In defense of the hard C

My kid just turned 4 years old, and as he tries to make sense of the magical mysteries of spelling words, there's one question that he keeps returning to: why does the letter "c" sometimes sound like an "s," but also sound like a "k" sometimes?

I haven't known what to tell him. He's right! It's weird and confusing! People make fun of the Irish language all the time, but at least it's consistent with its sounds — including the letter c, which always makes a hard "cuh" sound (though an accompanying "h" can change that, as with many things.

Writer Dan Carlin had a similar revelation, as he detailed in a recent newsletter — to the point that he's committed himself to all-in on the hard "c" whenever possible (or at least for words with Greek/Latin/"classical" roots). As he explains:

Many know that the words Kaiser (a term used for German emperors) and Czar (the Russian Imperial title) both stem from the word Caesar. But it's not that apparent by looking at them. If, however, you pronounce Caesar with the hard C instead of the soft one the etymology isn't just clear, it's crystal clear. In the case of the word "Kaiser" it is almost identical. All of a sudden I imagine the early 20th Century Germans calling their ruler "Caesar", which seems a weird twist to me, and yet it isn't a weird twist…it's what they were actually doing. There's historical clarity-related value in that it seems to me.


They don't say "Massedonia" in Greece or the Balkans today. It is pronounced with the hard C. Just as it formerly was. Alexander wouldn't recognize the Massedonia pronunciation. Virtually no one in the ancient world who knew of the existence of that polity would recognize it either. If you use the hard C you are in line with the ancients….use the soft C and we are another step removed from them. Again, there seems value to me in preserving the links that we can to the past where we can.

This reminds me of when I started learning Irish, a language that grew out of Latin without all the other continental European linguistic mingling. While English speakers might think the language looks strange, I found the rules to be remarkably more consistent than English (once you understand them, at least). That includes the hard "C." This is further assisted by the fact that there are no "k"s in the Irish alphabet anyway, so your "Cs" handle the "cuh" sounds, while the "Ss" carry the sibilant "suh" sounds. (Plus sometimes a J-ish "juh" sound, depending).

Granted, there's a certain well-known basketball team who totally screwed that rule up, leading to even more confusion. But hey, that's America for ya.

Anyway, Carlin's newsletter has plenty of more to say about the fight for your right to hard "C."

To C or Not To See? [Dan Carlin / Substack]