Thoracic: Why are two differing types of c pronunciations used?


In the English language, the word thoracic is pronounced as "thorasik." (I know that's not the proper way to show pronunciation, but I'm interested (for this question) in the two c's.

Why would it not be 'kik'? or conversely, 'sis'?


Posted 2015-03-05T17:11:03.670

Reputation: 223


This question would be better asked on English Language Users (ELU). That is because the answer to this particular question has to do with a change in pronunciation that happened in Latin sometime between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D. -- ce and ci changed to be pronounced like se and si, but other uses of c continued to be pronounced like k.

– Jasper – 2015-03-05T17:34:51.100

@Jasper - That answer is a good ELU answer, but I'm not sure everyone who asks this question would be interested in a 2000-year-old change in Latin pronunciation. The answer shown below, though, is a suitable ELL answer to this question. – J.R. – 2015-03-05T21:20:37.590



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C is pronounced like k in the endings -ic,ac: topic,lilac

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Posted 2015-03-05T17:11:03.670


The real answer, of course, is that the question is backwards, and so is this answer. Spoken language is primary. It is not spelling that gets pronounced, it is pronunciation that gets written down. And it always gets written down insufficiently, because the spelling is also used to encode a lot of other (and more important) things, like etymology or meaning. So we can wonder "why is the spoken word X still written such and such", but never "why is the written word X pronounced such and such". No letter is ever pronounced. All letters are always silent. – ЯegDwight – 2015-04-29T13:12:23.090

so it's the i's fault, in both cases? ci makes is a soft c and ic makes it a hard one? – CGCampbell – 2015-03-05T17:55:23.003

3@CGCampbell, I would have stated the highlighted rule as "as the final letter of a word"; a c at the end of a word is always hard, because the only way to make a soft c is by having something after it to make it soft (usually an e, i, or y). – Hellion – 2015-03-05T20:38:56.193


The answer by Study.English.Well is excellent and probably the first thing you should learn. But I'm going to tell you the historical answer, because this is also extremely valuable to know, especially for the insight that it gives you into the quirks of English spelling and grammar. Even native speakers can benefit from knowing this.

A borrowed alphabet with changing pronunciations

The English alphabet is the Latin alphabet, the same alphabet used in Ancient Rome 2000 years ago, plus three letters added in the Middle Ages. In the earlier times of Ancient Rome, the letter C was always pronounced hard, like English K. For example, Caesar was pronounced "kaisar". Old English writing used the Latin alphabet as it was brought from the Romans, and also used C consistently to represent the K sound. (G was more complicated.)

In the later centuries of the Roman Empire, people started to palatalize C and G. That is, they pronounced them more like English ch and j. The pressure to do this is stronger before the vowels e and i, which require your tongue to move close to where it needs to be to make ch and j. When you say a, o, and u, your tongue is further from your palate. Eventually, people started pronouncing C and G consistently "soft" before e and i, and "hard" before a, o, and u. As French developed out of Latin, French pronunciation continued to shift, and the French soft c later came to sound like s.

In 1066, French-speaking invaders from Normandy conquered England. They brought French language and spelling with them, and these eventually merged into the English language. People pronounced the new French words in the French style, and spelled them in the French style, including the hard/soft convention with C and G.

You'll notice, though, that a few words have a g pronounced hard before e or i. For example, get and give. Most of these words, especially the common ones, are from Old English, not from Latin. A lot of Old English words that used to be spelled with a C became spelled with a K. For example, king, broken, kill, and keep were all spelled with a C before the conquest of 1066. Writing K instead of C for these words of English origin distinguished them from Latin words, because the letter K is almost not used at all in Latin.

The moral of the story

The general lesson to learn from this is: English is a blend of two root languages: Anglo-Saxon and Latin. Actually, three languages if you count Greek. The words from each language tend to have their own customs, their own style, and their own spelling.

If you know that English is really two (or three) languages, you won't expect consistency where it doesn't exist, you can better notice the patterns that do exist, and you can better see how English spelling often indicates meaning as well as pronunciation. For example, you expect that thorax (Greek) changes to thoracic as an adjective, but you don't expect the same from wax (Anglo-Saxon).

This is such a helpful thing to know to see your way through the complexities of English, any English teacher who doesn't tell you this basic fact about English has failed in their duty.

Ben Kovitz

Posted 2015-03-05T17:11:03.670

Reputation: 25 752

Most would rather say that modern English is a mix/blend of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. With Latin and Greek's direct influence not till Shakespeare's time. I understand that Latin influenced English through Norman French, but no historian I've read would describe English as a mix/blend of A-S and Latin. With 33 to 40%, depending who you ask, modern English words from French.

– None – 2015-03-06T14:06:44.943

@δοῦλος I just mean the root languages--the strands, the threads--by whichever hook or crook. The hooks and crooks get complicated, and there's no need to be distracted by those details to get the main idea. The main thing is just to notice that these different patterns exist and have a clue about why English works the way it does. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-03-06T14:32:14.137

Distracted by the historical details when you claim to be giving a historical answer. Yeah, that's why I figured I should have posted my first comment directly to the question, because I figured you might have such a ridiculous response. – None – 2015-03-06T14:39:04.923

@δοῦλος Knowing the basics of the history helps a lot in learning many subjects: physics, math, car repair, accounting, law, and many more, including English. Especially with English, knowing a little history helps guide a learner away from thinking in terms of rules and toward using common sense. What's needed for that is a basic outline, nothing more. I think that distinctions such as Norman French vs. Parisian French or "exactly" where Latin turns into the Romance languages would uselessly confuse a beginner who doesn't even know why C and G have hard and soft pronunciations. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-03-07T21:19:05.253

What "three letters [were] added in the Middle Ages"? – None – 2015-03-07T23:11:58.453

@δοῦλος J, U, and W.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-03-08T00:23:38.207

You have no problem with the technical term Anglo-Saxon. I do not see why you insist on avoiding the technical term Norman French, especially when discussing an answer from a historical point of view. I repeat that to call English a blend of Anglo-Saxon and Latin is extremely unfortunate (i.e., incorrect). You painstakingly go though details of the pronunciation changes, but when it comes to accepting a correction to your incorrect statement, you rejoin with: no need to distract anyone by detail, and the need for sticking to the basics of history. – None – 2015-03-12T13:58:29.367

The basics of history are that when the Normans came over to England, they brought Norman French with them. For 300 years this was an overlord to Old English. The most simplest and basic fact, one that does not delve into detail, is that English is a "blend" of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. You already mentioned the Norman Invasion. How is changing your inaccurate statement to an accurate one going to inject too much detail? The only thing I see is you are not open to correction. So you have no problems giving inaccurate statements as answers. – None – 2015-03-12T14:02:53.313

@δοῦλος I'm giving the basic terminology that I think is most useful for a non-specialist to know. Most dictionary etymologies trace most word origins to Anglo-Saxon, Latin, or Greek. As with anything in language, the story with Latin is complicated, in that we got most of our Latin vocabulary through French. The answer above explains exactly that, though. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-03-12T14:09:41.897

@δοῦλος Please refrain from personal accusations. I stopped at the level of detail that I think is appropriate for this question. You're welcome to write a historical answer that explains the differences between Norman and Parisian French and presents the arguments about the semantically blurry question of whether Norman French was the local Latin dialect the way Mandarin and Cantonese are called Chinese today, and whether it matters. Who knows, the OP might find that more helpful. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-03-12T15:08:51.647