English spelling origin (OT?)

James E. Clapp j.clapp at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Dec 12 20:52:11 UTC 2002

Dave Hause wrote:

> A relayed question from a friend's six year old daughter, who had missed one
> word on a spelling test and thus sentenced herself to have to write out the
> spelling words for the rest of the week and retake the test:  "quick"
> spelled as "quik."  "But Mommy, why is that wrong?  They would both be
> pronounced with the same sound."  I haven't the vaguest idea where to
> research this.

Thom Harrison gave what for me was a very enlightening answer, but
not one intended for a six-year-old.  For the child, this seems like
a good opportunity to reinforce the point that spelling is not just
an arbitrary process; there are principles of sound-spelling
correspondence that are pretty consistent.  The principle here is:
When a word ends with a "k" sound after a "short" vowel, it is
usually spelled "-ck".  This isn't something special about the word
"quick"; it's a general rule you can use to spell lots and lots of
words--even if you've never seen them before.  "Back" and "tack" and
"neck" and "peck" and "lick" and "stick" and "lock" and "sock" and
"luck" and "duck"--if you know the rule, you can write them all.

It is true that other ways of spelling the words might be pronounced
the same, but it's nice to have just one way that you know is almost
always right.  You might see words that don't follow this rule, but
you can learn those as you go along.  In the meantime, if you aren't
sure it's something else, "-ck" is a good guess for any "k" sound
after a short vowel.  (And of course, product names like Kodak
cameras and Nestle's Quik don't count; sometimes companies use a
funny spelling just to get attention.)

This assumes that the child has been introduced to "short" vs.
"long" vowel sounds.  I don't think I was taught phonics until a
little after that, but this child obviously has been introduced to
phonetics and shows an interest in and knack for it (witness the
quoted statement); and since she herself raised the question of
pronunciation, this might be the time to introduce her the "short"
vowel sounds of hat, bet, hit, hot, and hut if she hasn't already
been introduced to the concept.

For the record, it appears that most of the words ending with a
short vowel and "-k" or "-q" are either loanwords or foreign names,
like apparatchnik, kayak, and (in my pronunciation) Iraq.

James E. Clapp

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