According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Latin letter "c" was adopted in Gaul to represent both the Latin sound "k" and the Gallic dialectical sound "tsh", but later "ch" was used to represent "tsh" to eliminate the ambiguity and it evolved this way in Old French. What "dialect" was it that was featuring this "tsh" sound? Where did it come from?

Obviously some of the candidates are Bretons, Tuetonic Gallic tribes (like Allobroges, etc), the Belgae, then there were the later barbarian invaders like the Burgundians and the Franks. Can we pin down the origin of the "tsh" sound to one of these?

  • I'm not sure I understand the question. Different French dialects/languages had different specific developments of sounds, but palatalization of inherited Latin /k/ in some contexts to some kind of affricate (possibly with later developments) is common to all branches of Romance languages. Is your question about the etymology of words spelled with "ch" in Old French? Dec 18, 2015 at 6:53
  • It is kind of futile to look for causes of language evolution. Sometimes you can pin down influences (substrats, adstrats, or superstrats) but in most cases the changes occur spontaneously and have no deeper explanation. Languages evolve, but the changes aren't predictable. Dec 18, 2015 at 9:26
  • @jknappen Your assumption that the tsh sound evolved is different than my assumption that it is native to some particular aboriginal language like Burgundian. What I am trying to get at is when and where tribes in France started pronouncing words like caballus as cheval. Dec 18, 2015 at 12:09
  • Palatalization before front vowels (e, i) was inherited from Late Latin, whereas palatalization before a was a (central) Old French development, see about the so called Joret line.
    – Alex B.
    Dec 18, 2015 at 16:57

2 Answers 2


Picard, I guess (but not before /a/). See Joret line and Picard language. But maybe you're asking about earlier history?

  • That is pretty interesting. Apparently south of the Joret line is the place of origin, candelle turning into "chandelle", etc. Thus it would seem to be "south Norman" effect. Dec 18, 2015 at 12:21

This effect is called palatalization and affected not just the transformation of C to CH, but other involved other sound changes such as G to J.

As Greg Lee says the Joret line is important, the palatalization occurring south of the line. Though Franks were located in this area, it seems unlikely the Franks were the origin of the palatalization because their Germanic language featured hard consonants, so it would seem to be a change adopted by the Franks, not originated by them.

Many studies on palatalization have been done and these have identified the time of the change as occurring between 800 to 1000 A.D., the viking period, but the vikings cannot be responsible because the palatalization is not found in their languages.

A more interesting idea is that the transformation originated with the Veneti. The reason for thinking this is that the variant of Breton spoken by the Veneti, called Vannetai, strongly features palatalization, much more so than other dialects of Breton. Also, the Veneti are found elsewhere, such as in the Veneto area of Italy (northeast), and it likewise features palatalization in those areas. Thus, there is the possibility that the Veneti influenced somehow this sound change in southern Normandy.


Gvozdanović, Jadranka. "On the linguistic classification of Venetic." Journal of Language Relationship• Вопросы языкового родства 7 (2012): 33-46.


Gvozdanović, Jadranka. "Evaluating prehistoric and early historic linguistic contact." Historical Linguistics 2013: Selected papers from the 21st International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Oslo, 5-9 August 2013. Vol. 334. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2015.

  • Any scholarly sources for this hypothesis? Dec 18, 2015 at 15:44
  • 1
    The Sound Pattern of English (of all places) gives a general theory of palatalization that might be useful. Palatalization of velars starts by shifting the place of articulation of velars to front before front vowels (front=[-back]), those fronted velars become palato-alveolars (place of articulation like "sh"/"ch"), those palato-alveolar stops become affricates ("ch"), then the palato-alveolars shift to alveolars or dentals and may also change from affricates to fricatives ("ts", "s"). ... (cont.)
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 18, 2015 at 16:30
  • (cont.) ... So, for one thing, if we find "k" becoming "ts" before front vowels (in the south), we can infer an earlier "ch" stage of palatalization, even if unattested.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 18, 2015 at 16:31
  • @jknappen I got the idea from reading several papers on historical linguistics on palatalization, especially those by Jadranka Gvozdanovic. For example, see "Evaluating prehistoric and early historic linguistic contact" (2013) and "On the linguistic classification of Venetic" (2012). I have updated my answer to include info on these papers. Dec 18, 2015 at 16:54
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    @Tyler Durden: I have read one of the papers by Gvozdanovic and she says nothing about the evolution of French. I am also not convinced about her identification of the three ethnic groups named Veneti dispersed geographically and temporarily and whose languages aren't well documented (if documented at all). Dec 21, 2015 at 14:42

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