Why does the letter C have 6 pronunciations in Scottish Gaelic? Why is the letter C so confusing and ambiguous in the Gaelic language?

  • Why do you say it has six? To my knowledge it has two, and they're not ambiguous: it has one next to broad vowels and the other next to slender vowels. Same as Russian к.
    – Draconis
    Nov 13, 2022 at 5:11
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    It’s no more confusing than <t> (and historically also <p>, though the difference between broad and slender /p/ has been neutralised except initially or after a consonant, before back vowels). Most consonants in the Goidelic languages have broad and slender variants and are aspirated word-initially; Scottish has the added feature that all unvoiced plosives are preaspirated postvocalically. That’s six surface-level phonetic variants for each (@Draconis), but they’re entirely regular and predictable – there’s nothing ambiguous about it. Nov 13, 2022 at 8:38
  • In Wikipedia, there were 6 pronunciations listed of the letter C: Nov 13, 2022 at 15:59
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Nov 13, 2022 at 15:59
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    @AkshatGoswami but they are allophones, as the Wikipedia table itself makes it obvious with the description of where the occur, and matching what you have been told above! Writing systems usually don't make a distinction between allophones, (the "t" in "top" and "stop" is two different sounds, one [tʰ] and one [t]). Please read up about the difference between phonemes and phones. Language usually tries to represent phonemes, not phones (though usually imperfectly anyway).
    – LjL
    Nov 13, 2022 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


It's not just Scottish Gaelic, it's in the nature of human language. Of course, since you framed the question in terms of letters, then unwritten languages don't have this property, at least as long as they remain unwritten. In every written language, there is some scheme for relating the distinctive sounds of the language to letters. In addition, every distinctive sound has rules of variation regarding how the sound is physically implemented in a particular context. In English, we have a distinctive sound /t/, which can be physically realized at the grossest granularity as [t, tʰ, t̚, ɾ] and at even closer inspection as [ʷt, ʲt, ˀt, ʈ, ʈ̚...], by assimilating articulatory properties of whatever comes before or after. On top of that, the letter <t> is involved in the digraph th which can be [θ] or [ð], as well just being gratuitously in the spelling but not pronounced ("fasten"), part of /tʃ/ ("watch", "fortune"), /ʃ/ ("partial"). Finally, there is a tendency to look at English or any other language as "one thing", therefore people often dump facts for different dialects into one pile (for example the Liverpool lenition of /t/ to [ts] is completely alien to me, and I imagine my English is completely alien to them).

In Gaelic in general, there is a fundamental distinction between palatalized and velarized consonants (also called "slender" and "broad"), but this is not signalled by using different consonant letters, it is signalled by judicious selection of vowels before and after. Thus ceum is phonologically /kʰʲeːm/ and cam is /kʰaum/ – that is a case where the spelling does not have a separate letter for each distinctive sound.

There is also a process of aspiration / preaspiration where c tends to be aspirated, and it is preaspirated when preceded by a vowel – similar to the more-obvious contextual variations [t, tʰ, t̚, ɾ] in English. Then there are minute variants that are usually only detected by phoneticians, and really require experimental techniques to identify. And like English, there are digraphs: ch which may be palatalized or not, standing for [x] and [ç].

Ultimately, the reason why the Latin alphabet doesn't have letters for various sounds of Polish, Chinese, Sindhi, Gaelic is that the Latin alphabet was developed for Latin and therefore the sounds of Latin. It turned out to be very popular, compared to the Greek alphabet from which the Latin alphabet derives, but people had to make many modification, sometimes involving adding new letters (ŋ, ŧ, đ in North Saami...) and sometimes involving complex letter-sequences where you have to follow rules to get from spelling to pronunciation (North Saami orthography in general).

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