I was looking in a dictionary to find the meaning of the word: kalendae. When I came to the letter K, I saw that there are only a few words/names which starts with the letter K. I saw that there aren't many words which contain the letter K either. Why did the native speakers of Latin never use the letter K?


1 Answer 1


The letter K was common in the old Latin alphabet, but somehow it all but died out before the classical age. It may have been ousted by the letter C, but I'm not sure why that happened. Sometimes things happen for no apparent reason, arbitrary developments. Lewis & Short have this to say:

K, k, was used in the oldest period of the language as a separate character for the sound k, while C was used for the sound g. In course of time the character C came to be used also for the k sound, and, after the introduction of the character G, for that alone, and K disappeared almost entirely from the Latin orthography, except at the beginning of a few words, for each of which, also, the letter K itself was in common use as an abbreviation; thus, Kæso (or Cæso), Kalendæ (less correctly Calendæ), sometimes Karthago (or Kar.; v. Carthago); "and in special connections, Kalumnia, Kaput (for Calumnia and Caput, e. g. k. k. = calumniae causā in jurid. lang.): nam k quidem in nullis verbis utendum puto, nisi quae significat, etiam ut sola ponatur", Quint. 1, 7, 10; cf. id. 1, 4, 9.—Some grammarians, indeed, as early as Quintilian's time, thought it proper always to write K for initial C before a, Quint. 1, 7, 10.—Besides the above-mentioned abbreviations, the K is also found in KA. for capitalis, KK. for castrorum, K. S. for carus suis.

  • 7
    There's a little more to the story. In the Etruscan alphabet, which is the source of the Roman alphabet, the letters C K Q were used for [k] depending on the following vowel: C before E and I, K before A, and Q before U (Etrsucan had no O). The Romans originally adhered to this system, which is why practically all instances of K in Latin are followed by A. But eventually they very reasonably decided to scrap the distinctions and use C for [k] regardless of the following vowel.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 2:03
  • But why did the Etruscans have that convention? That's the odd thing: why borrow three letters for one sound? In Latin there was a distinction between <QV> /kw/ and <CV> /ku/; perhaps Etruscan had the same thing. Any surviving examples of Etruscan CV? Even if so, that doesn't explain the use of K before A.
    – Mark Reed
    Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 16:20
  • @TKR: This. The letter G was introduced in Latin to represent [g] and C, K, and Q were all used for [k] until later when C was used for the sound almost exclusively most likely because it was more common. Also the letter Q is completely useless. No idea why it exists. Commented Jan 21 at 1:45

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