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Is there a particular rule that states that q should always be followed by a u? Because in certain cases like Qatar, or qawwali, this so-called rule is violated.

What do you folks say?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 55 down vote accepted

There is no rule that q must be followed by u in all circumstances. This is merely true in the vast majority of circumstances, and it goes back to Latin.

The early Latins had three different letters for the [k] sound: C K Q. However, they only had one letter to represent the [u] and [w] (or [v]) sounds: V. It became customary to write the sequence [kw] (which is fairly common in Latin) as QV and all other instances of [k] as C. (K dropped out of use in most words.) This usage survived into most other European languages that were written with the Latin alphabet, though eventually the letter V was differentiated into U and V, and the accepted spelling of [kw] became QU.

Words spelled with Q without U are generally more recent additions to English, and often represent words borrowed from Semitic languages. Those languages are written with non-Latin alphabets and often have more than one [k]-like sound. When transliterating these scripts, K is usually used for [k], and Q for another sound such as [q], a uvular, "guttural k". In romanizations of Chinese Q is also used for a sound similar to the English "ch".

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Good answer, except I wouldn't say [q] is "[k]-like"; [q] is a [k]-like sound only to the extent that [k] is a [t]-like sound. – Kosmonaut Feb 12 '11 at 14:35
@Kosmonaut, that's true from an articulatory standpoint, of course. But most English speakers perceive [q] as a kind of throaty [k], so it's [k]-like in that sense. – JSBձոգչ Feb 12 '11 at 16:00
a very articulate reply! Thank you for answering my question and clearing the doubt! – Logophile Feb 12 '11 at 16:56
I just think it is misleading, as there do exist variations on the English /k/ sound that we don't have in English, so I would personally reserve the description "[k]-like" for those sounds. But I get your point. – Kosmonaut Feb 14 '11 at 1:25
@janaspage Early Latin quite consistently used <k> before /a/, <c> before front vowels (/i e/), and <q> before back vowels <o u>. There was probably a difference in pronunciation between the first two, and the latter was a practice taken over from Etruscan and some western Greek dialects (who used the otherwise defunct Greek letter qoppa in the same way). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 10 at 7:07

In English, there are no rules about when the q must be followed from a u.

English words use qu when it was present in the original word.

English Word | Original word | Language
quandary     | quando        | Latin
quantify     | quantificare  | Medieval Latin
quantum      | quantus       | Latin
quark        | quark         | German
quarry       | quarreria     | Medieval Latin
quest        | queste        | Old French
question     | question      | Old French
query        | quaerere      | Latin
quetzal      | quetzalli     | Aztec

Other times, English words use qu instead of cw, ku of the original word.

English Word | Original word | Language
quean        | cwene         | Old English
quell        | cwellan       | Old English
queen        | cwēn          | Old English 
quench       | -cwencan      | Old English
quern        | cweorn(e)     | Old English
quiche       | Küchen        | Alsatian dialect
quick        | cwic, cwicu   | Old English
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You should really explain that the second group are almost entirely due to the Normans being unable to pronounce the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon "cw" and so substituting the nearest Latin equivalent, "qu". – TimLymington May 11 '11 at 22:23
@TimLymington: what does it have to do with pronunciation? Aren't both "cw" and "qu" pronounced /kw/ in this context? – sumelic Aug 11 at 17:54
@sumelic: No, "qu" was not pronounced exactly as /kw/ by the Normans, any more than it is so by modern Frenchmen: English took several hundred years to smooth the two together. There is an interesting question about exactly which phonemes the Normans distinguished that the Saxons did not and vice versa: but it would have to be on LInguistics.SE. – TimLymington Aug 11 at 19:42
@TimLymington: OK, I asked about it there.… – sumelic Sep 2 at 4:53

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