(n.) a tail-like diacritic marker, ( ¸ ) often placed below a C or an S
Time for Part 3 of our series of blogs about the origins of all those lines, squiggles and symbols that pop up in, on, around and through the letters of outs languages.
To most English speakers, the cedilla is probably best known through its use in French (not least thanks to French loanwords like façade, soupçon, aperçu and the Niçoise salad). But it’s found in a host of other languages too, including Turkish, Catalan, Occitan, Romanian, Latvian, and Portuguese—thanks to the latter of which, it also pops up in English in words like cachaça, curaçao, and açaí.
While English speakers are probably most familiar with the cedilla sitting beneath a C, that’s not always the case either. In Turkish, you’ll often find it dangling below an S, ş, too. In Romanian you might see it below Ts, ţ. In Latvian you’ll find it below a K, ķ, or above a G, ģ (though technically, these are just typographic variants of a different symbol, using a comma not a cedilla, ț and ķ). The Marshallese language of Micronesia even uses it below Ls, Ms, Ns and Os—ļ, m̧, ņ, o̧.
All these different contexts are dictated by different processes. So while ç makes a “s” sound in French (as opposed to a harder “k” sound—more on that in a moment), in Turkish ç and ş are “tch” and “sh”. In Romanian, ţ is pronounced “ts”. In Latvian, it marks a palatalized sound (similar to the difference between “s” and “sh” or “tch” in English), while in Marshallese it marks a nasal sound.
But all these examples are later applications of a symbol whose origins actually date back nearly 1000 years—to an entirely different language, that doesn’t even use the cedilla today.
The cedilla originally developed in Old Spanish. Unlike the modern Spanish of today, the Spanish of medieval Europe had as many as eight different sibilant sounds (i.e. all those involving some form of a “s”, “sh” or “z” sound). These eight different sounds necessitated eight different ways of marking the difference between them in writing, and ultimately Old Spanish used a variety of letters and letter combinations to represent all these sounds in print—s, z, ss, j, g, and ch among them.
But in one context in particular, there was a problem.
In Old Spanish, the letter Z was often used to represent a sibilant sound properly known as a voiced alveolar sibilant affricate—similar to the “ds” sound at the end of beds. The letter C was used to represent the voiceless version of this sound—similar to the softer “ts” sound at the end of bets. But this Z vs. C rule only worked in front of Is and Es, because when a C happened to appear before an A, an O or a U in Old Spanish, it was already being used to represent a harder “k” sound. Long story short, in written Spanish, C was originally doing two jobs.
To overcome the confusion this overlap might cause, medieval Spanish writers came up with an ingenious solution. Because the sibilant form of C was effectively operating as an unvoiced counterpart of Z, in written Spanish they began combining the letter C itself with a lowercase z.
In the Visigothic Latin script widely in use in Spain at that time, lowercase z looked something like a dropped number 5:
That, combined with a lowercase c, produced something akin to this:
Over time, that dropped Z became smaller, eventually morphing into something resembling a comma-like tail, ( ¸ ), and the letter ç was born. The tail-like glyph itself, meanwhile, became known as a cedilla—a name literally meaning ‘little ceda’, or ‘little letter Z’.
As the Spanish language continued to develop, this grand system of sibilant sounds proved too exhausting to maintain and simplified as a result. The sounds began to merge into one another, and as they did the distinction between the voiced and voiceless alveolar affricates, “ds” and “ts”, disappeared. This left little reason to maintain the cedilla in Spanish any longer, and when the language was later modernized in the early 1800s, this symbol was dropped altogether.
By then, however, its use had caught on elsewhere.
Across the border in France, the cedilla had solved another problem.
The French language has hard and soft vowels. The soft vowels are the E, I and Y sounds, which tend to be produced towards the front of the mouth. The hard vowels, A, O and U, are produced in the middle or towards the back of the mouth. This distinction has little to do with the vowels themselves, but instead determines the pronunciation of some of the consonants that fall alongside them, which change their form depending on whether they’re flanked by a hard or soft vowel—among them S, G, and importantly, C.
When a C falls in front of a hard vowel in French, it tends to gain a ‘hard’ pronunciation itself, becoming a “k” sound—as in words like cadeau (‘gift’), abricot (‘apricot’) and forcicule (‘earwig’). When a C comes before a soft vowel, however, it takes a softer “s” pronunciation—as in décevoir (‘disappoint’), racine (‘root’) and cygne (‘swan’).
But this rule isn’t always to clear-cut. Some French words occasionally use a soft C, “s”, in front of a hard vowel, where a harder “k” sound would be more usual. The cedilla ultimately offered medieval French writers the perfect opportunity to signpost these exceptions in print: façade (= soft C + hard A), soupçon (= soft C + hard O) and aperçu (= soft C + hard U) all gained cedillas as a result, as too did words like rapiéçage (‘patching’), reçu (‘receipt’), provençal (‘from Provence’), menaçant (‘menacing’) and even français (‘French’) itself.
This change is particularly noticeable in the conjugation of verbs. As anyone who has ever learned French will know, verbs in French tend to end in one of three ways: –er, –ir and –re. As both E and I are soft vowels in French, if a C happens to fall before this ending it will be a soft C, or “s” sound—as in words like effacer (‘erase’), balancer (‘balance, weigh’), policer (‘police’) and grincer (‘squeak’, ‘gnash your teeth’).
But the first person plural forms of –er verbs (i.e. the form corresponding to the pronoun nous, meaning ‘we’) tends to be replace this ending with –ons. As a result, all these Cs take cedillas to show that, despite now preceding a hard O, that soft “s” pronunciation is retained: effaçons (‘we erase’), balançons (‘we balance’), poliçons (‘we police’), grinçons (‘we squeak’). The same goes for many conjugated forms in the imperfect tense (poliçais, ‘I was policing’), the past historic tense (balança, ‘balanced’), and the present participle (effaçant, ‘erasing’).
Spanish may long ago have lost the need to use the cedilla, ultimately, but in French it has proved useful enough to be maintained—even in words where, at first glance, it doesn’t appear to be there at all.