The story of the cedilla

This diacritic we will cover today will bother a lot of font developers who want to make a sans-serif font, basically a typeface that lacks any sort of protruding bits at the end of a stroke. These projecting features are called “serifs”, and here, the one bothersome bit is called the cedilla, a diacritic mark written as a hook or a tail that modifies the pronunciation of certain letters it is attached to.

Among the letters the cedilla could be attached to, letters like ç and ş are perhaps the most common, although the former is the most frequently-occurring letter, being referred to as either along the lines of c-cédille or broken-c.

You may have been this letter in languages like French, Portuguese and Turkish, but its origins were not quite what you think. The cedilla, as its name suggests, has a rather Spanish origin. It is derived as a diminutive of the Spanish word for zeta, ceda, which was originally written as a cursive z. This cedilla is thus the bottom tail part of this cursive letter.

The c-cedilla was originally used to represent the /ts/ sound in Old Spanish, but has since found its way into other European languages like French and Catalan, where it represents a soft-c sound, pronounced as /s/. In orthographical rules, this c-cedilla is written where a c would typically represent a hard-c sound /k/, often before the vowels /a/, /o/, and /u/, including their diacritical variants, or in some languages, at the end of the word. Hence, you would pronounce the word français as [fʁɑ̃sɛ].

Why then, do people not write the c as an s then? Well, from our coverage of the circumflexed letters in languages like French, rewriting c’s as s’s would potentially introduce ambiguities. For example, sa and ça in French mean totally different things, the former referring to a possessive pronoun, while the latter could be translated as “that”. Other reasons could include word histories, where a c in Latin was originally always pronounced hard, with a /k/ sound.

The c-cedilla is also used to represent a /tʃ/ sound in languages like Albanian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Kurdish, although rather boringly called çe in Turkish. Similarly, in many Turkic languages, the letter ş is used to represent the /ʃ/ sound, although not many exciting details could be found about this letter.

There are, however, several false friends you might not be aware about. The tails attached to the bottom of letters like a and e in Polish and Lithuanian are not cedillas, despite their jarring appearance in sans serif typefaces. These instead, carry the diacritic called the ogonek, which is not really related to the cedilla we are covering right here.

Romanian also adds diacritical commas to the bottom of some letters, and those letters should not be mistaken for cedillas either. These letters include the s-comma, ș, which represents the same sound as ş in Turkish. Perhaps these diacritical commas are one solution to make letters like these compatible with sans serif typefaces.

For now, this is where we will leave our little orthographical tale from our alphabets. I hope you have learnt a thing or two about a certain mark in our writing systems, and we will be back next Saturday for another language titbit.

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