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In the Latin-based orthographies of many European languages (including English), a distinction between hard and soft ⟨c⟩ occurs in which ⟨c⟩ represents two distinct phonemes. The sound of a hard ⟨c⟩ (which often precedes the non-front vowels ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩ and ⟨u⟩) is that of the voiceless velar stop, /k/ (as in car), while the sound of a soft ⟨c⟩ (typically before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩ and ⟨y⟩), depending on language, may be a fricative or affricate. In English, the sound of soft ⟨c⟩ is /s/ (as in the first and final c’s in "circumference").

There was no soft ⟨c⟩ in classical Latin, where it was always pronounced as /k/.[1]

History

This alternation is caused by a historical palatalization of /k/ which took place in Late Latin, and led to a change in the pronunciation of the sound [k] before the front vowels [e] and [i].[2][3] Later, other languages not directly descended from Latin, such as English, inherited this feature as an orthographic convention.

English

General overview

In English orthography, the pronunciation of hard ⟨c⟩ is /k/ and of soft ⟨c⟩ is generally /s/. Yod-coalescence has altered instances of /sj/ ─ particularly in unstressed syllables ─ to /ʃ/ in most varieties of English, affecting words such as ocean, logician and magician. Generally, the soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation occurs before ⟨i e y⟩; it also occurs before ⟨ae⟩ and ⟨oe⟩ in a number of Greek and Latin loanwords (such as coelacanth, caecum, caesar). The hard ⟨c⟩ pronunciation occurs everywhere else[4] except in the letter combinations ⟨sc⟩, ⟨ch⟩, and ⟨sch⟩ which have distinct pronunciation rules. ⟨cc⟩ generally represents /ks/ before ⟨i e y⟩, as in accident, succeed, and coccyx.

There are exceptions to the general rules of hard and soft ⟨c⟩: