August 7, 2009 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Q and Not U

I’ve always been interested in the English language, and language in general, and linguistics, and the mechanics of language, and its history. So I have been known to waste major chunks of time nerding out to things like the blog Language Log and wikipedia articles about, say, the history of the alphabet.

The alphabet is pretty interesting. Studying foreign languages gave me a different perspective on the Latin alphabet as used in English. I’ve never studied a non-Latin alphabet language, but I have a passable understanding of Cyrillic and learned the Polish alphabet. The Polish alphabet is awesome — it looks imposing to English-speakers with all those crazy characters like Ł and ź and compounds like sz and cz, leading us to scary-seeming common words like “szczęście” — but once you get those letters down, they correspond very closely to the pronunciation. Pronunciation of Polish from reading the words is a breeze.

English makes hardly any orthographic sense. The way we spell words is sometimes only tenuously related to the way we pronounce them. And while I like and appreciate a lot of the quirks about the written language, I can remember even as a young kid thinking that the alphabet has some serious flaws.

As maybe a seven- or eight-year-old, I would think to myself, “What’s the deal with Q? What is the point of it?” It just never made any sense that it basically always had to be followed by U. No other letters made such a demand. And it didn’t give us any sound that wasn’t already present in the alphabet. “Qu” might as well be replaced by “Kw” or “Cw,” it would be the same number of letters in a word.

“And for that matter,” my youthful monologue would continue, “what’s up with K and C? K is at least consistent, but why have a letter C that is sometimes pronounced like a K and sometimes like an S?” Heavy matters indeed.

So it was pretty exciting to read up on the alphabet’s history, and discover that there is somebody to blame for this weird feature of the language: the Etruscans!

From the wikipedia article about paleohispanic scripts:

It may be instructive to consider an unrelated development in the evolution of the Etruscan alphabet from Greek: Greek had three letters, Γ, Κ, and Ϙ, whose sounds were not distinguished in Etruscan. Nonetheless, all three were borrowed, becoming the letters C, K, and Q. All were pronounced /k/, but they were restricted to appear before different vowels — CE, CI, KA, and QU, respectively, — so that the consonants carried almost as much weight in distinguishing these syllables as the vowels did. (This may have been an attempt to overtly indicate the vowel-dependent allophony of Etruscan /k/ with the extra Greek letters that were available.) When the Etruscan alphabet was later adapted to Latin, the letter C stood for both /k/ and /g/, as Etruscan had had no /g/ sound to maintain the original sound value of Greek Г. (Later a stroke was added to C, creating the new Latin letter G.).

Whoah! So this whole confusion about the letters C, K, and Q is a legacy of the awkward adaptation of Greek letters to the Etruscan language. Thanks, Etruscans! It makes for an interesting example of a legacy feature within a system that manages to stick around for two thousand years, kind of like the junk DNA sloshing around inside of us.

ANYWAY this whole discussion is all really just a prelude to a few words about late-’90s/early-’00s local indie rock superstars Q and Not U. Here’s the thing about Q and Not U: I never was into them because of their name. I knew about these guys throughout their career, and our social worlds overlapped considerably. But that name, ugh. I couldn’t accept it. And so I can now safely blame the Etruscans for screwing up the alphabet and directly leading to this terrible band name and making me never get into Q and Not U. Again, thanks, Etruscans! At least now I have an excuse.

I suppose if I really and truly loved their music I could get over their name, but somehow Q and Not U never quite worked for me. I saw them live a couple times and thought they were good but a little overrated. In hindsight, it seems to me that they helped launch an era of DC-based indie music that was a little too ephemeral and poppy for my tastes. Coupled with the Dismemberment Plan’s efforts to get indie kids to dance, local music sort of veered sharply towards bland, inoffensive, polite pop music. Or maybe I can somehow blame the Etruscans for that, too…

Anyhow nothing really against Q and Not U, they were a good band, just not a great one. Here’s a clip of QANU from the DC Burn to Shine video: