Dictionary.com

c, g, Phoenicians, letter history, alphabetCan you imagine a world in which the sounds of G and C were both represented by the letter C? Try to imacine it.

Believe it or not, for much of their history, the sounds of C and G were represented by the same symbol. Eventually, however, both sounds received their own differentiated symbols.

Both G and C have their origin in the Phoenician letter gimel, which meant “camel,” and looked something like an upside-down V (think of a camel’s hump—which, some believe may have been the inspiration for the letter’s shape). The Phonecians used gimel to indicate a sound that is equivalent to our present-day G (like the sound in “got”).

The Greeks borrowed gimel from the Phoenicians and renamed it gamma. Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks used the letter to represent the guttural G sound. When the Romans adopted gamma from the Greeks, however, they made a significant change.

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans used the letter gamma to indicate the sound of K (as in “compare) and the sound of G (as in “go”). Not only that, the Romans changed the shape of the letter, softening the sharp angle of the gamma to a curve. The resultant shape looked very similar to our modern English C.

But having one letter represent two very different sounds grew problematic. Ultimately, the Romans developed a graphic differentiation for the two sounds. The K sound remained with the C shape, while a bar was added to the bottom edge of the letter to indicate the G sound (as in “got”).

The result was the modern G. But how, you may be wondering, did C come to represent both the hard sound of K (as in “car”) and the sibilant sound of S (as in “publicity”)?

In 1066, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England. He brought with him the French language, which became the lingua franca of the Royal Court, and the business classes. During this time, the English language absorbed many French words and French spellings.

The hybrid language that emerged was called Middle English, the language of the great poet Geoffrey Chaucer (author of “The Canterbury Tales”). It is believed that, during this period of language mixing, the letter C acquired its S sound, because of the many French words which use C in that way.

After spending much time sharing the same symbol, G and C came to be the two separate letters that we know them as today.

Could we go back to having only one letter represent both sounds?

163 Comments

  1. Gloria -  November 6, 2012 - 9:49 am

    What R they talking about

    Reply
  2. tirebyter -  October 28, 2012 - 9:21 am

    j and i are used similarly, as in the German, Junkers and ja. J’s are pronounced Y, as in yellow, in German. English uses Y for the i sound as in physics. Then there is the letter W, as in Werner, which in German is pronounced as a V. On top of the that, the W is two V’s but the word is double U, and the three letters follow each other in our alphabet
    T U V W, just as i and j follow each other. I won’t even go into H, which precedes i and j, and j is pronounced like an H in Spanish.
    Just food for thought.

    Reply
  3. SHayes -  October 24, 2012 - 11:52 am

    Nope. It would be hard to go without them.

    Reply
  4. Kayla -  October 22, 2012 - 8:06 pm

    I think it would be very hard to co without the letter “g”! But that’s just me.

    Reply
  5. gggg -  October 13, 2012 - 8:42 am

    GGgg? ggggggGg??GGGGGG

    Reply
  6. English without the letter G | Language Museum -  September 30, 2012 - 3:22 am

    [...] The Greeks borrowed gimel from the Phoenicians and renamed it gamma. Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks used the letter to represent the guttural G sound. When the Romans adopted gamma from the Greeks, however, they made a significant change. (Source: Dictionary.com) [...]

    Reply
  7. Anders Lotsson -  September 21, 2012 - 7:44 am

    Some Greeks, used to a slightly different alphabet, have problems telling the letters C and G apart. I remember seeing a brand of heavy boots for sale in Rethymnon with the brand name WEHRMAGHT. I do not think any visiting German was fooled into believing that the boots came from the German armed forces.

    Reply
  8. GGgggGG -  September 18, 2012 - 12:40 pm

    GgggggggggGGGGGggggggggggggggGGggGggg!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  9. alex:) -  September 13, 2012 - 3:04 pm

    “gimel” is a hebrew letter that looks like ג

    Reply
  10. Sarah -  September 13, 2012 - 1:58 pm

    ‘Gimel’ is actually the third letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It represents the ‘G’ sound. Interestingly, ‘C’ is also the third letter in the English Alphabet. Most languages actually come from Ancient Hebrew, which explains the Phoenician letter gimel.

    Reply
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