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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 "citrus").
There was no soft ⟨c⟩ in classical Latin, where it was always pronounced as /k/. Modern English pronunciation of early Latin often uses /s/ instead, as with Caesar (Latin pronunciation: [kae.sar]) becoming //.
This alternation has its origins in 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]. Later, other languages not descended from Latin, such as English, inherited this feature as an orthographic convention.
In English orthography, the pronunciation of hard ⟨c⟩ is /k/ and of soft ⟨c⟩ is /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 except in the letter combinations ⟨sc⟩, ⟨ch⟩, and ⟨sch⟩ which have distinct pronunciation rules. Double ⟨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⟩:
A silent ⟨e⟩ can occur after ⟨c⟩ at the end of a word or component root word part of a larger word. The ⟨e⟩ can serve a marking function indicating that the preceding ⟨c⟩ is soft as in dance and enhancement. The silent ⟨e⟩ often additionally indicates that the vowel before ⟨c⟩ is a long vowel, as in rice, mace, and pacesetter.
When adding suffixes with ⟨i e y⟩ (such as -ed, -ing, -er, -est, -ism, -ist, -y, and -ie) to root words ending in ⟨ce⟩, the final ⟨e⟩ of the root word is often dropped and the root word retains the soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation as in danced, dancing, and dancer from dance . The suffixes -ify and -ise/-ize can be added to most nouns and adjectives to form new verbs. The pronunciation of ⟨c⟩ in newly coined words using these suffixes is not always clear. The digraph ⟨ck⟩ may be used to retain the hard ⟨c⟩ pronunciation in inflections and derivatives of a word such as trafficking from the verb traffic.
There are several cases in English in which hard and soft ⟨c⟩ alternate with the addition of suffixes as in critic/criticism and electric/electricity (electrician has a soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation of /ʃ/ because of yod-coalescence).
A number of two-letter combinations or digraphs follow distinct pronunciation patterns and don't follow the hard/soft distinction of ⟨c⟩. For example, ⟨ch⟩ may represent /tʃ/ (as in chicken), /ʃ/ (as in chef), or /k/ (as in choir). Other letter combinations that don't follow the paradigm include ⟨cz⟩, ⟨sc⟩, ⟨cs⟩, ⟨tch⟩, ⟨sch⟩, and ⟨tsch⟩. These come primarily from loanwords.
Besides a few examples (recce, soccer, Speccy), ⟨cc⟩ fits neatly with the regular rules of ⟨c⟩: Before ⟨i e y⟩, the second ⟨c⟩ is soft while the first is hard. Words such as accept and success are pronounced with /ks/ and words such as succumb and accommodate are pronounced with /k/. Exceptions include loanwords from Italian such as cappuccino with /tʃ/ for ⟨cc⟩.
Many placenames and other proper nouns with -cester (from Old English ceaster, meaning Roman station or walled town) are pronounced with /stər/ such as Worcester (/ˈwʊstər/), Gloucester (/ˈɡlɒstər/ or /ˈɡlɔːstər/), and Leicester (/ˈlɛstər/). The /s/ pronunciation occurs as a combination of a historically soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation and historical elision of the first vowel of the suffix.
The original spellings and pronunciations of Italian loanwords have mostly been kept. Many English words that have been borrowed from Italian follow a distinct set of pronunciation rules corresponding to those in Italian. The Italian soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation is /tʃ/ (as in cello and ciao), while the hard ⟨c⟩ is the same as in English. Italian orthography uses ⟨ch⟩ to indicate a hard pronunciation before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩, analogous to English using ⟨k⟩ (as in kill and keep) and ⟨qu⟩ (as in mosquito and queue).
In addition to hard and soft ⟨c⟩, the digraph ⟨sc⟩ represents /ʃ/ when followed by ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩ (as in crescendo and fascia). Meanwhile, ⟨sch⟩ in Italian represents /sk/, not /ʃ/, but English-speakers commonly mispronounce it as /ʃ/ due to familiarity with the German pronunciation. Italian uses ⟨cc⟩ to indicate the gemination of /kk/ before ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨u⟩ or /ttʃ/ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩. English does not usually geminate consonants and therefore loanwords with soft ⟨cc⟩ are pronounced with /tʃ/ as with cappuccino, pronounced /ˌkæpəˈtʃinoʊ/.
Rarely, the use of unusual suffixed forms to create neologisms occurs. For example, the words sac and bloc are both standard words but adding -iness or -ism (both productive affixes in English) would create spellings that seem to indicate soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciations. (saciness and blocism). Potential remedies include altering the spelling to sackiness and blockism, though no standard conventions exist.
Sometimes ⟨k⟩ replaces ⟨c⟩, ⟨ck⟩, or ⟨qu⟩, as a trope for giving words a hard-edged or whimsical feel. Examples include the Mortal Kombat franchise and product names such as Kool-Aid and Nesquik. More intensely, this use of ⟨k⟩ has also been used to give extremist or racist connotations. Examples include Amerika or Amerikkka (where the ⟨k⟩ is reminiscent of German and the totalitarian Nazi regime as well as the racist Ku Klux Klan).
All modern Romance languages make the hard/soft distinction with ⟨c⟩, except a few that have undergone spelling reforms such as Ladino. Some non-Romance languages like German, Danish and Dutch use ⟨c⟩ in loanwords and also make this distinction. The soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation, which occurs before ⟨i⟩, ⟨e⟩ and ⟨y⟩, is:
The hard ⟨c⟩ occurs in all other positions and represents /k/ in all these aforementioned languages.
A number of orthographies do not make a hard/soft distinction. The ⟨c⟩ is always hard in Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic, but is always soft in Slavic languages, Hungarian, and the Hanyu Pinyin transcription system of Mandarin Chinese, where it represents /ts/ or /tsʰ/. In Italian and Romanian, the orthographic convention for representing /k/ before front vowels is to add ⟨h⟩ (Italian chiaro, [ˈkjaːro] 'clear'). ⟨qu⟩ is used to accomplish the same purpose in Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, and French.
In French, Catalan, Portuguese, and Old Spanish a cedilla is used to indicate a soft /s/ pronunciation when it would otherwise seem to be hard. (French garçon, [ɡaʁˈsɔ̃], 'boy'; Portuguese coração, [koɾaˈsɐ̃w̃], 'heart'; Catalan caçar, [kəˈsa], 'to hunt'). Spanish is similar, though ⟨z⟩ is used instead of ⟨ç⟩ (e.g. corazón [koɾaˈθon] 'heart').
Swedish has a similar phenomenon with hard and soft ⟨k⟩: this results from a similar historical palatalization development. Soft ⟨k⟩ is typically a palatal [ç] or an alveolo-palatal [ɕ], and occurs before not only ⟨i⟩, ⟨e⟩ and ⟨y⟩, but also ⟨j⟩, ⟨ä⟩, and ⟨ö⟩. Another similar system with hard and soft ⟨k⟩ is found in Faroese with the hard ⟨k⟩ being /kʰ/ and the soft being /t͡ʃʰ/, and Turkish where the soft ⟨k⟩ is /c/.
The Vietnamese alphabet does not have a hard or a soft ⟨c⟩ per se. However, since it was inherited from European languages, the letter ⟨c⟩ never occurs in "soft positions", i.e. before ⟨e⟩, ⟨ê⟩ and ⟨i⟩ where ⟨k⟩ is used instead, while ⟨k⟩ never occurs elsewhere except in the digraph ⟨kh⟩ and a few loanwords. Hồ Chí Minh had proposed a simplified spelling, as shown in the title of one of his books, Đường kách mệnh.