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I think this question may involve more than Spanish, and may include Romance languages or even Latin.

I wonder why, when, and how did vowels E and I get special treatment from consonants like C, G, Q ?

For special treatment I mean specifically that this vowels change the preceding consonants pronunciation, and taking into account that the Roman alphabet comes from the Greek alphabet which in turn comes from the Phoenician alphabet and in these alphabets, as far as I know, this doesn't happen, at least not in the same conditions.

Note: I'm talking about pronunciation, maybe the fact that I included the Q makes it look that I'm confusing pronunciation with spelling, but I just included the Q because it's the way in Spanish to make the /k/ sound which the C can't make before E and I.

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Don't confuse spelling and pronunciation. The Latin alphabet has been adapted to many more languages with differing spelling conventions than any other alphabet (though Cyrillic and Arabic are also widely adapted writing systems). Still the answer could involve both pronunciation and spelling since Spanish evolved directly from a language which used the same writing system. –  hippietrail Feb 18 '12 at 17:35
    
Yes, I'm not confusing them, I'm talking about pronunciation, like I wrote in the question. –  Petruza Feb 19 '12 at 0:09
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I do not Understand, if you're Talking About pronunciation or orthography. Since propunciacion, is a bit different to spelling. That an example, Que, Quien, Guerra, Cigarra. But there is a rule for the orthography. –  AlejoNext Feb 19 '12 at 1:01
    
Well "c" and "q" are not sounds (pronunciation) but letters (spelling / orthography). "c" is a letter that can represent the sounds /k/, /s/, or /θ/; while "q" is a letter that cannot stand alone but only part of the digraph "qu" where it also represents the sound /k/. Which letter to use for which sound depends on the rules of orthography (spelling). –  hippietrail Feb 19 '12 at 11:13
    
I'm talking about pronunciation, maybe the fact that I included the Q makes it look that I'm confusing pronunciation with spelling, but I just included the Q because it's the way in Spanish to make the /k/ sound which the C can't make before E and I. –  Petruza Feb 19 '12 at 15:56
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You are right. This phenomenon goes all the way back to Vulgar Latin and applies to other Romance languages, as well.

First of all, a little phonetics background: the vowels /e/ and /i/ are what phoneticians call front vowels, because they are articulated in the frontal part of the mouth, unlike, for example, /a/, /o/ and /u/, which are articulated more to the back, closer to the throat. Actually, /a/ is a front vowel, but articulated at a lower part of the mouth. And the consonants /k/ and /g/ are velar consonants, that is, they are articulated with the back of the tongue against the back part of the roof of the mouth (velum).

Now, take the Latin word CIRCA (/kirka/), for example. To pronounce this word, the speaker has, first, to articulate a consonant at the back of the mouth (the velar /k/) followed by a vowel at the front (the close front vowel /i/). In cases like this, it is very common the occurrence of a phonological phenomenon called palatalization, which played a key role in the development of the Romance languages. Palatalization involves displacing the point of articulation to an area closer to the hard palate (the middle part of the roof of the mouth).

In this specific example, the consonant /k/ became an affricate: /tsirca/. Later on, the affricate /ts/ lost is occlusive articulation (the /t/ part) and became /sirca/ (modern Spanish "cerca"). A similar thing happened to /g/ before /e/ and /i/ (e.g. Latin /gens/ > Spanish /xente/). In the case of /a/, /o/ and /u/, due to their being back and/or lower, they did not cause palatalization. So, for example, Latin CASUS became Spanish "caso" (and not */tsaso/ or something like that).

But note that, although these sounds underwent a series of important changes, their spelling was kept similar to the original Latin spelling, for some reason. In order to avoid ambiguity, a special spelling convention was then adopted to represent the sequences of sounds /ke/ and /ki/: "que" and "qui", respectively.

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According to the wikipedia article, the C (and G) pronunciation diverged because of phonological reasons, it seems that quite early, and in common (at least in a first phase) with other romance languages (french, italian). See also the (in english, more general) wikipedia articles: C and G

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