The Letter C
By Allan Haley
For much of their history, the ‘C’ and ‘G’ evolved as the same letter. The Phoenicians named this letter gimel, meaning “camel,” and used it to indicate the sound roughly equivalent to our present-day ‘g.’ They drew the character with two quick diagonal strokes, creating something that looked like an upside-down ‘V’ that is short on one side.
Early Greek Letter
Later Greek Letter
When the Greeks began to use the Phoenician gimel in their writing, they took liberties with the original character design. First, the long arm was made vertical so that the letter resembled an upside-down capital ‘L’ with the arm extending to the left. Then they reversed the letter so that the short stroke was on the right side. This design reversal was not uncommon with the Greek versions of Phoenician letters. The early Greeks wrote boustrophedonically, meaning “turning like oxen in plowing.” (Alternate lines were written in opposite directions.) In this technique, non-symmetrical letters were reversed in alternate lines of writing. By the sixth century BC, the style had been dropped in favor of the current practice of writing and reading from left to right, but by that time many letters were permanently inverted from their Phoenician design.
As with other Greek letters, the Romans softened the sharp angle and the form began to look like our present ‘C.’
The Romans used this letter to indicate both the hard (kay) and soft (gay) sounds. In time, however, they developed a graphic differentiation for the two sounds. The soft sound remained the ‘C,’ while a barb was added to the bottom terminal to indicate the hard ‘G’ sound.
Thus, the gimel evolved into both the ‘C’ and ‘G.’ The ‘C’ is not only the third letter of our alphabet, but it is also the first letter to share the same design for both capital and lowercase.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.