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Column: ‘Q’ consistency not one of English language’s strengths


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It was our turn to bring the refreshments for the Garden Club meeting. Becky and I made a quinoa salad as well as a couple of cheese spreads. Becky thought I should warn the group that one of the cheeses was a bit on the spicy side. She also suggested that I explain the salad just in case someone was unfamiliar with quinoa.

Some members were familiar with it and had tried it, and some weren’t. Almost all gave it a taste, and we didn’t hear any complaints. As an English teacher and word junkie, I guess what made me happiest was the ensuing discussion with several members about the word “quinoa.”

First, I suppose I should explain for the uninitiated what we are talking about. The Great and Mighty Google tells us although quinoa is a recent appearance on U.S. grocery shelves, it was cultivated in the Andes region 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. It is a pseudo-cereal which means that although the plant is not part of the grass family, its grain is eaten just as we eat the grain of grasses such as wheat, corn and rice.

Quinoa is very high in protein and contains high amounts of fiber, iron and calcium. It is gluten-free, which seems to be a good selling point these days. It also tastes good.

Back at the Garden Club, some of the people at our table weren’t sure what I was talking about when I said it was a “KEEN-wah” salad until I spelled it for them. “Oh,” more than one person said, “I thought it was pronounced ‘Kwi-NO-uh.”

“Me, too,” I said. “I found out how it was pronounced a few years ago when I taught with a hipster Northern California teacher who brought some for her lunch.”

Our Garden Club conversation stuck with me and as often happens when I encounter unusual words, I pondered further. “It’s the QU at the beginning that is the issue,” I decided.

Q is one of the stranger letters of the alphabet. Back in elementary school I learned that Q and U are partners and are always together. I also was taught it is pronounced “Kw” as in, “Be quiet, Norman. Quit messing around and get back to work. Quickly, young man!”

Imagine my surprise when I learned later in school that an Australian airline, Qantas, was spelled without a U. Up to the time I saw it written, I was clueless that Qantas was U-less. Later, in geography class, I discovered that not only was the Mideast country of Iraq spelled without a U, but another country in the region, Qatar, was, like Qantas, U-less.

On my way to becoming a teacher of literature, I became acquainted with the great Spanish novel Don Quixote. Before enlightenment I had made the same assumption I made with “quinoa” and figured it was pronounced Don “QUIK-soat.” Just another example of that old saying about what often happens when one assumes.

I eventually learned the name should be pronounced in the Spanish style as “Kee-HO-tay.” Interestingly, in English its adjective form, “quixotic,” is pronounced as you might expect: “quick-SOT-ic.” Consistency is not one of the strengths of English pronunciation.

Thinking about words beginning with Q, and being a big fan of words games, I remember how excited I was to learn that the word “Qi” is acceptable in both Scrabble and Words With Friends. Sometimes spelled “chi,” it is the Chinese word for energy or life force. Pronounced “CHAY,” it is another word that does not follow the expected English rule. Why quibble? Rules, smules, I say. As long as it can be used to make a play, go for it.

I am glad the quinoa seemed to go over well with the Garden Club folks. I am already thinking about the next time it is our turn to bring food. Perhaps we’ll bring a nice quiche.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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