Curious Q

Published 18th May 2015
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The Phoenician letter Qoph

Q: What is the point of the letter Q? No, really, I mean it. If it came to signify the ‘kwuh’ sound on its own, it might merit inclusion in our alphabet. Until that day, why don’t we just use ‘kw’ or ‘cw’ to make the ‘kwuh’ sound? It seemed to work well enough in Old English, until the Norman Conquest in 1066. At present, the letter Q does not add a sound to our language which we cannot already create with other letters. In fact, the letter Q is increasingly being used as just a more ‘exotic’ version of the letter K. For example, if the words ‘Qatar’, ‘Qaeda’, and ‘Qin’ were spelled with a K, they would be pronounced in exactly the same way.

I’m not the only one that questions the usefulness of the letter Q. Several linguists have denounced it as redundant, such as Quintilian in around A.D. 90 (and he even has one in his name), and the playwright and scholar Ben Jonson.

In its first form, the Phoenician Qoph was actually pronounced slightly differently from their K letter, Kaph. Over time, Q has become a bit of a third wheel, and comes last in the ‘kuh’ letter race (C is most commonly used, then K, in case you were wondering). It is one of the least frequently used letters in the English language, which is why you get so many points (10, the joint-highest score, shared only by Z) if you manage to use it in Scrabble.

And finally, just one more Q

Have you ever noticed how far away Q is from U on a QWERTY keyboard, even though you rarely use the former without the latter? Well, this is because the QWERTY keyboard was actually designed to slow down typists. No, that’s not a typo: slow! This is because the first typewriters were not able to deal with the speed of a particularly skilled typist, and would jam if the keys were struck too closely together. Though modern computers don’t have this problem, we have become so accustomed to the QWERTY set-up that an alternative would be unlikely to catch on. Several have been released, but personally I don’t know anyone that uses anything other than QWERTY.

What are your thoughts on Q?

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