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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?

2 Answers 2

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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, 2011 at 14:35
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    @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. Feb 12, 2011 at 16:00
  • a very articulate reply! Thank you for answering my question and clearing the doubt!
    – Logophile
    Feb 12, 2011 at 16:56
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    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, 2011 at 1:25
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    @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). Aug 10, 2015 at 7:07
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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". May 11, 2011 at 22:23
  • @TimLymington: what does it have to do with pronunciation? Aren't both "cw" and "qu" pronounced /kw/ in this context?
    – herisson
    Aug 11, 2015 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. Aug 11, 2015 at 19:42
  • @TimLymington: OK, I asked about it there. linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/13276/…
    – herisson
    Sep 2, 2015 at 4:53

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