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In English, native words with a Q always have a U immediately after it. (There are some borrowed words like "faqir" from Arabic that do not follow this pattern.)

I am starting to learn German. Every word with a Q that I have seen so far follows this convention, but the sources I have been using have not mentioned a rule like this. I remember this rule being mentioned explicitly when learning English grammar. Is this a rule in German?

  • 1
    Most English words with qu are not native. – David Vogt Jun 23 at 19:51
  • You mean they were absorbed from romance languages over the centuries? But not in as modern of times as "Qi"? – JamesFaix Jun 23 at 20:31
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    grep -ie 'q[^u]' /usr/share/dict/ngerman #=> MySQL, SQL, qm, qmm. – Eric Duminil Jun 24 at 9:36
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    Hah regex, there's a language I do understand! – JamesFaix Jun 24 at 11:50
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    @JamesFaix: Sorry, that should have been grep -iE 'q([^u]|$)' /usr/share/dict/ngerman #=> Compaq, FAQ, FAQs, ICQ, IQ, IRQ, Nasdaq, SQL, qm, qmm – Eric Duminil Jun 24 at 17:07
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In Latin, <qu> is a digraph used to represent the labiovelar stop [kʷ]. The spelling entered English via Latin and French. Native words with [kw] used to be spelled <cw>, e.g. cwēn "queen", but <qu> took over. Note that in some cases, English <qu> is pronounced [k] as in Modern French, e.g. antique (and others ending in -que).

The letter <q> is also used in the romanisation of words from other languages. This is a productive source for new words containing <q> not followed by <u>. Wikipedia has some English examples, but the same holds true for German in principle (but see the last paragraph).

Two examples:

  • Transliterated Mandarin: qi. The Mandarin pronunciation of <q> apparently is [tɕʰ], for which native speakers of English can substitute [tʃ].

  • Transliterated Arabic: niqab, where <q> stands for IPA [q], for which English speakers substitute [k].

In short: Words that contain <q> have different sources, and the pronunciation varies accordingly. The observation that <q> is almost always followed by <u> in English is derived from the status of <qu> as a digraph in Latin and the abundance of loan words from Latin and French.

One difference between English and German is that in Old High German, [kw] was always spelled in the Latin manner as <qu> and not <cw> as in Old English. Native [kw] seems rare. In the example of OHG queman, it became [k] (NHG kommen), whereas it was retained as [kv] in quellen, quälen, (er)quicken.

Furthermore, German prefers nativised spellings over transliterations. For instance, where English uses Quran, German has Koran. This can lead to funny juxtapositions such as that between nativised Burka and transliterated Niqab in this news article.

  • the list of english words is just in case the TO likes to see the similarity (and loanwords [candidates] in German) since both English and German have Latin roots? Or because the TO sets it like a fact that English requires the u? – Shegit Brahm Jun 24 at 7:47
  • To show that romanisation is a productive source of words with q not followed by u (and because it shows some other source languages besides Mandarin and Arabic). – David Vogt Jun 24 at 8:05
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    "Qatar" is typically spelt "Katar" in German, as far as I can tell. Maybe pick another example that also works in German, given that we're on German Language, and the examples are supposed to be examples of the statement "the same holds true for German"? – O. R. Mapper Jun 25 at 14:56
  • @O.R.Mapper And “qi” is often spelled “Chi”, despite the Wikipedia article using the spelling “Qi”. In fact, Duden also recommends the spelling “Qi” but this must be a recent development, and the German pronunciation is incompatible with this spelling (it’s pronounced [ˈt͡ʃiː] or [tɕʰi˥˩], not [ki]). It’s therefore probably bogus/an anglicism. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 25 at 15:23
  • @KonradRudolph Die Schreibung mit q entspricht der Pinyin-Umschrift. Eine solche Umschrift erlaubt es denen, die mit ihr vertraut sind, die Aussprache korrekt wiederzugeben. Am Ende ist das nichts anderes als wenn man gelernt hat, bruschetta und Marquis richtig auszusprechen. – David Vogt Jun 25 at 15:38
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My Database of German words contains 2174 words with Q or q followed by u, but only 2 where after Q or q comes some other letter. There is no word that ends with q. The two exceptional words are:

  • Qi (Chinese origin)
  • Maqam (Arab origin)

I hope this answers your question.


addendum (reaction to comments)

When I read the word »Qi« for the first time I pronounced it as [ki], but the correct pronunciation is [t͡ʃiː]. If it were a German word, [ki] would be written as »Ki«, but [t͡ʃiː] would be spelled »Tschie«.

In most cases when there is a foreign or artificial word that contains the letter q not followed by u, it is spelled as [k]: Al-Qaida = [alˈka​ɪda], Uniqa (an Austrian Insurance company) = [ˈunika]. Qi and compounds containing Qi (Qigong) are the only exception.

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    I would be hard pressed to accept these as native German words. – Chieron Jun 24 at 7:38
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    @Chieron Where in the answer does it say "native"? – sgf Jun 24 at 13:21
  • @Chieron, it has a nativized pronounciation, /xi:/ (and thus also transliterated Xi, not to be confused with the Greek Letter)). That makes it native in a way. – vectory Jun 24 at 15:36
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    @vectory Neither word (resp. spelling variant) is localized so far that they would "follow a spelling convention" (Maqam should be germanized as Makam, Qi is harder to localize, Schi would look weird, Chi would preserve the ambiguity) – Chieron Jun 24 at 17:20
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    @Alexander These words are not germanized, instead they are Fremdwörter which do not yet follow standard spelling rules. But the question is about such rules, so the examples are not entirely valid. Inclusion in the Duden is not sufficient to make a word native. Particularly, if the localization hasn't progressed so far. The current spelling is the English one. – Chieron Jun 25 at 12:16
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For a long time, the same rule "Q is always followed by u" was true for German as well. However, in mean time, the de facto defining book for the German language, the Duden added the words "Qi" (Chi), "Qi­gong", "Qi­gong­ku­gel" and "Qin­dar" (and abbreviations and words derived from abbreviations, like "QR-Code" for which no "real" German word exists)

  • 2
    The terminus technicus you are looking for is "phonotactical rule of German". – jonathan.scholbach Jun 23 at 21:17
  • jonathan.scholbach How is this phonotactical? It's about letters, not sounds. – sgf Jun 24 at 7:17
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The same rule as in English applies to German: Q is always followed by u. In many children's school books, the letter is really mentioned as "Qu".

Also, the same as in English holds, that there are loanwords and transcriptions from other languages where Q is not followed by u. This is true for example for words of Chinese or Arabic origin. As others have mentioned, the Chinese word Qi (living energy in Daoism) is among the most used of them, which my also be transcribed as "Chi".

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From a statistical point of view necessarily. But there are no rules without exception. For example, with abbreviations such as QM.

  • 16
    Abbreviations are not words. – RalfFriedl Jun 23 at 22:26

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