For the sound of /k/, we have a few choices. How we spell the word depends on several factors. Do you remember us discussing how, when deciding how to spell a word, we must look to morphology first, then etymology, and finally, phonology? Well, the /k/ sound is a great one to illustrate that point.
Most often, we spell the /k/ sound with a letter ‘c.’ The rule goes like this:
We use the letter ‘c’ to spell /k/ in front of a, o, u, a consonant, or nothing.
When ‘c’ comes before e, i, or y, it says /s/.
However, there’s more to it than this. If a base word ends with a single vowel saying its short sound, followed directly by the /k/ sound, we use ‘ck’ to spell that. But, if the base word ends with a short vowel, then another consonant (often an l or n, but other letters work too), and then the /k/ sound, we use a ‘k’ to spell that. Some folks are thrown by the term “base word” here because words like ‘chicken’ throw them for a loop. A ‘chick’ can be considered the base word for ‘chicken.’ Not surprisingly, there’s another layer to this that can confuse things even more.
As you can see, the above rules deal with phonology, but we need more information if we are going to consistently answer our children’s questions about words and if we are to help them spell words correctly. This is why we often have to look to morphology and etymology to figure out how to actually spell something. We can’t just throw letters out there and hope they stick! (Prior to the mid 1700s and the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, we could do this, but not anymore!) These three elements are the whole reason why kids in spelling bees–at least at the higher levels–always ask to hear a word’s definition, the language of origin, and to hear it used in a sentence. For example, if the child is told that a word has a Greek origin, they know they should be using the second sound of the two-letter phonogram ‘ch’ to spell the /k/ sound, like in ‘Christmas.’ From the clues allowed in spelling bees, good spellers can usually figure out how words are spelled. You can too, but first, let’s get back to learning more about the sound of /k/.
If a word happens to be have multiple syllables, meaning it’s not a short base word ending with a /k/ sound coming after a single short vowel, you will use just a ‘c’ to finish it. This is why the phonology rule reads as “or nothing” above. We can thank Noah Webster for this, by the way. Most often, these words are going to end with the morpheme -ic, which means “having the nature of” or “like.” You see it in words like “acidic, barbaric, heroic, or plastic.” The relationship between the words and the thing they are purportedly similar to by the word created with the -ic suffix in the previous words is clear. Acidic means having the nature of acid, barbaric means having the nature of a barbarian, and heroic means having the nature of a hero. These words are easy to understand. However, in words like “music, epic, traffic, or picnic,” that relationship isn’t so easy to see. What is needed with words like these is to look deeper into their histories, otherwise known as their etymology.
The resulting history lessons are often quite fascinating for both teacher and student alike. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but my favorite reference work for this task is Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. In it, we learn that the word “music” comes from the word “muse,” meaning the group of sisters, the Muses, from Greek mythology who were in charge of the creation of many arts. According to those legends, Zeus was the sisters’ father and Mnemosyne was their mother. This is really interesting because memory is so very important to all artistic pursuits, and for all the gentleness that most arts seem to possess on the surface, they really are very powerful. Think about it. The word ‘epic’ comes down to us from the French and before that, the Latin, and before that, from a Greek one that means voice, story, or word, and usually indicates a long adventure tale, like Beowulf or the Iliad. The word ‘traffic’ presents a little more difficulty because it comes to use from a Latin word, transfricare, which means ‘to rub across’ or ‘touch repeatedly.’ Traffic is certainly something that is repeated on a nearly daily basis! In the 1800s, someone decided that the word really came to us through an Arabic word that means ‘to seek profit.’ Modern scholars don’t accept this meaning, but that’s a shame. Think a little. Where does most traffic stem from? Traffic is usually a result of folks being out and about, either seeking to earn profit or seeking to spend their own profit! The word ‘picnic’ is another strange one because it didn’t come into English usage until the 1800s, but it had been used as early as 1692 in French. Most linguists think it comes from a word meaning ‘to pick, or peck’ plus another one that means ‘worthless things’ and that’s how it came to be associated with a social gathering where everyone brought along something to add to the provisions–much like what we might call a ‘pot luck’ nowadays. Perhaps the etymology of this word is what led to the old children’s tale of Stone Soup? In any event, do you see what I mean by this being interesting stuff?!?
In all the cases of the -ic usage, though, if we are going to add the suffix -ing, or even an -ed, we would need to change the ending by adding the ‘k’ to the end! If we didn’t do so, the ‘c’ at the end would end up saying its soft sound because … see the rule above … before an e, i, or y, c says /s/ and nobody wants to go /pic nis sing/!
Learning how morphology, etymology, and phonology come together to help us spell words is a beautiful thing!