We just can’t count on K

Most, if not all of our letters should serve some kind of meaningful purpose


Anika Ravilla / Talon

The letter K does not have much linguistic exigency. It fills no phonetic hole, rarely stands on its own, and narrowly treads water in the sea of practical obsolescence. By either reshaping how the letter functions within our language or by completely exiling it from the English alphabet, this issue must be addressed. K is a gaping wound in the side of the Platonic ideal of language, and our inaction reflects a dire and dangerous linguistic complacency that threatens to overtake us.

Taking origin from letters of the Greek and Semitic alphabets, the 11th letter of the English alphabet has been around for several centuries and changed little in that time.

From a linguistic point of view, it represents the unvoiced velar stop, a release of tension between the back of the tongue and the soft palate. From a scientific point of view, it stands for the alkali metal Potassium. From a South Korean point of view, it is the first letter of the English transliteration of the most common last name in the country. The apparent and accepted uses we have ascribed to K seem numerous and varied. 

Despite all of this, from a mechanical point of view, the kind taken on by any practical English speaker or writer, K means almost nothing. It is a linguistic phantom, little more than a novelty. The only sound it commonly produces, the previously mentioned throaty click of the unvoiced velar stop, can be replicated with several arrangements based around the letters C and Q. Today’s K is a one-trick pony without a unique trick.

Its inclusion in words is an act of self-flagellation done in worship of our rapidly aging grammatical scripture, and it is a rarely employed one at that. Out of the 26 letters of the alphabet, K is the 21st most used. Of course, many of these already seldom applications are silent, in words such as attack and know, arranged so that K is either confusingly redundant or simply unneeded.

And what an unnecessary redundancy it is. Would our language be fundamentally unrecognizable if we dropped the K and our words instead drew upon C as their only source of quick, cutting conclusion? Of course not. They would be pronounced identically, no shift in meaning would occur, and nothing of value would be lost except for the profits of some ink companies.

If the argument can proceed from this point, it must be expressly elucidated that tradition is not a sound argument for continuity in any field, linguistics included. It is ignorant and unconvincing to speculate that age qualifies anything for immortality. The advanced age should naturally lead us to call for a reexamination of the practical uses and consequences of our traditions as they operate in the modern world.

We like to think of our language as a matured beast, but that could not be further from the truth. In fact, such an attitude is harmful to the original goal of spoken and written language.

A language must be flexible to the needs of the public because its first priority is always to facilitate interpersonal communication. As time progresses, archaic words and letters shift in construction and meaning to accommodate the world around them. English, as it is spoken today, would be virtually unrecognizable from the English spoken even 2 centuries ago. 

So why must we delude ourselves into thinking that paring the language down into its barest and most beautiful necessities, introducing the fundamental change required to continue our most spectacular work as a species, is impossible? Fear-driven linguistic conservatism is a plague for which the only remedy is the common-sense notion that if something does not serve a purpose, it does not need to exist. To call this view utilitarian is not entirely wrong, but I would retort that to deny the inherent utilitarianism of our letters is to bathe in a weakly constructed illusion.

Letters are like hues (likewise, words are brush strokes, sentences are individual details, and stories are portraits). They can be brilliant, sharp, muddy, verdant, and chilling, but they can never convey a depth of thought. That is too much to ask of a hue. Letters, and the raw feelings they seek to convey in the sounds they make, are purely emotional in a uniquely utilitarian way.

K is the exception to this. Purely redundant, overly specialized, and generally unproductive, it serves neither higher goal nor practical use.

Our nearest cultural replication of the role we have shoved K into lies in classical Rome. The Latin alphabet contained the letter, but made little use of it, past ceremonial rites and names that far preceded Roman culture. It was a parasite for them, just as it is a parasite for us today. 

Unlike the ancient Romans, who now only live in history and mythology, we have time left to fix this mistake. We must excise K from our alphabet or reform it into something of use. If not, we are doing a blatant disservice to our language, as well as to ourselves.