How about these two softies?
Let's talk about soft c and g!
I am not a linguist or a word historian; I am just curious about the English Language structure. I spend late nights reading obscure books and chasing google rabbits down deep holes. I drive in my car listening to podcasts, pulling over to take notes. Everything about the history of the American English Language fascinates me. Two letters of the alphabet that intrigue me are <g> and <c>, which originally had the same pronunciation! I listened to this podcast, The History of English Podcast, on one of my recent car rides. Trust me; once you start listening to these informative podcasts, your lessons will never be the same. Below is an informative answer following a podcast in this series that made me think more about this topic.
So let’s unwrap this a bit.
- The Greek <c>, gamma, sounded like /g/ and <k> kappa, for /k/.
- Etruscan didn’t have /g/, but lots of variations of /k/.
- The Etruscans kept <k>, changed <c> to sound like one of their /k/ sounds.
- <k> is now voiceless and <g> is voiced.
- The Romans then borrowed a version of the Etruscan alphabet with just one /k/ sound. They didn’t need two versions of the same sound, so they mainly used c.
So now I wondered what happened to <g>?
<g> and <c> come from the Phoenician letter gimel, meaning camel, which looked like an upside-down <v>. The Greeks renamed it gamma, rounded the edges, and resembled a <c>. The Romans also used the letter <c> (now shaped rounded) to represent two sounds, /g/ as in got and /k/ as in cat. This was confusing, so eventually, they added a tail to the <c> for the /g/ sound.
So the next question was, why soft g?
As with all the letters, many changes took place in the formation and pronunciation of the letter <g>, there was a flat-headed <g> and a round-headed <g>. After years, and influences by the Normans, around the 12th century, the round-headed <g> was used to represent both /j/ (before <e> and <i>) and /g/ sounds . The flat-headed <g> was used for a /y/ sound.
So when did <c> become soft, you ask?
The French also influenced the soft <c> sound in the 12th century. <c> represented the /ts/ sound in words like mince. At this time <s> was more frequently pronounced /z/. So the use of the <c> avoided confusion with pronunciation.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not a linguist or a historian, just an OG practitioner trying to make sense of the language so I can gracefully answer my students’ tough questions. Everything above is simplified, and I encourage you to do your own reading!
So now, how do I teach soft <g> and soft <c>? I do a few things long before I talk about soft and hard letters. I only teach hard <g> and <c> when I first introduce letter sounds. When dictating words, I seldom dictate words starting with k. I know lots of people teach <c> takes the <a>, <o> and <u> and <k> gets <e>, <i>, and <y>. Personally, I think it is too much for students to remember and is used in so few cvc words. I often tell them <c> is your first choice at the beginning of the word. I would love to hear your thoughts on that. I usually teach soft sounds after VCe and along with -dge and -age for more advanced students. So more on how I teach it!
I begin by showing the grapheme card <c> and tell my student this has a second sound when it comes before <e>, <i>, and <y>, the student writes <c> (saying /s/) three times, we then read a list of words, and write six or seven words. The following lesson plan will include reading more soft <c> words and a couple of rows of the new sound (soft <c>) along with other review concepts in dictation. The exact process will happen with soft <g>.
Let’s talk about the purpose of a sound pack drill such as the LTK. I was trained using the Language Tool Kit written by Paula D. Rome and Jean S. Osman. Each card represents one grapheme that may represent one or more pronunciations; sometimes, the cards are r controlled vowels, vowel pairs, digraphs, etc. We work toward automaticity in phoneme/ grapheme association. Then we instruct the student to blend these graphemes smoothly into words as they read. Often the single grapheme will take on different pronunciations merely by the vowel following it. The two best examples of this are soft c and soft g.
Now that we know the point of the card pack, do you show your students the following cards or combinations and ask them to say /j/? or ask them how to write /j/, and they respond with the following?
I am noting several problems with this. First off, two graphemes in a cv pattern would be an open syllable, which usually implies a long vowel. Another problem is in this pattern <ge> at the end of the word (rage) would be pronounced as /j/, <gy> (biology) and <gi> (corgi fungi) could have varying pronunciations. As an open syllable in the initial or medial positions <gi> /jī/
(giant), <ge>/jē/ (geometry), <gy> /jī/ (gyrate).
Conversely, in a closed syllable, <ge> will be pronounced
general, gem, German, Gentile, and so on.
So does <ge>, < gi>, <gy> really say /j/?
Instead, during sound dictation, a student could be asked,
“How can you write /j/.”
the answers would be;
<j>, <dge>, <g>
The follow-up question could be, “ What three vowels after <g> may indicate the <g> will be soft?” (notice how I said may? as we know, <g> often doesn’t soften)
the correct response is;
<e>, <i>, <y>
I bet you know where I am going next with this!
Are you having the student pronounce this as /s/?
In open syllables; cipher, cycle, and cement, now we have a schwa! So how about in closed syllables; center, cinch, cymbals?
Let’s talk more about layering the instruction for soft <c> and soft <g>. Working with older or more advanced students is not just enough to teach them one-syllable words such as dance or fringe. I use the term layering to mean going beyond the obvious, to challenge your students to deeper thinking. This often involves morphology. Soft <c> and soft <g> are loaded with morphological opportunities. I offer several word lists to facilitate these higher-level lessons in my advanced word book, More Words. Teaching -dge is usually at the end of the word you will not have a problem with words like digit and logic. You not only are teaching spelling, but you are also teaching roots, strengthening vocabulary skills for your students! Another often forgotten group of soft <g> words is -age as in baggage and garage. With soft <c>, you can explore roots such as cent and cide. Imagine the powerful lessons you can create for your students when you consider layering your lessons for depth and a deeper understanding of the English language!
Happy times with a couple of softies!
Please check out my advanced word book More Words for lists with multisyllabic word lists on this topic! I have also created games to keep this level of students entertained.
Oh Cecelia for multisyllabic soft and hard <c> words
Oh George for multisyllabic soft and hard <g> words
Ridges and Gorges for multisyllabic soft <g> and -dge words
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