The Letter K
By Allan Haley
Some letters are slaves to fashion. They’ll change their images for any number of reasons: to satisfy the whim of some snazzy new writing utensil, or even because they’ve taken up with a different language. The K, however, sticks to the tried and true. It’s remained virtually unchanged for the last three thousand years or so.
K was the 11th character of the ancient Semitic alphabets, a position it still retains in our current character set. In form, it has probably varied less than any other character. The Semitic sign “kaph,” the forerunner of our K, was a three-stroked character that represented the palm of an outstretched hand. While several versions of the kaph were used by the Semites, and more specifically the Phoenicians, all were composed of three strokes drawn in a similar fashion. First, the character was a simple drawing of a hand. Next, the character looked something like our Y with a short middle stroke between the two longer diagonals. Finally, it was simplified even more and turned on its axis so that its two diagonals pointed left (like a backwards version of our K). But even as the character was modified and turned in several directions throughout its evolution, the basic form remained nearly the same.
The Greeks took the simplified version of the kaph and introduced symmetry into the design. Eventually, they also turned the character around so that the diagonals faced right. The Greeks even kept the basic name of the letter, changing it only slightly, to “kappa.”
In the Greek language, two signs represented the ‘k’ sound: K and Q. The Etruscans, however, had three signs for the same sound: C, K, and Q. The early Romans adopted all three, but in time dropped the K, using it only for words acquired from the Greeks, or those of an official nature. The latter use was probably the reason the K made it to the Roman monumental inscriptions, which set the standard for our current design.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.