The Eleventh Letter — K

Another stable letterform, like the ‘H’ in its eighth spot, the ‘K” has remained in the eleventh spot in all of our root alphabets. The Semitic languages used the symbol kaph, meaning palm of a hand. And in fact, the Phoenician rendering did look quite a bit like the lines in the palm. And while the lengths and direct of the diagonals have changed, the basic symbol has changed very little since early Semitic use.

Naturally the Greeks played with the flopping and turning, but their unique contribution was to introduce symmetry in the diagonals and to rename the symbol kappa. There was another symbol in the Greek that represented the ‘k’ sound, the ‘Q’, and in Etruscan the ‘C’ could also represent the ‘k’ sound. The Romans tried to drop the letter “K”, but couldn’t because of its use in various Greek words. In any case, it was one of the letters that made the Trajan Inscription, preserving its classical shape for us centuries later.

Structure: The ‘K’ is normally somewhat narrower than it is high, usually a little over half as wide.
While the ‘K’ is a relatively straight forward letter to draw, and employs no optical tricks, some consideration should be given to the joining of the two diagonals. Generally these meet at the midpoint, or slightly higher, on the main vertical. In stone cutting, the juncture of these two strokes is kept simple and occurs at the vertical. The ‘K’ in Univers is an excellent example of this technique in modern type design. In other alphabets, where the letter is obviously constructed (as opposed to calligraphic in form) the thin upward stroke aligns well below true center of the vertical, and the heavier downstroke starts above center, and somewhere up the lighter diagonal. To provide the character with a firm base on which to stand, the lower diagonal should extend slightly beyond the upper.

Sometimes the lower diagonal connects with the upper, considerably above the mid-point, giving the letter a high-waisted appearance. Benguiat is a prime example of this form of ‘K’.

There are a few characters in our alphabet that provide the designer with the opportunity to add a flourish, or touch of personality, to the basic form. The ‘Q’ and ‘&’ are ideal for this, and to only a slightly lesser degree, so is the ‘K’. Often the lower diagonal will be given a little more dash than other similar strokes.

With credit to Allen Haley,
Upper & Lower Case magazine, a typographic centered publication last published from 1970 to 1999.

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