In most (or many) words that start with the letters "que", there's generally a Kw sound, such as in "question", "queen" or "quest". However, with the word "queue", it's more of a "Ky" sound. Is there any reason for this exception, or is it arbitrary? Are there any other words that also have this "ky" sound, while starting with "que"?

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    All these words have been spelt in various ways over the centuries. In Old English, queen, for example, was written cwen. To answer your question fully would it would be necessary to give a detailed history of the spelling and pronunciation of each word. – Barrie England Dec 9 '12 at 15:16

Many borrowings from French often have "qu" denoting /k/ rather than /kw/: quiche, maquette, then ending -esque. However it is true that older borrowings usually have /kw/.

I believe that what is going on here is that the vowel is a rising diphthong /ju/ (like you), and the sequence /kwju/ (qu-you) was unstable nd became reduced. But I have not looked for firm evidence of this.

  • Just to clarify, are the borrowings from French what "queue" probably was, or just an example of an exception? – Reliable Source Dec 9 '12 at 23:38
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    @ReliableSource I am by no means certain there was ever a diphthong there. English queue /kju:/ < French queue /kø/ < Old French coue, cue, coe < Latin cauda tail, as in caudal. I don’t know the history or the borrowing, nor do I know anything about the historical French phonology, but it may not have come to us a diphthong. – tchrist Dec 10 '12 at 3:11
  • Sorry I wasn't clear. Yes, it is a borrowing from French, but an old one (Middle English). Words borrowed at that era usually have /kw/ in English (eg quality), unlike the recent borrowings I mentioned. As far as I know the diphthongisation of /u/ -> /ju/ is entirely within English, and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. My suggestion is that at the time when that change happened, the word (previously /kwu/) lost the labial element /w/. – Colin Fine Dec 10 '12 at 18:20

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