The sounds of Q
The letter Q, which by itself has the sound of K or a hard C, is in English almost never found by itself, but rather as the digraph, QU. It may be better to think of it as a short K sound followed by a diphthong: UA, UE, UI, or UO.
Occasionally, a word with QU is pronounced as a K, without a following diphthong.
quay (pronounced “kee” and formerly spelt kay or key. These older spellings are still used in some instances, e.g., the Florida Keys.)
When you understand the origins of letters, you understand English spelling.
Historically, the letter Q came by way of the Phoenicians (they had two K sounds, one a guttural Qof that does not exist in English). The Greeks took it over as qoppa or koppa, but dropped it, as their language did not use that sound. The Etruscans had three K sounds, gamma, kappa, and koppa, this last letter always used before u or o.
The Romans took their alphabet from the Etruscans, but Latin had only one K sound. They dropped kappa and finally used gamma as the letter C and koppa as the letter Q.
Latin needed a representative for the sound “kw” common to the language. The Romans used the letter Q followed by a V (as the letter U hadn’t been invented as yet).
In Old English, the “kw” sound was represented by CW. In their alphabet, “queen” would have been spelled, “cwen”.
The French continued with the Latin QV. When the Normans conquered England, French spelling came to be preferred. CW became QV, and then QU when the letter U was introduced as a vowel. The Norman influence complicated English spelling. Most words containing QU are derived from French and Latin.
The English language didn’t really need QU, as the old CW would have done.
queen (from Old English cwen)
quench (in Anglo-Saxon, cwencan)
bequeath (in Anglo-Saxon, bicweoan)
Where QU is pronounced as K, a simple K or C would have sufficed. The following words are derived from French. You may see them spelled with a K on signs or in social media.
English imports words from other languages, including Arabic. These words may be transcribed from the Arabic alphabet in different ways. The guttural K sound (the Arabic letter qaf) is sometimes transcribed as a lonely Q without a U and is still understandable in English. In the following list, the second instance is the preferred spelling.
burqa or burka or burkha
faqir or fakir
qabab or kebab or kabob
qat or khat or gat
Similarly, some Chinese words have been transcribed into English in different ways.
qi or chi or ki
qigong or chi gong or ki gong
Special reading assignment
- Queen Anne’s Lace: a common roadside weed or a beautiful wild flower?