A nice summary of the history of the letter Q:

During the Old English period, we didn’t use Q in English: we wrote, for example, CWICU for ‘quick’ and CWEN for ‘queen’ (Old English, like Latin, preferred C for the /k/-sound instead of K). But then the French-speaking Normans conquered England, interrupting the English literary tradition, and, when English once again began to be written after the Conquest, a number of French spelling conventions were introduced, including the business of always writing Q for the /k/-sound when the next letter was U. And we’re still stuck with it.

(Via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.)


  1. Ken Hirsch says

    I’ve been meaning to ask–Languagehat seems to be a good place–if there is any alphabetic language harder to spell than English? Here’s a list of most-spoken languages, excluding ones written with Chinese characters: Spanish, English, Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, German, Malay, Korean, French, Turkish, Vietnamese, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Italian, Urdu, Gujerati, Polish, Ukrainian, Farsi, Malayalam. I know some of these are easier than English, but are any of them worse?

    I’ve been thinking about how English is now the de facto international language and how unfortunate it is that the orthography and pronunciation are so irregular.

  2. French is about as bad, IMHO. If Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu haven’t modernized, I bet they’re as bad. For a long time they didn’t write the vowels.
    Old French was very inconsistent in spelling. I know that not all forms used the QU form. It was not a standardized language, with at least three major dialects (Norman, Picard, and Francien). There were also more surviving Frankish (Germanic) forms than modern French. I would also see forms that resembled modern Spanish. reading it is really a fascinating slice of history.
    One form I remember is forke or fourke where MF has fourche — “forked”. (Two acute accents, please!).
    “Francien” — sounds like a Bushism, but it’s not.

  3. Farsi and Urdu are pretty bad, but it’s not because of vowels (which still aren’t written, the short ones anyway) but because of the many Arabic consonants that aren’t distinguished in those languages but that must be memorized anyway for the many loanwords. (If you already know Arabic, of course, it’s not a problem.) Urdu also uses a handwriting-derived writing system that I personally find very hard to read, but that’s not, strictly speaking, on topic—I just thought I’d take the opportunity to complain.

  4. It certainly narks me that so much of my daughter’s primary school education is devoted to spelling. Last night I had to try and explain “choir”. I invite anyone to try and come up with rules that might help a child with that. Or “yacht”.
    My OED says that we have “choir” from Latin “chorus” via OF “quer”, so I’m thinking some busybody reverted to “ch” in English for etymological reasons.

  5. French is not too hard to read – except for the question of whether final consonants are to be pronounced, you generally know how to pronounce something given the spelling. French is, however, difficult to write, in that there are likely to be several ways to write the same word.
    Of the languages I know written in non-logographic writing systems, English has by far the most difficult spelling. It really is ironic that a language with such a brain-damaged spelling system has become the international language.

  6. Bill,
    What is a logographic or non-logographic writing system?

  7. Steven, it “narks” you? I’m off to look that one up!
    I used to be rather indifferent to English, but now I really, really love the way it looks and feels on the page. It’s like the “everything language”, with more exceptions than rules.
    It’s good to have this as the international language, because otherwise we would have something simpler, which is *not* a good thing.
    I’m serious.

  8. I quite agree with you. Simplicity is boring. Complexity and unpredictability are good. They wake your brain up!

  9. I think Tibetan (which is alphabetic) has the worst — by which I mean complex and difficult to systematize — spelling I’ve encountered. Definitely worse than English. A similar history, in some ways — it’s been written language for well over a thousand years, and the spoken language has moved out from under its representation. And then it has an inferiority complex about Sanskrit, in the same way that English has an inferiority complex about Latin and Greek, so it’s imported spellings that don’t make any sense in its own writing system (because they’re impressive and “classical.”)
    The irritating thing is that the alphabet itself is probably the most “user-friendly” I’ve ever seen, a lovely, elegant, & rational system for representing phonemes.

  10. Well, if unpredictability is good, let’s make Chinese the world language.
    In a thread about language teaching awhile back I posted the idea (new to me) that even people who try to teach reading “phonetically” (with two-letter and three-letter combos, plus exceptions) have to use the whole-word method when taching writing. I admit I cheated by using “Worcester” as part of my argument. That’s overkill, like Featherstonehaugh.

  11. I’m told modern Greek was worse, but they had a spelling reform in 1985. Is there any truth to the story that ghs in English spelling are attributable to Dutch typesetters working the early printing presses?
    As Dale indicated, I guess this is the price we pay for centuries of literacy.

  12. The British cheap’n’cheerful supermarket Kwik Save has been fighting to reclaim our Anglo-Saxon heritage for years now (slogan: “Beating Norman French with our low, low prices!”).
    Heavy metal spelling is also an interesting subgenre. Imagine learning English from a Motley Crue (add umlaut) lyric sheet. It totally roxx!

  13. Most of the SE Asian Indic-derived “syllabic alphabets” (Mon, Burmese, Khmer, Thai, Lao) date from 500-1000 years ago and often reflect pronunciations from that far back. Not as bad as Tibetan, but the same kinds of problems.
    Any longtime writing system is going to carry a lot of historical baggage. English and French have a lot of competition in that regard.
    I still think Japanese is the least efficient, hardest-to-learn writing system on earth, especially the inconsistent ways Chinese characters are pronounced. But the Korean alphabet is really quite wonderful!

  14. The only competition for Japanese in that particular arena is Hittite, where any given cuneiform symbol might be read as Sumerian, Akkadian, or a native Hittite word; furthermore, the writing system is supremely ill-adapted to the Hittite language, so they had to make constant adjustments as they went along.

  15. If you haven’t yet seen the movie Spellbound you should rent it!

  16. Michael Farris says

    My nomination for least efficient hardest to learn (though non-alphabetic) would have ben Vietnamese Nom. All the fun of Chinese characters plus a whole lot more (special characters created for Vietnamese words), and it wasn’t very standardized so you never knew for sure if a particular Chinese character was being used for Sino-Vietnamese loanwoard or because some pronunciation of it was close to a vietnamese word (with a different meaning) or because its meaning was close to a Vietnamese word (though pronounced differently). I’m not sure what they did with the hundreds of of extra syllables needed for elaborate expressions like vui ve (where ve has no meaning by itself and only appears with vui in this combination).
    Little wonder they junked it for Quoc ngu.
    Thai spelling of Thai words makes a lot of sense (there are a lot of rules to learn but they’re learnable), but the relationship between the spelling and pronunciation of Indian words is fitful and eccentric.

  17. It’s a darn shame, because I’ve heard that some of those Hittite novels are really powerful.

  18. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scribe is particularly good. (Of course, the translation is via French, Arabic, and Aramaic, so who knows how much comes through?)

  19. Anders Ringström says

    Of languages using a character set comparable to an alphabet, I think Tibetan takes the price. The holy man, the lama, is written blama, the animal yak is gyag, to mention only two extremely easy cases. The Bodhisattva Chenrezig is sPyan-rasgzigs, and I do not doubt that there are “worse” cases.

  20. Isn’t Irish as written a mess, too?

  21. Boy, is it ever.

  22. Michael Farris says

    “Isn’t Irish as written a mess, too?”
    “Boy, is it ever.”
    Or, as that would be written in Irish.
    “Mheodhigh, oius uiot aobhaeidheaor.”

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