John Larrysson's Column: Old English Spelling Patterns with K

There are some important K spelling patterns from Old English. At the beginning of words the letter K is silent before a letter N. However in Old English KN- at the front of a word was fully pronounced, and spelt CN-. The word knot came from the Old English cnotta. Other examples include: knife (cnif), knight (cniht) and knew (cneow). In Middle English the Norman French rulers of England changed the spelling from CN- to KN-. In Early Modern English it was reduced by lazy English speakers to an N sound. By 1750, silent K became the standard pronunciation after about a century of weakening.

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Old English used a CC spelling at the end of many words which became a CK in Middle English. So words like sack come from the Old English word sacc. When does one use a C or a CK in Modern English spelling? There is no firm rule, however as a general guideline, the letter K replaced the letter C after a long vowel (peak, make), diphthong (hawk, book) or a consonant (risk, bank). After a short vowel, the Middle English -CK is used to represent the K-sound (back, lock, stack). Words of both Old French/Latin origin and Old English origin often got respelled to fit this pattern.  However many words that used to be spelt with a -CK ending eventually were shortened to -C, examples include musick and publick. So the pattern exists, but not all words follow it.

[audio 2]

The letter C usually makes a K-sound (instead of an S-sound) before A, O or U. At the beginning of words the letter K is silent before a letter N. At the end of words -CK is often used for the K sound. In the last article we covered when C makes a K or an S sound. ( In the next article, we will cover K sound spelling patterns that were brought to English by foreign words.

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Silent D Is Not Always Silent


The Magic-e

PH in Suffixes and Prefixes

The F sound: FF & GH

The F Sound

Hard And Soft G Spelling Patterns

Common G Spelling Patterns

How We Got Hard And Soft Gs

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Is the K Sound a C or an S?


The Oi/Oy Sound

Long U or Long OO

When is Initial U Short and when is it Long?

The Long U Digraphs

Magic E and the Long U Sound


Pronouncing The Letter Y At The Front Of A Word

Pronouncing The Letter Y In The Middle Of A Word

Pronouncing The letter Y At The End Of A Word

The letter Y & The Double Vowel Rule

The Last Letter is a Foreigner

The Spellings of Z

The name of Z

Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (1): Old English

Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (2): Fake Latin

I Both Love and Hate Spell-Checkers

The Rule: I before E, except after C

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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