The Spellings of K: How to pronounce biscuit and mystique?

All students of English are aware of the challenges associated with spelling and pronunciation.

The spelling system of the English language probably doesn’t make a lot of sense – there are silent letters that have no apparent function, only 6 letters are used to represent 11 vowels (not including diphthongs), and doubled letters aren’t pronounced double.

SEE ALSO: Practice Pronunciation: Past Simple Suffix ‘-ed’

How to pronounce sound KThese are just a few of the issues that students are likely to complain about.  There are, of course, reasons for this chaos, but they’re practically all rooted in centuries of history.  Many of these have to do with changes in pronunciation that aren’t reflected in spelling, and these tend to be more regular.

Words borrowed from other languages can also have unusual spellings, and this is probably the reason why students frequently wonder how to pronounce them properly.

When learning English spelling and pronunciation, it is best to mentally separate sounds from letters.  In languages that have a very consistent one-to-one relationship between sounds and letters, it might not be important to make such a distinction, but in English, it’s essential.  In one of the previous articles, we discussed some of the pronunciation patterns found in vowel spellings.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the ways a consonant can have irregular spellings.  Most textbooks give the letter first, then its pronunciation, but we’ll be doing the opposite, taking the sound as our starting point.  After seeing all the different spellings of /K/ and the many reasons for them, you should have a better understanding of the reasons for all the irregularities in English orthography.

Spelling oddities of the sound /k/

This sound is represented by many spellings, including kk, que, ch, cui, c, k, kh, cc, and ck.  In fact, nearly every type of spelling irregularity in English is exemplified in the various renderings of this sound.

Gemination – ‘kk’

The sound KThe first spelling, kk, can arise for two reasons, the first of which is gemination, or doubling of sounds.  When gemination is the reason for the doubled k, it is typically found in recently borrowed foreign words such as the Finnish word markka (a Finnish coin).

It is important to remember that although English words often have doubled letters, they don’t ever get pronounced double.  English therefore doesn’t have gemination except when the doubled letter is the result of two words’ having been combined to form one (more on this below).  In the case of markka, its gemination and consequent spelling is determined by the phonological rules of another language.

Since doubled k doesn’t ordinarily occur in English, most native speakers would immediately recognize markka as a foreign word because of the spelling.  Its status as an English word is therefore questionable (other letters, such as l, don’t have to occur in foreign words to be doubled).

However, kk can also be found in English compounds, those wherein the first part ends in k and second part begins with k.  Examples include bookkeeper and knickknack.  Last of all, in the word trekking, kk is the result of an English spelling rule (doubling of consonant letters before the –ing verb ending) and this is the only example of its kind.

Latin influence – ‘ch’, ‘que’ and ‘cui’

Found in the word chord, ch is how the Romans transliterated the Greek letter χ.  Most Romans would not have pronounced it the Greek way (aspirated), however, so it ended up being pronounced /K/ and then made its way into English with the Latin spelling and pronunciation.

Two other spellings, que and cui, also came into English from Latin, either directly or through French.  These spellings, found in words such as biscuit and mystique, occur relatively frequently in English, so they are not perceived as foreign.

Tricky foreign words

Since we have borrowed so many words from French and Latin, and since these borrowings mostly occurred hundreds of years ago, they aren’t perceived as foreign anymore, and neither are their spellings.  More recent foreign borrowings, such as gelato, might still have a foreign feel to them.  Now that more gelato is being sold in American supermarkets, the word will begin to sound normal to more and more people.  After a while its foreignness won’t be noticed anymore.

Long and short vowels – ‘k’ and ‘ck’

Finally, k and ck have their origins in English itself.  At the end of a word, k is used when the preceding vowel is long, and ck is used when the preceding vowel is short.  Examples include bake for the long vowel and back for the short vowel.


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