken in the West.
These included Latin, Greek, Celtic and the Germanic languages.
In other words, the languages of Central and Western Europe.
Now if you’re saying, hey wait, the English word hundred begins with an h sound, not a
k sound, remember back to the last podcast episode where we talked about Grimm’s Law.
This was actually one of the examples I gave to illustrate a specific sound shift which
There was a later shift from the k sound to the h sound in the Germanic languages.
So the Germanic languages are actually classified as kentum languages because very early on
there was a k pronunciation, but the k shifted to an h at the beginning of the Germanic period.
So let’s stop and consider all of this for a moment.
To the east, all of the Indo-European languages have certain words, like the word for hundred,
that begin with an s sound.
And to the west, all of the Indo-European languages have those words, like the word
for hundred, but there they consistently begin with a k sound like the original Indo-European
Now based upon this division, linguists concluded that there must have been a very early split
among the original Indo-Europeans.
Soon after this initial split or division occurred, one group evolved a sound shift
in which the original k sound in certain words, like the word for hundred, became an s sound.
This process is called assimilation by linguists.
It’s also sometimes called palatalization.
Now this is not a podcast about linguistics, but let’s explore the technical aspects
of this for a second.
Assimilation basically refers to a shift from one sound to a sibilant, which is a hissing
or hushing sound, like s or z or j or ch or sh.
This actually happens quite often, as we’ll see.
One quick example in English is the word assimilation itself, or for that matter, most of the words
that end in t-i-o-n but are pronounced shun, like revolution or abolition.
Most of these words come from Latin, where the ending was originally t-i-o and was pronounced
But as these words found their way into French and eventually to English, they assimilated
to the shun pronunciation that we have today.
And that’s what linguists concluded must have happened when this initial division of
the Indo-European speakers occurred.
They also concluded that since this division broke down very clearly from a geographic
perspective, with the S-speaking Satem languages in the east and the K-speaking Kentem languages
in the west, then we must be looking at a general migration pattern which occurred very
The Satem speakers must have separated from the original Indo-European speakers and traveled
eastward carrying their Satem dialect with them.
Now this theory was later put to the test in the early 20th century when the Hittite
language in modern-day Turkey was identified as an Indo-European language and the Ticarian
language in northwestern China was discovered.
Based on some very technical aspects of the Hittite language in ancient Turkey, which
dates all the way back to the Old Testament of the Bible, it was concluded that Hittite
did not really fit neatly into either the Kentem or the Satem group.
Generally today it’s placed within the Kentem group, but the modern view is that the first
speakers of the ancient Anatolian languages, which included Hittite, probably broke away
from the original Indo-Europeans before the Kentem-Satem split occurred.
So these ancient ancestors of the Hittites in Turkey broke away first, and then some
time later the early ancestors of the Satem speakers broke away and began their migrations.
And there’s other evidence to support this theory.
As we’ll see, Hittite is considered the oldest attested Indo-European language.
The other discovery, the Ticarian language in northwestern China, also posed some questions
because it was by far the easternmost discovered Indo-European language, being located in China
But it was not a Satem language like all of the other eastern Indo-European languages.
It was a Kentem language like the western languages, including the languages of western
This discovery surprised linguists, and it cast doubts on the validity of the traditional
But modern linguists have accounted for this discrepancy by concluding that the early ancestors
of the Ticarian speakers separated from either the initial Indo-European people before the
Kentem-Satem split occurred, or perhaps from the Kentem group after the split with the
Satem speakers occurred.
They believe that this group of Kentem speakers then traveled eastward, separately from the
The best evidence of this theory is based upon the location where the Ticarian language
The area where the language was spoken in northwestern China lies along the famous Silk
Road, which was the traditional east-west trading route linking East Asia, Central Asia,
and the Middle East and Europe.
Linguists believe that the early ancestors of the Ticarians traveled eastward, more or
less along the trading routes that later evolved into the Silk Road, and eventually found themselves
in the territory where relics of the language were eventually discovered in the 20th century.
So at this point in the podcast, there are two things you should know.
First, the Kentem-Satem division.
The fact that many linguists still make a very basic division of the Indo-European languages
into two separate groups based upon the way the word hundred was originally pronounced
in those languages.
And this split is believed to be based upon an early split within the original Indo-European-speaking
Second, the assimilation of the K sound.
The fact that the K sound was observed shifting to an S sound within the early Indo-European
Again, this process was called assimilation, and this change is separate from the change
that Jacob Grimm observed within the Germanic languages where the K sound shifted to an
Now let’s turn our attention to the modern English letter C.
In part, this is a story about the letter C, and why it sometimes acts as a K and sometimes
acts as an S.
But this is also a story about sound shifts, and how common they are, and how regular they
Specifically, this is a story about one particular sound shift, the assimilation, which we’ve
This shifting of sounds to a s, or z, or j, or sh, or ch, this has happened quite often
And remember that English, as much as any other language, has borrowed heavily from
We have words in our everyday speech that are brand new words, words like Google, Twitter,
Romance, and Podcast.
And we have words from the 20th century, the 19th century, 18th century, all the way back
to the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, and the period before the Dark Ages.
We even have words that we use every day that date back to the original Indo-European speakers
over 4,000 years ago.
All of these words are mixed together in our everyday speech.
And many of these words have undergone tremendous changes to get to the versions we have today.
So this story of the letter c will help you to see how sound changes throughout history
affect the sometimes quirky rules we have in modern English.
So letter c.
As you know, when the letter c just appears as a c, it has two possible sounds, the k
sound and the s sound.
At this point, you might have noticed a little connection.
Yes, these are the same two sounds we just talked about in the kentum-satum division,
the k and the s sounds.
So you may be guessing that there’s some assimilation going on somewhere, and you would
Let’s go back in time to the origin of letter c.
And it really starts with the Greeks.
As you may recall from the last episode, the Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians
who lived in and around modern-day Lebanon and Syria very early in the first millennium
And it’s the same basic alphabet that we have today, but it’s undergone a great deal
of change through the centuries.
The third letter of the Greek alphabet was gamma.
You probably heard the phrase alpha, beta, gamma.
What you might not know is that gamma represented the g sound, as in the name gamma.
So the initial Greek phonemes in the Greek alphabet were a, b, g.
The Greeks represented that third letter, gamma, with a symbol that looked like an upside-down
Imagine a square, and remove the bottom and the right side of the square.
Just leave the top and the left side, and you have an upside-down L, which was the way
the Greeks wrote gamma, the third letter, which was pronounced g.
Now shift forward a few centuries to the Romans.
By the time the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet, indirectly from the Etruscans as you may recall,
the sound of the third letter had eventually shifted from the g sound to the k sound.
If you pronounce both of those sounds, you can see that they’re both in the back of
the throat, and they’re very similar.
Some linguists think that this sound change occurred because the Etruscans, who were the
intermediaries here, they took the alphabet from the Greeks, and the Romans took it from
And the Etruscans apparently did not distinguish the k sound and the g sound in their language.
So the precise nature of gamma became confused during this period.
And here’s the key.
By the time the Romans took the alphabet from those same Etruscans, they took the third
letter with a k pronunciation.
So the Romans inherited this letter as a k-sounding letter.
Whereas the original Greeks often wrote their letters with chisels on stone or wood, and
thus had very angular letters, the Romans by this point were routinely writing with
ink, so they began to change the shape of many of the letters to the more rounded forms
we have today.
And they changed the shape of gamma from the upside-down letter l to the curvy letter c.
So the Romans had modern letter c with the k sound exclusively.
It was not used as an s sound at this point.
The Romans used the letter s for the s sound.
But what happened to the g sound?
Since gamma became letter c with a k sound, that meant that there was no letter for the
g sound anymore.
So the Romans created a new letter to represent the g sound, which became our modern letter
And that’s why the capital letter g resembles a capital letter c.
They made the letter g by taking the letter c and simply adding a little line at the end
back towards the center to create a g.
So the Romans had letter c, which represented the k sound, k.
But they had also inherited the letter k with the k sound from the original alphabet.
But for whatever reason, they rarely used it.
They preferred to use c for the k sound.
Letter k was largely relegated to the dustbin.
And that’s why you rarely see the letter k in Latin words.
The next step in this story is the adoption of the Roman alphabet by the Germanic tribes.
Remember that Jacob Grimm had said that the k sound in the original Indo-European language
had shifted to an h sound in Germanic, like the English word hundred.
But also remember that not all k sounds shifted to an h sound.
Some of the k sounds shifted to an h and some kept their original k sound.
So therefore we still have k sounds in the Germanic languages.
Now, initially, the Germanic tribes didn’t bother with the Roman alphabet.
Most of the early Germanic tribes didn’t have writing at all.
And when some of the tribes started to develop a system of writing,
they used a runic alphabet, which was a collection of runic symbols,
which many people think may have been indirectly linked to the Etruscans as well.
But the Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxons, eventually adopted the Roman alphabet.
And this reflected the power, especially the economic power of the Romans.
It also reflected the growing power of the church in Europe,
which used Latin as the official language of the church.
When the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Roman alphabet into Old English,
the letter c was used exclusively for the k sound.
Remember, the Romans did have a letter k, which they rarely used.
So the Anglo-Saxons didn’t even bother with it.
They just used the letter c.
For example, the Old English word for king was cuning, c-y-n-i-n-g.
So if we take a snapshot at this point in the late Roman period,
and in the period known as the Dark Ages or the Early Middle Ages,
the k sound was represented almost exclusively by the letter c.
The Anglo-Saxons used it exclusively, and the Romans used it almost exclusively.
But after the fall of the Roman Empire,
during this period in which the early Germanic kingdoms began to emerge,
and the Latin language began to fracture into various regional dialects,
a change started to occur.
And it didn’t just occur within the Latin languages or the Germanic languages.
It occurred throughout all of these languages.
And it’s at this point that we can introduce our friend assimilation.
The same sound change that occurred within the original Indo-European language
to create the distinction between the Kentum and Satum languages
occurred again at this point.
And as I said, it occurred within a variety of languages in Western Europe,
including Old English, very early French, Spanish, and Italian.
And these sound changes created certain confusions
in the way words were pronounced and spelled,
which is reflected in modern English.
And here’s the key.
The assimilation didn’t just happen randomly.
It happened in certain very specific ways in all of these languages.
And in order to understand what happened here,
we have to make a distinction between the various vowels.
Now, as you probably learned as a child,
we have five primary vowels, A, E, I, O, and U.
But linguists divide these vowels into two groups,
the back vowels and the front vowels.
This distinction is actually very important to our story.
The back vowels are the vowels that are pronounced in the back of the mouth,
A, O, and U, originally pronounced A, O, U.
The front vowels are those pronounced in the front of the mouth, E and I,
originally pronounced A and E.
And here’s why that distinction is so important.
The K sound is pronounced in the back of the mouth,
like the back vowels, A, O, and U.
So when the K sound preceded one of those back vowels, it stayed the same.
This was true throughout all of those languages.
But when the K sound came before a front vowel,
pronounced in the front of the mouth, like letters E and I,
then the sound tended to shift to the front of the mouth,
and it tended to produce a hissing or hushing sound.
In other words, the sound assimilated.
But the exact way it assimilated, in other words,
the precise assimilated sound that was produced,
varied from language to language.
So let’s start with the K sound before the back vowels, A, O, and U.
As I said, in these cases, the K sound remained just as it was.
And we see that in modern English words like cat, cot, and cut.
All are C words where the K sound was retained,
before the three back vowels.
In fact, as a general rule in modern English,
when the K sound appears before an A, O, or U
in any words which were inherited from this period,
the word is still spelled with its original C,
and it retains its original K sound.
This is the general rule which goes all the way back to the Romans.
But notice what happens in modern English
when the K sound appears before the front vowels, E and I.
When letter C precedes an E, we get words like cell, center, certain,
certify, central, and cease.
And when the letter C precedes the other front vowel, I,
we get words like circle, city, circus, civil, and so on.
So we have the S sound.
So over time, people tended to move that K sound from the throat
to the front of the mouth when it appeared before the front vowels,
E and I, that are also pronounced more towards the front of the mouth.
That’s assimilation, and that’s what was happening
to many of these Western European languages.
But let’s take a look at how this was happening in the various languages.
Let’s start with the Latin languages.
In Italian, before the E and I, the K sound shifted to a CH sound, ch.
Remember that the ch sound is a sibilant like the S sound, z.
So we have that Latin word centum, meaning hundred.
That word became C-E-N-T-O in Italian, but it was pronounced
cento with a CH sound.
Also think about the word C-I-A-O in Italian, which is pronounced as chow.
So the K sound became a CH sound before the E and I in many Italian words.
Now let’s look at Spanish.
Again, we see this process of assimilation, except in Spanish,
the K sound became an S sound before the E and the I.
So the Latin word centum evolved within Spanish and became C-I-E-N-T-O,
which is pronounced as ciento with the S sound, except in Castilian Spanish,
where the sound shifted to more of a TH sound, which is another sibilant.
So the pronunciation in Castilian Spanish is more like ciento.
Old French also experienced this change, and it was basically the same as Spanish.
Before an E or an I, the K sound shifted to an S sound.
So Latin centum became C-E-N-T in French and was pronounced cent.
And remember, this is the same sound shift from K to S that distinguishes
the centum and satum languages.
So the same sound shift that had occurred within some of those early
Indo-European tribes happened here as well.
For another example, let’s look at a word like cancer, which can refer
to either a malignant tumor or a crab, as in the horoscope sign.
The link between those two things comes from the crab-like appearance
of swollen veins extending from the tumor.
In Latin, the word was pronounced as canker.
Remember, the letter C was always pronounced as a K in Latin.
And we still have that version of the word in the modern English word
canker, as in canker sore.
When the Latin word cancur later evolved in French, it was pronounced
cancer in keeping with the French assimilation.
The C before the A stayed the same with a K pronunciation.
But the C before the E shifted to an S sound.
So cur became sur.
So within that word, we can see the assimilation at work.
Of course, both versions of the word passed into modern English.
And here’s the real importance of this French assimilation.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, which was after these sound
changes had been completed, we got the forced introduction
of many French words.
And as many of those words came into English,
they came in with the French S sound in place of the K sound
before the E and the I.
So in the case of the French word for hundred, C-E-N-T, pronounced cent,
it became anglicized to cent.
And it appears in a variety of words, like cent, meaning 1 100th of a dollar,
century, meaning 100 years, centennial, meaning the 100th anniversary,
centipede, a bug with supposedly 100 legs, and many other words.
But what about Old English itself?
Well, it experienced its own process of assimilation.
Among the Anglo-Saxons, the K sound, which, remember,
was represented by the letter C, became a C-H sound before an E or an I.
This is actually very similar to the sound change
we saw before in Italian, which produced words like cinto and ciao.
So in Old English, we have the word R-I-C-E, which meant great or wealthy.
But it was not pronounced like rice in modern English.
Instead, the C-H sound had emerged in this context,
and the word was pronounced riccia.
And this is actually the original version of the modern English word
During the Middle Ages, when the spelling became more standardized,
the spelling of the word was changed to R-I-C-H
to reflect the pronunciation of the word.
But more on that later.
So to explore this a little further, let’s
compare the Anglo-Saxon language with the Old Saxon language
of their cousins, which was still being spoken in continental Europe
at the time.
Now remember, when the Anglo-Saxons made the migration to Britain
during the fifth century, it appears that most
of the Angles in continental Europe made this migration
because there’s very little record of the Angles afterwards.
But not all Saxons made the migration.
Many Saxons remained in continental Europe.
And so we actually begin to see a distinct difference in dialects.
We have the Anglo-Saxon dialect, which appears in Britain.
But among the Saxons who remained in continental Europe,
there was a separate dialect which emerged,
which is known as Old Saxon.
So I want to compare a couple of words in the Old English,
or Anglo-Saxon dialect, and the Old Saxon dialect.
And we can see how this sound change occurred in the Anglo-Saxon dialect,
but it did not occur within the Saxon dialect, which
remained in continental Europe.
So in the case of Old English, the word I just gave you
was originally spelled R-I-C-E. It’s the original version
of the word rich.
And that word in Old Saxon, which, remember,
does not have the Anglo-Saxon sound shift, was spelled R-I-K-I,
and was pronounced as Riki, with a K sound.
But remember, in Old English, it was pronounced Richa.
So it had experienced that shift from the K sound to the C-H sound
in Old English.
And as I said, this is the original version of the modern word rich.
A similar word, at least in spelling, was a word which was spelled C-I-R-I-C-E.
So basically, that same word we just looked at,
but put C-I at the beginning, so C-I-R-I-C-E.
In Old Saxon, that word was spelled K-I-R-I-K-A,
and it was pronounced Karika, which again gives both of those consonants
the K sound.
But in Old English, we have the assimilation.
So that word becomes C-I-R-I-C-E, pronounced Charicha.
And Charicha is the original version of the modern word church.
Again, over time, that word evolved from Old English into modern English
But we see the original version there with that assimilation.
We also have an Old English or Anglo-Saxon word spelled C-I-L-D.
And the pronunciation of that word eventually
evolved from its original killed to chilled, which later became child.
And that’s the original spelling of the modern word child, C-I-L-D.
During later Middle English and then into modern English,
the spelling of the word C-I-L-D was changed to C-H-I-L-D
to reflect the change in pronunciation.
So even though the K sound generally shifted
to a C-H sound in Old English before the E and the I,
it didn’t always make that change.
And that’s actually very important.
Sometimes the K sound was retained.
So in Old English, we have the word C-Y-N-I-N-G.
Now the letter Y has many of the same characteristics here as the letter I.
But we did not get a sound shift here.
It did not become tuning.
It remained cuning.
And cuning is the original version of the modern word king.
And so you still see that original spelling C-Y-N-I-N-G in Old text.
But again, it retained its original K sound.
It did not shift to a C-H.
Also, the original Old English version of the word keen
was originally spelled C-E-N-E in Old English.
Again, for some reason, it retained its original K sound.
So now let’s flash forward to the Middle Ages and Middle English
after England was invaded by the Norman French.
If we look at Middle English, and specifically
this issue of the C before the E and the I,
what we see is a hodgepodge of the rules that we just talked about.
In a lot of the native Old English words,
the C was being pronounced with a C-H sound
to reflect the assimilation which Old English had experienced.
So a word like R-I-C-E was being pronounced as richa.
But sometimes the C was still being pronounced as a K sound.
So that word C-Y-N-I-N-G, the original version of the word king,
was still being pronounced as cuting with the original K sound.
So in some cases that C had shifted to a C-H sound,
and in a few other cases it had retained its original K sound.
But then there were all of those words that had come in through French
where the C was now pronounced as an S sound under the French assimilation.
Words like C-E-N-T, which were being pronounced as son,
and eventually anglicized to cent.
So at that point, there were really three different pronunciations for the letter C.
It could have the original K sound,
it could have the Old English sound shift and be a C-H sound,
or it could have the French sound shift and be an S sound.
Now in everyday speech, this wasn’t really a problem.
Words were just pronounced as words.
But for those increasing number of people who were literate,
and the scribes who had to write down and read those words, it was a problem.
If you came across an unfamiliar word where a C preceded an E or an I,
how did you pronounce it?
Was it a K sound, or a C-H sound, or an S sound?
If you didn’t know the origin of the word, and very few people did,
you had to guess at it.
So it was during this period that scribes began to adopt certain rules
to deal with these issues.
And they’re basically the rules we have today.
Remember that at this point in history,
a C before a back vowel, A, O, or U, didn’t change.
It remained a K sound, just as it had always been, and just as it remains today.
So we see that in words like cat, cot, cut, carry, car, cap, and so on.
So whenever we have a C before an A, O, or U,
we’re looking at the oldest use of the C with its original K sound,
the same way the Romans and the original Anglo-Saxons used it.
So in those cases, the letter C was retained because in that context,
before the A, O, and U,
all of the languages had retained the original K pronunciation.
So it was clear how the C was pronounced in those cases.
The C was left in place, and it continued to represent the K sound.
But what about the C before the front vowels, E and I?
Well, this is where it became much more complicated in Middle English,
because there were three different possible pronunciations,
ch, k, or s.
Middle English attempted to sort out this hodgepodge,
and they did it by adopting certain spelling rules.
So let’s look at those rules.
First, for many of the Old English words that had developed the ch pronunciation,
Middle English scribes assigned the letter combination ch for that sound.
So r-i-c-e, pronounced ri-cha, came to be spelled r-i-c-h,
and thus our modern English word rich.
The word c-i-r-i-c-e, pronounced ch-a-ri-cha,
was reinvented with the letter combination ch,
and eventually became our modern word church.
And the word c-i-l-d became c-h-i-l-d,
to reflect its pronunciation,
and thus became our modern English word child.
So the scribes were reflecting the sound change
which had occurred in these Old English words
where the k sound had shifted to the ch sound.
And they did it by simply spelling the words phonetically
using the letters c-h to reflect that ch sound.
So what about those words where the c had either the k sound or the s sound?
Well, to reflect the way those words were pronounced,
the Middle English scribes adopted the French rules
which the French scribes had been using to deal with the same issue in France.
This also reflects the overall power and influence of French at the time.
So since the French were pronouncing the c as an s sound before an e or an i,
the Middle English scribes went along with that rule
and retained the c where it was being pronounced as an s.
So cent retains its French spelling, c-e-n-t.
And the vast horde of French words that contained the letter c
before an e or an i were brought into English,
and English retained the letter c to reflect this French pronunciation of the s sound.
And this is still the default pronunciation rule for c in modern English.
A c before an e or an i is generally pronounced as an s.
But what about those words where Old English had retained the k sound before an e or an i?
Remember that a word like cuning, the original version of the word king,
was spelled c-y-n-i-n-g.
Well, remember that Old English only used the letter c.
They didn’t have the letter k in Old English.
And the standard French rules of pronunciation would suggest
that if you put a c at the beginning of that word, c-y-n-i-n-g,
it should be pronounced as an s, but it wasn’t.
I mean, England was ruled by a cuning, not a cuning or tuning.
And it’s at this point that the Middle English scribes
resurrected the largely forgotten letter k from the dustbin.
Remember that the k had not been used in Old English,
and was rarely used by the Romans.
But the French had been using it.
In fact, the French had to deal with their own assimilation issues.
When the k sound switched to an s sound in French before the front vowels,
the French had to find a way to distinguish those words
from the words where the k sound was being retained.
So they began using the letter k to indicate the k sound before those letters.
So the French-influenced scribes did the same thing in Middle English.
They assigned the letter k in instances where a c retained its original k sound
before the e or the i.
So Old English c-y-n-i-n-g became k-i-n-g,
with a brand new k at the beginning.
Remember, the k was inserted to eliminate any confusion
as to the proper pronunciation.
So today, in Modern English, when the k sound appears before an e or an i,
we still typically use the letter k to make that clear.
So think about words like kite, king, kettle, and keg.
All of those words have a k at the beginning instead of a c.
And the reason it has that k is to make it clear to the reader
that those words are pronounced with a k sound.
Whereas if a c was inserted there,
the tendency would be to pronounce it with an s sound.
It should also be noted that the k is also sometimes used before the other vowels,
a, o, and u, but this usually represents words
that have been borrowed into English from other languages,
especially Scandinavian languages.
Sometimes also words that come from other sources.
Think of the word kangaroo, which comes from Australian Aboriginal languages.
So there you have it.
All you need to know about the letter c and assimilation.
Hopefully you find that interesting.
But even if you don’t, the real point of this discussion
was to illustrate how common sound changes are
and how common certain sound changes are among various languages.
These sound changes often reflect mechanical aspects of speech
that are a product of the human mouth and vocal cords,
and they’re not necessarily unique to any particular language.
Again, they’re just a product of our human biology.
In our next episode, we’ll turn our attention back
to the original Indo-European language.
To this point, we’ve discussed how the original Indo-European language
was at least partially reconstructed.
In the next episode, we’re going to look at the reconstructed language itself.
And based upon those reconstructed words,
we’ll try to figure out who those original Indo-Europeans were.
Today, linguists are reasonably certain
that they know where and when these people lived.
And based upon the archaeological evidence,
we’ll learn even more about them.
And from there, we’ll look at how those people spread around the world,
and specifically how they spread into Western Europe
and led to the eventual creation of Greek, Latin, Celtic, and Germanic languages,
including, of course, English.
So until next time,
thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.