Q is for…

Last time ABC Wednesday was on the letter Q, someone asked, “Why does U usually follow Q in English-language words?” And the answer was simple to find, but mighty difficult to explain.

As is noted here, it’s because modern English evolved from the Phoenicians to the Greeks to the Etruscans to the Romans.

Like the Greeks, Latin had only the one k sound. As a result, over time kappa was dropped, koppa evolved into q, and gamma into c (these changes explain why Greek words spelled with k have their Latin equivalents spelled with c). The Romans used q only before u, though the combination was actually written as qv, since v was a vowel in classical Latin, to represent the kw sound that was so common in the language.

If we move on about a thousand years, we find that Old English had the same sound, but represented it by cw, since q had been left out of their version of the alphabet (so queen in Old English was spelled cwen, for example). French, however, continued the Latin qv, though by now written as qu. After the Norman Conquest, French spelling gradually took over in England, eventually replacing the Old English cw by Latinate qu, though this change took about 300 years to complete.

In other words, it’s because English is an evolving, bastardized language. Or, blame the French.

I like the answer here as well: “As for why q is always written with a u in Latin itself… The ‘u’ part is actually the easiest to understand, as its pronunciation approximates the glide sound that ‘w’ represents in the ‘kw’ cluster. What’s harder to understand is why Latin chose to have 2 separate symbols for the ‘k’ sound (the other is c; they never used ‘k’). It’s also amusing that English adopted all 3 symbols (q, c, and k). One of those accidents of history, I guess.”

Helping the Daughter with her spelling reminded me that, linguistically, the letter C has no function that isn’t being rendered by the K or the S.

In other words, expecting rationality in the development of the English language is…totally irrational!

There is even debate as to whether, typographically, there should be a qu glyph – i.e., the letters joined as if they were one. I’ve sometimes seen them written as though aligned.

Here’s a video that will enlighten the issue not at all.

ABC Wednesday – Round 9

0 thoughts on “Q is for…”

  1. An interesting post Roger, reminding us that the alphabet isn’t fixed and that letters and symbols have been added or removed for various reasons.

    I’m not sure what you mean about the letter C though, unless you think there should also be a ch glyph.


    1. SP- I mean that C, sonically, serves no purpose. It either has a K sound (cat) or an S sound (circle). It’s redundant. I’m not suggesting getting rid of it, though.


  2. I’m trying to think of a word with just q in German, but so far I cannot come up with one. And the c has to pair up with an h to get a unique sound here (but then it’s a great sound).


  3. Whew thank you Roger. I find it fascinating how our language really isn’t ours but a conglomeration of many others.
    I guess its only fitting since America is a conglomeration too.


  4. When teaching French, I’d always tell the kids that English is the “weird” language because we have no gender in nouns and spelling can be QUITE ridiculous! lol Have a great week, Roger.

    abcw team


  5. Hi Roger! this is very interesting. We had the same problem in Dutch. We changed many words by replacing “qu” for “kw”.Quart= kwart( quarter), qualiteit=kwaliteit(quality), quantiteit=kwantiteit( quantity).

    Roger you were the best to solve the quiz for you did it by heart. My goal is that people try to be more interested in the world of bloggers and at least know that our country is small with an enormous population in such a small country. I once met an American who was amazed that our country is a kingdom. He asked:”Do you have a king?” How many people know that we have had three queens since 1880?


  6. Always something interesting and fun in your posts, Roger.
    My youngest brother spoke English as his first language but, when our Canadian-born but somewhat eccentric father retired, he and Mom and took Rob to Mexico, where he became Roberto and started school in Spanish. It took him until high school to figure out English spelling, after a great deal of grumbling about it not making any sense to him at all. Finally I told him he’d just have to memorize it and accept it.
    I watched the video you posted, and laughed at the comments below it. “Who is this guy? He looks like some kind of German soldier” along with “Back in the day, they didn’t have to be politically correct”! LOL

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel


  7. Hmmm I learned a lot today. So I guess what I heard in my family that when my grandfather came to here in the US, they like to change the first letter of his family name from W to O because they have a hard time pronouncing it. What ever the case it might be true ^_^ Thanks for this post and the visit!



  8. Quelle surprise, it was the French all along. Fascinating to see the development. My fall back word in scrabble when the U is illusive is qi.


  9. Fascinating, Roger. English is an ever-evolving language! Can’t imagine how many new words have been included in the English Dictionary in the last 10 years! I have to go back and read your post again to let it all sink in. Thanks for your comment on my blog. You may not realize it, but I absolutely anguish over those kind of posts. Want to say something, but don’t want to offend. 🙂


    1. It’s USUALLY followed by a U, not always.
      qanat underground tunnel for carrying irrigation water
      qasida Arabic or Persian elegiac poem
      qat leaves chewed or brewed in tea as a stimulant
      qigong system of Chinese meditational exercises
      qintar Albanian unit of currency
      qiviut wool of the undercoat of a musk-ox
      qoph a Hebrew letter


  10. Oh yes, the more we understand that English is a mongrel language, as the English are a mongrel nation,the greater the hope that we shall learn to live together with other nations . . . or is that too simplistic??


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s