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This morning my son asked me the following question that I was unable to answer:

What is the point of the letter Q? Why can't we just always use C or K instead?

For example, "Question" sounds like "Kwestion" and "Queue" & "Cue" both sound the same.

This question might be little stupid, but I would much appreciate it if anyone can come up with a good answer.

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The short answer is that each word has its own history (also called its etymology) that traces where the word came from. The same is true of letters.

The word quick, for example, has in fact been spelled with a c and k in its distant past. From etymonline.com:

Old English cwic "living, alive, animate," and figuratively, of mental qualities, "rapid, ready," from Proto-Germanic *kwikwaz (cf. Old Saxon and Old Frisian quik, Old Norse kvikr "living, alive," Dutch kwik "lively, bright, sprightly," Old High German quec "lively," German keck "bold"), from PIE root *gweie- "to live" (see bio-).

How we settled on quick instead of kwick is anybody's guess, but it's worth pointing out that very few modern English words begin with "kw-". Somewhere along the line, "qu-" became the dominant form. But your same curious question could be asked about words that begin with the Z sound, yet start with an X, like xenon and xylophone.

You can also read more about the letter Q from the same website. I suggest you and your daughter have a look.

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    xenon and xylophone pronounced with a Z sound?!? How do English people pronounce Z? In Italian they are remarkably different sounds, no one would ever think to write those words with a z. – Bakuriu Oct 28 '13 at 13:06
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    @Bakuriu - Sure, have a look: xenon / zebra. This page includes small icons where you can hear the words pronounced, if you have trouble following the IPA. – J.R. Oct 28 '13 at 14:30
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    in Dutch xenon (same) and xylophone (xylofoon) are exactly pronounced the same as any other x. Must be an English thing. – Ivo Beckers Oct 28 '13 at 15:30
  • @IvoBeckers So the pronunciation would be something like "ksenon" and "ksylophone"? – WendiKidd Oct 28 '13 at 22:06
  • @WendiKidd, yes in Dutch it is. – Ivo Beckers Oct 29 '13 at 6:44
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In English, spelling has very little to do with pronunciation. For example, the word tomato is always spelled T-O-M-A-T-O, regardless of whether it is pronounced toe-may-toe (North American English) or toh-ma-toe (British English).

So to answer your question, no. Question may sound like it could be spelled with a K, but the spelling is nothing to do with the pronunciation of the word. It is spelled with a Q, and any variants such as "kwestion" are wrong.

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Ditto @j.r. It's for historical reasons. If I was designing an alphabet for English from scratch, it would be different from our present alphabet in many ways.

Yes, the letter "q" is useless because it could almost always be written "kw". "Q" is also used when transliterating a sound found in Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages that we don't have in English, as in, for example, "al Qa'eda".

"C" is useless. It either sounds like an "s" ("celery") or like a "k" ("corn"). Well, when followed by "h" it does create a unique sound ("cherry"), but I think we would have been better off to have a distinct letter for that.

"G" can have its unique hard sound ("good"), or it can sound just like "j" ("gentle"). Why not use a "j" when we want the "j" sound?

Etc. If you're learning English, you just have to learn all these different sounds that the letters can make. Yes, it would be better if there was one sound for every letter and one letter for every sound. But there isn't in English.

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The child's question is justified. But really difficult to answer. The three letters c k q have something to do with the history of letters. If we study the articulation of the k-sound we find slight differences between k+i, k+a, k+u. The articulation of k is moved from a frontal position further back. Semitic languages can produce a k-sound far back in the throat which sounds different from k and they used the special letter q for this special sound. Somehow this letter got into the Greek and Latin alphabet and even into modern languages of western Europe.

I googled for "history of the letter q" and found an article of en.wikipidia on "q". They try to make the adoption of the semitic q in Greek and Latin understandable but things remain rather vague and don't get clear.

So one might say q (always followed by u) might be replaced by ku or cu, but somehow we have kept qu, perhaps as a remembrance of the history of letters.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q

There is an astonishing connection between the letters c k q g. c is the basic sign. In k a vertical stroke was placed before c and the half-circle of c was made angular. In q we have the basic sign c and a vertical stroke placed after c and the stroke was placed into a deeper position. And in g we have the sign c with a vertical stroke as in q with a little curve at the bottom. The k-sounds and the g sound have something similar in articulation and the similarity of the signs shows this.

  • And "s" is a backwards "c"! – Jasper Feb 4 '15 at 6:28
  • For us today letters are mere arbitrary signs. But historically the lettters were pictures of common things beginning with the sound of the letter. A was the head of an ochs/bulll/calf. B was the symbol of a simple house with two storeys and so on. The c and s have different sources. – rogermue Feb 4 '15 at 6:51
  • Here is a link that gives an idea of the pictures behind the letters. At the bottom of the website there is an interesting table:members.bib-arch.org/… – rogermue Feb 4 '15 at 6:58
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rogermue has a really great answer. I just want to add a bit of extra context for those who are not as familiar with linguistics in general (and with the historical linguistics of English in particular).

Languages constantly change in many ways. One such way is pronunciation. For languages like English that have had a literal form for many years, it makes sense for some older sounds (that are no longer used) to leave behind letters that were used to represent them.

And letters aren't only used to represent sounds, but to represent meanings as well. Think about how we pluralize words. We add the suffix "-s" at the end, but it doesn't always sound like an "s" as in cats. Sometimes it sounds a bit like a "z" as in dogs, or it even adds a syllable (and sounds like "z") as in roses.

There are several sounds and "sound processes/patterns" that need to be considered for creating an alphabet. These things change over time, and we end up with residue in the way we write that were likely completely logical at one point.

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