Latin "c"

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Sat Apr 10 21:03:58 UTC 2004

In a message dated  Fri, 9 Apr 2004 12:31:52 -0400,  "Douglas G. Wilson"
<douglas at NB.NET> writes

>  I think the conventional wisdom is that Classical Latin "c" was/is always
>  /k/ or so (never /s/). I don't recall seeing this disputed, and it's the
>  way it's always taught AFAIK. Roman Church Latin, Anglicized Medical Latin,
>  etc. are different, of course.
>  I suppose one way to know would be to see whether Classical Latin "ce"/"ci"
>  frequently appeared misspelled as "se"/"si" or vice versa. I'm sure this
>  question has a very firm answer and I think it's probably negative.

At least three Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian) have a "soft c"
before e or i, although they disagree as to what phoneme it is.  Occam's Razor
therefore indicates that Latin stopped considering c before e or i to be /k/
(id est, created the "soft c") sometime before the Roman Empire dissolved in
481 AD.

Your idea of checking for certain misspellings is of course correct.
Unfortunately we have very few Latin manuscripts that were actually written before
481,a nd it's anybody's guess whether the later copyists of Classical Latin
manuscripts copied spelling errors verbatim or corrected them.

We CAN set a date sometime AFTER the change, namely by noting when the Greek
letter kappa was enlisted into the Latin alphabet so that Germanic scribes
could kiss their sisters (have a way to write /ke/ and /ki/).

My theory is that in some dialects of Latin (my guess is some of those spoken
north of Rome) the soft c was not /s/, more exactly not the /s/ represented
by the Latin letter "s", but some recognizably different phoneme.  In fact, the
soft c in the Latin of the Roman Empire may never have been /s/ at all, and
merged with /s/ only in the dialects of Trans-Alpine Gaul.

When did the soft c emerge?  By the arguments above, before 481, and I find
it  plausible to suggest a date as early as the Second Punic War.

       - James A. Landau

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