Quinoa Salad and Literacy

Over the past month of so, the written word quinoa has been popping up in my life more than usual. Or should I say, in the interest of accuracy, my perception of the frequency of appearance of the word quinoa has been that its incidence has increased. For those of you who care about evidence-based assertions – and I like to think that’s almost all of you who read the Speech Dudes’ posts – there is a difference in those two statements. For example, if I mention to you now that the number 23 will haunt you mysteriously for the next few weeks, there’s a very good chance that it will. And is that because there is a spooky, paranormal force at work? No, it’s because I’ve just turned on your “Number 23 Detector” and from here on in, your awareness of it has been activated. In other words, the real frequency of occurrence of 23 hasn’t changed – you attention to it has [1].

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

The number 23 aside, what’s become apparent is that I’ve been able to read the word quinoa quite happily for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never made the link between how I think it sounds in my head and how it is really pronounced by the rest of the world! Up until now, I’ve imagined that the word is pronounced /kwɪ’nəʊə/ when it’s actually /’ki:nwa:/ [2]. This boils down to that other than the /k/ and the /n/ sounds, I’ve had everything else totally wrong. In my defense, the Merriam-Webster dictionary also includes the variant /kɪ:’nəʊə/, which is closer to my imagined pronunciation; but it’s still without the /w/ as part of the /kw/ blend.

So apart from learning that I’m wrong – a condition that causes me no end of shame and batters my already fragile ego – what else can I learn from this? How much lemonade can I squeeze from this mispronounced lemon?

Well, we can try to work out why I imagined the pronunciation that I did, and that goes back to the process of reading. When you see a word with which you are unfamiliar, you use your current knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to make a “best guess.” In this case, clearly when I look at the “qui…” I think of words such as quick, quibble, quiet, quirky, quins, quintuplet, quit, quip, quill, quintessential [3], quincunx, and the list goes on. In ALL of these words, the letters “qu” represent the blend /kw/, so when faced with “quinoa,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think /kwɪ’nəʊə/ is OK.

But this is based on an assumed etymology of “quinoa” being Latin, because in the Latin alphabet, the letters “qu” were used to represent the sound /kw/. English is heavily influenced by words of Latin origin, and its alphabet is also derived from the Latin alphabet. So if you were a betting person, when you see a word that starts with “qu,” you’d win more than you’d lose if you guessed it sounded like /kw/ at the beginning.

Unless the word comes from the South American language called Quechuan, pronounced /’kɛt͡ʃwən/ and not with a /kw/. And quinoa does.

The word quinoa comes from a grain plant native to South America and the grains from this have become popular in the Western world as a health food during the late 20th century. When Spanish colonists moved into South America in the 16th century, they not only brought with them a generous amount of guns, horses, and diseases, but their alphabet. And what’s special about the Spanish alphabet’s letter-sound correspondence it that the sequence “qu” is pronounced as /k/ and NOT the original Latin /kw/. So when they heard the word /’ki:nwa:/, it was a no-brainer to spell it using a “qui” and not a “k” at the beginning. Thus the word quinoa made its way into text along with its /k/-not-/kw/ pronunciation.

Quechuan in South America

Quechua in South America

This incidence of my public shame also serves to remind us of that the relationship between letters and sounds is not always as clear-cut as we might want or imagine. Whether the string “qu” is pronounced /kw/ or /k/ depends not just on the letter themselves but the history and origin of the word [4]. So if I’d known about the Quechuan language, my pronunciation error would never have happened [5], and servers in restaurants wouldn’t be giggling and pointing at me after taking an order.

I should have paid more attention to languages at school.

[1] This type of effect is called Selection Bias, Observational Bias, or, more memorably, Cherry Picking. It can happen both unconsciously, such as my believing that “quinoa” has suddenly become popular, or consciously, such as when I only read articles that support my long-cherished beliefs and ignore/trash those that challenge them. Only in the fruit distribution industry in “cherry picking” a good thing; in Science, it’s bad.

[2] I sometimes forget that some of the folks who read the Speech Dudes blog are unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or at least don’t use it very often. So here’s another way of writing those pronunciations using a different type of phonetic spelling: [kwih-noh-uh] versus [keen-wah].

[3] I can’t resist this but the word quintessential derives from the Latin quintessence, which translates as “the fifth element,” and which in turn is the title of a delightfully campy and visual stylish sci-fi movie with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. In classical and medieval philosophy, the fifth element was the stuff of stars and something hidden within all things. I guess Moby had the same idea when he produced “We Are All Made of Stars” back in 2002. Once again, you learn the quirkiest of things on a trip to the Dudes’ site!

[4] My modest obsession with etymology as a hobby (and yes, I carry around a little notebook and scribble words down when I hear them – or use Evernote if I’m in a digital mood) is actually usually pretty helpful when it comes to deciphering new words. It’s also a source of pleasure when looking at how words evolve and change over the years. For example, did you realize that the word amazing originally meant “causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay; stupefying, terrifying, dreadful,” and not “wonderful and astonishing.” From 1600 to today, it’s pretty much flipped its meaning from something bad to something good. I find that amazing!

[5] In a last-ditch effort to dig myself out of the hole, I should point out that the Oxford English Dictionary does, in fact, include my [kwih-noh-uh] articulation along with the more common, “correct” version. Alas, I suspect this merely reflects that I’m not the only Englishman whose attitude to foreign language is that if English were good enough for God, it’s good enough for the rest of the world. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a polyglot in so far as I can speak British English, American English, and a smattering of Canadian English, Australian English, and possible South ‘Efrican and New Zealand English.


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