Why Does Q (Almost) Always Go With a U?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Leaving aside for now the few foreign loanwords (e.g., Qatar, Iraq) where Q shows up without a U, an English Q is the only letter that can't go anywhere without a partner. Why does a Q always need a U? We can blame it on a whole bunch of our alphabetic ancestors.

Because of the French

Before the Norman invasion of 1066, English didn't even have a Q. Words like queen and quick were spelled cwen and cwic. Not only did the Normans inject a whole bunch of French vocabulary into English, they changed the spelling of English words according to their French ways. French represented the 'kw' sound with QU spelling. To make things more complicated, French people stopped pronouncing the w part, but their spelling never caught up with that change, so words that English borrowed much later, like mystique and quiche, have a 'k' pronunciation instead of 'kw.'

Because of the Romans

So why did the French use QU for 'kw' sounds? Because Latin did. For the 'k' sound, Latin used a Q when it came before a 'w' sound, and a C everywhere else.

Because of the Etruscans

Why did Latin use two different symbols for a 'k' sound? The Romans got their writing system from the Etruscans, who had three different symbols for the 'k' sound: it was gamma (the ancestor of both C and G) before e or i, kappa (ancestor of K) before a, and koppa (ancestor of Q) before u or o.

Because of the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians originated the gamma, kappa, and koppa, but for them, the symbols represented different sounds. The ancestor of Q, koppa, was for a consonant made way in the back of the throat, with the back of the tongue touching the uvula. English doesn't have anything like this sound, but Arabic does, and in borrowings from Arabic (e.g., Qatar, Iraq), English represents it, appropriately, with a Q.

The road from uvular Q to quaint, quirky QU isn't as haphazard as it might seem. The 'u' vowel is produced with the tongue further back in the mouth, so 'k' is slightly further back when it comes before 'u' (compare "key" with "kook"). Q went from standing for a way-back-of-the-throat consonant to a slightly-back-of-the-throat consonant. From there, its pronunciation fate changed from era to era and language to language, but its partnership with U remained strong through the centuries, giving us a tiny window back to the origins of our writing system.

Learn Python From Home for Just $50

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels.com

It's difficult to think of a hobby or job that doesn’t involve some element of coding in its execution. Are you an Instagram enthusiast? Coding and algorithms are what bring your friends' posts to your feed. Can’t get enough Mental Floss? Coding brings the entire site to life on your desktop and mobile screens. Even sorting through playlists on Spotify uses coding. If you're tired of playing catch-up with all the latest coding techniques and principles, the 2020 Python Programming Certification Bundle is on sale for $49.99 to teach you to code, challenge your brain, and boost your resume to get your dream job.

Basically, coding is how people speak to computers (cue your sci-fi vision of a chat with a creepy, sentient computer), and while it does sound a bit futuristic, the truth is that people are talking to computers every day through a program called Python. The 2020 Python Programming Training Certification Bundle will teach you how to build web applications, database applications, and web visualizations in the world’s most popular programming language.

Python is also the language computers are using to communicate back to programmers. You’ll learn how Jupyter Notebook, NumPy, and pandas can enhance data analysis and data visualization techniques with Matplotlib.

Think back to your creepy, sci-fi visual from earlier; was it some form of artificial intelligence? Contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, artificial intelligence is something you can learn to create yourself. In the Keras Bootcamp, you’ll learn how to create artificial neural networks and deep-learning structures with Google’s powerful Deep Learning framework.

Coding is associated with endless text, numbers, and symbols, but the work code is performing is hardly limited to copy. Dig deep into image processing and computer vision tasks with sessions in OpenCV. You’ll give yourself an extra edge when you can use Python for sifting through information and implement machine learning algorithms on image classification.

Explore coding education with the bundle’s 12 courses, spanning from beginner to advanced levels, to elevate your skillset from home. The 2020 Python Programming Certification Bundle is on sale for $49.99.

 

The Complete 2020 Python Programming Certification Bundle - $49.99

See Deal



At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Why Did Noon Used to Mean 3 p.m.?

3 p.m. is basically noon for people who wake up at 12 p.m.
3 p.m. is basically noon for people who wake up at 12 p.m.
Mckyartstudio/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a late sleeper, you might find yourself thinking 12 p.m. seems way too early to be considered midday, and the word noon would much better describe, say, 3 p.m. It turns out that ancient Romans would have agreed with you, if only for etymological reasons.

As Reader’s Digest explains, the days in ancient Rome were split into four periods of three hours each. The first hour was at sunrise around 6 a.m.—called prime, for first—followed by 9 a.m. (terce, denoting the third hour), 12 p.m. (sext, for sixth), and 3 p.m. (none, for ninth).

According to Merriam-Webster, Middle and Old English borrowed the time-keeping tradition, along with the Latin word for ninth, which was changed to nōn and eventually noon. Though we’re not sure exactly when or why noon started referring to 12 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., it could have something to do with Christian prayer traditions. In the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion is said to have taken place at the ninth hour, and that’s when worshippers partook in their second of three daily prayers; the others were in the morning and evening. It’s possible that hungry monks were behind noon’s gradual shift from 3 p.m. to 12 p.m.—since their daily fast didn’t end until after the midday prayer, they had a built-in motive for moving it earlier.

While we didn’t exactly stay true to the original Latin meaning of noon, there’s another important remnant of ancient Rome hiding in the way we tell time today. Romans referred to 12 p.m. as meridiem, for midday, and so do we. A.M. is an abbreviation for ante meridiem, or before midday, and P.M. means post meridiem, or after midday.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.