What’s the Matter with Q?


Last week, a friend asked me why the letter “Q” is so rare in English. For proof, just look at Scrabble. There’s only a single Q tile in the set, and while it’s worth 10 points you’ll have a hard time playing it! (Pro tip: If you don’t have a “U”, “qi” and “qat” will work!)

But Scrabble just shows us that “Q” is unusual — not how or why it’s rare. And to really understand that, we have to go back thousands of years.

English is the language of the Anglo-Saxons, a tribe who lived in Britain from 400 AD onward. Their language (now called “Old English”) was part of the Germanic group. It shares a common ancestor with German and Dutch, just as French and Spanish are both descended from Latin.

The Anglo-Saxons did have a “kw” sound… they just didn’t use “Q” to write it. Instead, they used “cw”, so words like “queen” and “quick” were written “cwēn” and “cwic”. All this changed in 1066 AD, when the Normans invaded England.

The Normans were French, and they immediately began influencing the English language. They introduced new vocabulary, based on French, that became standard in the upper classes. This is why English has so many “formal” words with Latin roots! For example, your belly (Germanic) is your abdomen (Latinate) and inquire (Latinate) is a fancy version of ask (Germanic).

One of my favorite examples is farm versus food animals. Have you ever noticed that we call a living cow, well, “cow”, but a steak is “beef”? This trend started at Norman feasts, where the new rulers used their Old French names for food. Eventually, words like pork and beef were adopted by wealthy Anglo-Saxons. Meanwhile, farmers kept the Old English words. (They weren’t invited to the parties.) So, on the farm, a “cow” stayed a “cow”.

The Normans also overhauled English spellings, which is where the “Q” comes in. The Anglo-Saxons, remember, were using “cw”. The Normans replaced this with the French “qu”, so “cwēn” and “cwic” became “quēn” and “quic”. Those two words stuck around for modern English, but many others disappeared completely. They were replaced by Old French words with similar meanings.

The Norman Invasion caused so many changes that it’s now the dividing line between Old and Middle English. See for yourself with these versions of the Lord’s Prayer:

From https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/OE_vs_ME.pdf
From https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/OE_vs_ME.pdf

Whether you’re curious or you’re planning ahead for your next Scrabble game, you can read more about the origins of “Q” here:

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