The Extinction of C, X and Q

TOWER GROVE — More than a 100 years, long before the title “futurist” probably existed, a civil engineer John Elfreth Watkins Jr. wrote an article predicting what life in America would be like in the year 2000. This wasn’t the floating cars of “Back to the Future II” or the Big Brother of Orwell, but apparently legit attempts to scan the horizon for what would happen next.

“These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible,” the article begins.

BBC News took a look this week at some of the predictions in Watkins’ article for Ladies Home Journal from 1900 to see how close he came to foretelling the future. (You can see a scan of the original article here.) As BBC points out, he got some right, ludicrously right:

“Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.”

“There will be air-ships. … They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations.”

Some were way off:

“Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been exterminated.”

And one was curious and absolutely fascinating:

“There will be no C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet.”

Watkins felt strong enough about this prediction to make it the third one in his list. The reasoning behind Watkins’ willingness to kill of a few consonants is “(t)hey will be abandoned because unnecessary (sic),” he writes. “Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.”

I suppose the thought here is that “K” and “S” can do what “C” does, and that “KS” with some help from “Z” can do what “X” does. “KW” can in some cases take the place of “Q”.

Just imagine the way we would spell words without those three little letters: kween, boks, skool, shartreuse, seks, ekskuse, kwiet, komkwat, ekszume, kameleon, and eks-ray.Heaven help the poor, over-burned spell-khek.

The BBC article dismisses this prediction as one that didn’t come true, right up there with everyone walking 10 miles a day. Not so fast. There is a lot of truth in what Watkins predicted. Sure we still have these three beloved consonants. I’m particularly fond of X and its 8-point value and versatility in Words with Friends. But we do have an increasingly condensed and increasingly condensed language. FWIW, FYI and OMG, which my 5-year-old uses fluently, is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s the OED, LOL, my BFF. Watkins actually came pretty close to nailing the evolution of our language. But it’s not the consonants that are in danger. Chk out yr latest txt msg for proof.

The original article this BBC News story is pulled from appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and it makes an interesting point about how the practice of predicting used to imply optimism.

“Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans,” Jeff Nilsson wrote last week. “He saw only positive change in the new century. Today’s predictors don’t see the future so optimistically, but will they see it as clearly as Watkins?”




2 thoughts on “The Extinction of C, X and Q

  1. If only mosquitoes had been exterminated! I actually got here from searching for language related blogs, and apparently the letters you mentioned fit the bill. I’m quite interested to learn that people in the past have predicted the letters disappearing, as they are often considered flaws in the English writing system of today. 🙂 Another one to add to the list is “f”, which is redundant if we accept that “ph” is pronounced the same way. (Although personally, I’d rather we just got rid of the “ph” cluster).

  2. I wondered why “F” wasn’t part of the predictions myself. Seems to make more sense than “X,” which at least has multiple “sounds” to make it valuable.

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