The letter Q in Spanish does exactly the same thing as it does in English, that is, it always appears in combination with the letter U. However, the pronunciation in the two languages is different. Whereas in English “qu” makes a “kw” sound, in Spanish it makes just the “k” sound alone.
So, for example, cheese is pronounced like “keso” and not “kweso”. That’s why that question that Manuel always used to ask in Fawlty Towers is spelt “¿qué?”
If you remember back to the rules for pronouncing the letter C, you will know that the combination of “ce” and “ci” produce a “th” sound. Therefore whenever we need to write down a “ke” or “ki” sound in Spanish, we have to remove the C and replace it with a “qu”. That might sound a bit complicated so here’s a practical example. “Tabaco”, meaning tobacco, is spelt with a C which makes the “k” sound, however the word for a tobacconist is “tabaquero”, pronounced “tabakero”. Because the following vowel has changed from an O to an E, the C has to change to a “qu” to preserve the same “k” sound. If we kept the letter C there, it would end up being pronounced “tabathero”. That’s the best explanation I can manage I’m afraid, so it’ll have to do!
I couldn’t find quite so many related words as usual beginning the QU in both languages. Here are a few recognisably similar ones: “química” (chemistry), “quimioterapia”, (chemotherapy), and “quiropractía” (chiropractic). Out of curiosity you might be interested to know that cockerels in Spain do not say “cock-a-doodle-do”, but “quiquiriquí”, although I don’t know if anyone has told the cockerels this!
I was more successful in finding some “false friends” or as I prefer to call them “estranged cousins”. For example, the verb “quitar” means “to remove” and not “to quit”. From this word “quitar” we get some interesting combinations, all connected with removing something, for example: “quitamanchas” (stain remover), “quitaesmalte” (nail varnish remover), “quitamiedos” (lit. fear-remover, and meaning railings in high or dangerous places) “quitanieves” (snow plough), “quitasol” (sun shade), “quitapenas” (lit. pain or sadness remover, and meaning spirits or liquor), “quitasueños” (lit. sleep-remover, and meaning worry or anxiety that keeps you awake at night).
Another false friend is “quieto” which means (still) and not “quiet”. For example, when a Spanish person tells a child to keep still, they say “¡Estáte quieto!” The word in Spanish for (quiet) is “callado”, for example: (He’s a very quiet child) is “Es un niño muy callado”.
One of the most useful words ever in Spanish has been referred to already, that is “que”. It can mean “What?” as a question, in which case it has to be spelt with an accent “Qué”. “¿Qué quieres?” (What do you want?). Without the accent it can mean “what” in an embedded question. “¿Le pregunté que quería?” (I asked him what he wanted). Even more usefully it can mean “that” in a multitude of different contexts when two parts of a sentence are being joined together. “Voy a decirle que no quiero jugar” (I’m going to tell him that I don’t want to play). It comes up in many short phrases: “Creo que sí” (I think so); “Creo que no” (I don’t think so). Again with the accent it can also been used to make exclamations, and this particular aspect bears spending a bit more time on.
I am a great fan of exclamations because they are short, they connect to other people very easily, they express emotion as well as ideas and they are very simple to form. For example “¡Qué horror!” means (How awful!); “¡Qué pena!” means (What a pity!) and “¡Qué asco!” means (How disgusting!), all short and sweet and highly expressive.
We have a variety of different ways to formulate exclamations in English. For example, we use “What a …” with nouns (What a nuisance! What a noise!), we use “How …” with adjectives (How pretty! How gorgeous!) and we also use negative question forms like this: “Isn’t it interesting!”, “Aren’t you clever!”, “Weren’t they funny!” To cover all of these vagaries in English we simply use “Qué …” in Spanish, which makes exclamations incredibly easy to produce. Here are two more very common examples: “¡Qué calor!” (literally “What heat!”, but we would say “Isn’t it hot!”) and “¡Qué frío!”, (literally “What cold!” but we would say “Isn’t it cold!”).
Here too are the translations of the English phrases above, just to prove that I’m not making all this up. (What a nuisance!) “¡Qué lata!”; (What a noise!) “¡Qué ruido!”; (How pretty!) “¡Qué bonito”; (perhaps, Isn’t she pretty!) “¡Qué guapa!”; (How gorgeous!) “¡Qué precioso!” (or sometimes “¡Qué preciosidad!”); (Isn’t it interesting!) “¡Qué interesante!”; (Aren’t you clever!) “¡Qué listo!”; (Weren’t they funny!) “¡Qué graciosos!”
Just one extra point on this subject; if we wish to combine a noun and an adjective in an exclamation we do this using the word “más”. For example: (What a nice woman!) “¡Qué mujer más simpática!”
Notice that the adjectives are susceptible as usual to masculine, feminine, singular or plural changes, and also notice that in the written form we open the exclamations with an “upside down” exclamation mark. Practically all nouns and adjectives could be used as exclamations, simply by adding “Qué”, which I think is rather neat, and should give you hours of fun thinking up your own!
To finish off, as usual, I have a popular saying with a Q-word in it. It is: “querer es poder”, which literally translates as “to want is to be able”, and is the equivalent of our English saying: “Where there’s a will there’s a way”. I hope that’s your attitude when it comes to learning Spanish!
Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel: 968183258