Writing the ‘sound’ /k/ in English

Before I begin, I would like to explain certain concepts to make it easier to read the post. I use the forward slashes // to enclose pronunciation, while the angle brackets <> enclose spelling. The term ‘graphemes’ means a spelling units. Graphemes represent distinct pronunciations. I enclose graphemes in angle brackets: <ck>, <c>, <k>, <qu>. It is important for children to understand the difference between letters and graphemes. A letter may be a grapheme by itself or combine with another letter or letters to form other graphemes. For example, <c>, <s>, <k>, <h> are graphemes which represent various pronunciations; however, they also combine to produce various graphemes such as <ch>, <sh>, <ck> which represent pronunciations which are distinct from the component letters. When children understand the use of graphemes, it stops them from trying to pronounce or spell words using letter by letter processing which creates problems for them sometimes.

In this post, I discuss the phoneme /k/ and its spelling units. Why do so many other letters or graphemes, beside <k>, represent the same phoneme /k/?  To restate the popular question: “Why do we need <c>, <q>, and <x> if there is a <k>?” 

I recently listened to someone discussing the English spelling system in a podcast.  It didn’t take long before he said something along the lines of “Several letters of the English alphabet are redundant. For instance, the letters <c>, <k>, <q>, and <x> all represent the /k/ sound. Why do we need the letter <c> anyway? The letters <s> and <k> represent the same sounds that <c> represents: /s/ and /k/. Why, do we need <x>, when there are <k> and <s> in the alphabet already? Do we really need a <q> when there is a /k/? Well, nobody said English spelling was supposed to be easy.”

Such comments are commonplace.  I cannot count the number of times that I have heard comments like that.  I cannot deny the fact that English orthography (spelling system) is complex.  However, the grapheme-phoneme correspondences which form the basis of reading and spelling provide us with more information than is often assumed at first glance.

Let us start by taking a look at the letter <c>. <C> used to be the default grapheme (spelling) for the phoneme (sound) /k/ no matter where it occurred.   <C> represented /k/ in all circumstances.  However, the arrival of the French scribes in England changed that.  They imported words which had <c> corresponding to other phonemes (sounds).  For example, whenever <c> was followed by <e>, <i>, or <y>, <c> was pronounced as /s/ as in <cell> –> /sɛl/.    When words with this pronunciation pattern were brought into English, the rule entered as well.  So, we have words like <circle, circus, cereal, cycle, cell> where <c> corresponds to /s/.  Notice that in <circle>, <circus>, and <cycle> the two <c>’s represent two different pronunciations: /s/ and /k/ based on the letter that follows the <c>.

Currently, English has this pattern:  <c> followed by <a>, <o>, or<u> consistently corresponds to /k/<e.g., car, catch, comb, coach, cut>  and <c> followed by any of the letters <i>, <e>, or <y> is pronounced as /s/.  Because of this, the grapheme <k> is used instead to represent /k/ before <e>, <i>, or <y>: <kiss, kitchen, kernel, keep, skirt, sky>. This gives the following graphemic choices: <c> is always followed by <a>, <o>, or <u> when it represents /k/; and <k> is used before <e>, <i>, or <y> to represent /k/.

The next questions is: If we have <c> and <k>, why do we need <q>?  The answer again is: we use <q> because of the French scribal influence on English spelling.  Before the French arrived, words like <queen> and <quick> were written with <cw> to represent /kw/. <queen> was spelled as either <cwene> or <cween>, and <quick> as <cwic>.  The French scribes imported French and Latin words in which the phonemic sequence /kw/ was spelled as <qu> such as <quit, question, request, quiet>.   As a result, they respelled all <cw> as <qu>.  So, now in English /kw/ is always written as <qu> as in <quit, queen, quick, quote, question>.

<Qu> also represents only /k/ in recently borrowed French words such as <antique>, <critique>, <boutique>, and <queue> where the /w/ was lost in French.  Therefore, <qu> represents two different pronunciations: the cluster /kw/ and the single phoneme /k/, with <qu> for /k/ signalling recent French borrowing.

So far so good, but what is the deal with <x>? The grapheme <x> represents the phonemic (sound) sequence /ks/ in morpheme or word final position.  When a word or morpheme has a final phonemic cluster /ks/ and the word is not plural, <x> is used: <e.g., mix, fox, fix>. This gives a visual information about the grammatical differences between words like <socks> (which is the plural of <sock>) and <fox> (which is singular) which have similar pronunciations, apart from their initial phonemes.   It should be noted that <x> is never used in initial position to represent /k/ or /ks/.

Our next step is to take a look at the grapheme <ck>. Why not use either <c> or <k>: why combine both? <Ck>always represents /k/ in word or morpheme final position. It follows single vowel graphemes and indicates that the vowel is pronounced ‘short’ as in <chick, sock, pack, snack, deck, luck, chicken>. In this final position, <k> would have been the normal choice to represent /k/. However, English spelling has this quirky rule of never doubling the letter <k>: *<kk>. <ck> was devised in Middle English as a way of avoiding the possibility of ever having to double <k>.

You may be asking: “Why do we need to double a <k> anyway? The answer lies in a very common in English that you use all the time. The rule is: when a stressed syllable contains only a single-letter vowel grapheme (such as: a, e, i, o, u) and the vowel is followed by a single-letter consonant grapheme (e.g., b, d, n, m, g), you have to double the last consonant before adding any suffix that begins with a vowel letter (e.g., ing, ed, er, es). This is the reason why we write <sit>, but <sitting>, <run> but <running>, <hop> but <hopping, hopped> etc. So, if <pick> were written as *<pik>, we would have had to write <picking> as *<pikking>, and that is not allowed. Writing the final /k/ with the digraph (two-letter grapheme) <ck>, ensures that the possibility of ever having to double a <k> is always avoided.

The grapheme <k> is used in word-final positions following vowel digraphs (two-letter vowel graphemes) such as <oo>, <ee>, <ea> or vowel plus consonant sequences such as <ar>, <al> <an>, etc. So, we have <bark>, <stalk>, <bank>, <cook>, <week>, <beak>.

It should be noted that in words ending with <ic>, the <ic> is mostly a suffix (eg., music, logic, panic, basic, fantastic).

Finally, let us consider why /k/ is sometimes also written as <ch> as in <school, character, stomach>, when <ch> already represents other pronunciations. The answer is etymological. In an earlier post, I talked about the fact that English operates on three interrelated concepts: morphology, etymology, and phonology. Writing /k/ as <ch> is etymology (history and origin) at work. It shows that words written like that have Greek origin. English actually picked up this practice from Latin. English spelling provides a lot of details visually: when you learn the clues, you can tell a lot about words, just by how they are written, how they look. You will not have to guess that almost all the words you know that are written with <ch> pronounced as /k/ were borrowed from the Greek language.

From the above discussion, we see that each of the graphemic choices for /k/ provides us with a different information about the words in which they surface.  Having this understanding becomes useful when working with children, especially if they are struggling with spelling. You begin by systematically explaining each circumstance to them and then prompt for the correct graphemic choice as they write.  You could say something like “How do we write /kw/ in ‘quiet’? ‘<Qu>‘. That’s right.” “How do we write the /k/ in ‘sock’; pay attention to the vowel pronunciation? <ck> is right since the /k/ follows a single letter vowel grapheme.” “How do we write the final /ks/ in ‘fox’? ‘<x>’. That’s right. Why <x>?”  You can repeat the point that <fox> is singular even though it ends in /ks/. ” ‘Stomach’ is Greek. How do we write the /k/?” Interacting with students in this way fosters understanding and helps to improve reading and spelling. The more they struggle, the more such understanding becomes important.

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