September 15, 2015 by ethelfritha
Do you know why English always has a “U” after “Q”? Well, I do, and I’ll tell you. Once upon a time, the sounds “U,” “V,” and “W” were all represented by “V.” The writer left it up to the reader to figure out which sound was meant based on context. The Roman alphabet did not contain a “K,” and instead used either a “C” (which was always hard in classical Latin) or a “Q,” followed by a “U” to indicate the “W” sound. Following me so far? Well, fast forward a couple thousand years and lo and behold, the English alphabet has not only retained the relatively useless letter “Q” but also stubbornly kept pretending that “U” is still necessary to represent the “W” sound in this–but in no other–instance. Hooray! No wonder I hated phonics in school.
Language Visible is the armchair scholar’s dream–discrete, interesting packets of information parceled out in manageable sections. However, I quibble with the title’s assessment of the alphabet as “mysterious.” Having read the histories of all 26 letters, I conclude that the English alphabet is less “mysterious” and more “a haphazard jumble of phonemes pieced together from various sources that just sort of…happened.” Which, when you think about it, is a more or less accurate description of English itself.