Thursday, February 07, 2013


It doesn't take long for even the English alphabet to settle into signs of the all too human tendency to do things simply because "that's the way they've always been done" and "it's too late to stop now." The letter C, while possessed of a boldly simple, beautiful, and primal shape, nonetheless has no purpose, doing nothing that the letters S and K don't already do perfectly well (and combined with H it only produces a mouth noise that logically deserves its own letter). It's not—confining ourselves for the moment to consonants—the only letter to engage in such shenanigans. But it is the first. And at #12 overall in terms of frequency, C also happens to be the most often used of these variously "squishy" consonants (G, J, and X, with W and Y arriving late as particularly knotty problems). I know, I know, we're never going to get rid of the QWERTY (fun to type!) keyboard either. And truth be told, partly by its alphabetical prominence—supplying one more finish to one more short alphabet, in this case "ABCs," which my dictionary offers as a word with the definition "the rudiments of a subject"—partly by its comely shape, and partly by generations and centuries of simply acclimating to it, the otherwise ludicrous letter C offers a merely benign object now. I find I don't mind it much. Talk to a kid or ESL student, however, and you're apt to hear complaints. This multiplication of the sounds produced by a single letter, depending on the circumstances of its immediate neighbors on a case-by-case basis, is simply bad business. What, in the first place, do the hard and soft uses even have to do with one another? The first is a staccato noise made at the back of the throat (the "voiceless velar plosive"), the other is the most sibilant of all the sibilants. WTF C? A better case for hard and soft uses of a single letter could be made with the mouth noises produced by, respectively, P and B, T and D, or F and V. But no. The hard C is a K, the soft C is an S, end of argument. It's not even argument. It's instruction, and pedantic instruction at that. It's "the way we do it." Try to follow along. Followed by the vowels E or I (and sometimes Y, as in "cycle"), the C is soft (usually, though consider "soccer" or [some pronunciations of] "Celtic"). Otherwise the C is hard. Except for things like "muscle" or "Caesar." Good luck figuring out what C is doing in words like "luck" (definitively shortens the vowel?). To complicate (or komplikate) matters, an odd '60s gesture of defiance that occasionally persists is to spell hard Cs in specific instances (or specifik instances, maybe) with a K, most notably "Amerika." In a way I don't quite understand (perhaps something to do with Kafka), this is intended to signify opposition to fascism (and don't miss the uniquely weird C in that word). Conceivably it is also related to the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, while generally I am inclined toward sensible reklamation projekts in spelling where possible, I regret the unfortunate politikal implikations of this one, not that I would necessarily let it stop me. But you see the problem.


  1. Sertainly do. And you wouldn't want to hang a certain over your windows. Engaging stuff.

  2. My favorite conservative was NY Times columnist William Safire (and he's deceased, so those are my two cents there), but it wasn't his political commentary I liked anyway. It was his columns' On Language. He'd probably not like your politics, either, but I think he'd like what you're doing with the alphabet.

  3. I don't always agree with their usage calls either, but I'm definitely partial to all the language peevists, starting with Strunk & White, Zinsser, Fowler, Garner, etc. They are just fun to read. The copy editor in me I guess!