The letter K in Latin kalendae

To this day, the Romance languages and Irish avoid using the letter* K*. They always use C (or “qu” in certain cases) to spell the /k/ sound. The reason for this is that the ancient Romans decided not to use K in Latin, substituting C instead.

The Romans first adapted their alphabet from the Etruscans, who used a modified Greek alphabet, with K, of course, for the /k/ sound. The Etruscan language did not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced consonants, so the Etruscan gamma could be pronounced /k/. The Romans perpetuated this habit, and modified the gamma by curving it some more until it looked like C. Then they had to add an extra stroke to distinguish the letter for the /g/ sound: G.

Early on, there was a Latin spelling convention to use C before e and i, K before a and o, and Q before u. This three-way division would actually be useful to distinguish the palatal, velar, and postvelar articulations. But since there was no phonemic distinction between them in Latin, the distinction served no purpose. So they took to using C for the /k/ sound in all positions, except when Qu was followed by a vowel.

The letter K still did not die out; they kept using it for one word, and one word only: Kalendae, the name for the first day of each month.

I wonder why???

WAG: there is a word in Latin “calendae” (pronounced salenday, of course) that has a different meaning – perhaps something rude you wouldn’t want to get confused about

Or, this word being generally exclusive to Roman accountants, they may have found it handy to have the “k” for abbreviations in their ledgers, (akin to the scoring of baseball where, oddly, “k” stands for strike as “s” stands for something else IIRC), if they had another word for which “c” would be the obvious abbreviation.

Why would “calendae” be pronounced “salenday”?

Oops. Reverse that. The “c” should be hard like a K, of course!

I was under the impression that the letter K was only used by the Romans with certain words imported from Greek, and that kalenda was one of those. I don’t think any “native” Latin words used K- instead, as mentioned in the OP, C was used (and was always a hard C).


Arjuna, I believe you are quite correct.
C’s were, btw, all originally pronounced like K’s in Latin. Only after about the 1st century BCE did the Latin speakers begin to pronounce ci and ce like si and se.

No, all the Greek loanwords with kappa were spelled with C in Latin. All of them, without exception. The word kalendae is native Latin, not a Greek loanword.

The suggestion that it was a useful abreviation for bookkeepers or whatever sounds like it may be plausible.

The reason for the OP is that if the Romans hadn’t kept using the letter K for just this one word, it would have long ago disappeared into oblivion and we wouldn’t have it today. Look how useful it is (for non-Romance languages), especially in phonetic transcriptions where you need to unambiguously indicate the /k/ sound; “c” is hopeless for that, since it has taken on so many different pronunciations:

/k/ in cat
/s/ in celery
/t$/ in Pacino
/ts/ (as used in Slavic languages, Hungarian, and Pinyin)
/ð/ (as used in Fijian)
/dZ/ (as used in Turkish)

Isn’t kalendae from calare, to call, which came from the Greek kaleo, I call?

According to this website, the name Kaeso was one of the few words with a K in Latin, although I’ve never heard of it.

That doesn’t really answer WHY they kept it K- habit, maybe, since Kal. may have been ingrained as the abbreviation on the Roman calendars?


Kaeso was a rare praenomen that was, IIRC, used only by the Julii (Livy offers a few examples in his first few books).

Incidentially, notice that the matres lectiones (letters often used to represent vowels) in the Phoenecian alphabet were ’aleph, het, yod, ‘ayin, and vav. In the Greek alphabet, they became alpha, eta, iota, o (later omikron, “little ‘o’”, to distinguish it from omega, “big ‘o’”), and upsilon.

According to the excellent etymologies in the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, the Latin word kalendae comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel- (also *kele-), ‘to shout’. From this root also come Germanic hlowan > English low (in the sense of animal cry), Latin clamare ‘to call’, Greek kalein (that’s the verb you cited, but it isn’t the source of kalendae), Latin clarus ‘clear’, and lots of other words.

The etymology for kalendae says: “Suffixed form kal-and- in Latin kalendae, the calends, the first day of the month when it was publicly announced on which days the nones and ides of that month would fall.”

The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology says it “derived from *calere, variant of calare call out, proclaim, cognate with Greek kalein to call; see LOW, v. make the sound of a cow.” Note: cognate does not mean derived from.

There is also the etymology for the word calendar, from Medieval Latin kalendarium which was “a moneylender’s account book (because the monthly interest was due on the calends).” This lends weight to your bookkeeper’s abbreviation theory.

Well no, not quite. The archaic Etruscan alphabet features a character used for c/g (/k/, /g/), this is basically our c, but facing left (Etruscan usually runs right to left). The characters for b, d, g were all dropped early, along with o. However, for /k/, archaic Etruscan uses different letters dpending on the following vowel: ka, ce, ci, qu. Around the 5th century B.C.E, the orthography was simplified, and C used in all positions for /k/.

In Latin, because gamma had already been used for /k/and /g/ in Etruscan, Spurius Carvilius Rufa invented g in the third century adding a stroke to C.

This was taken from: The World’s Writing Systems by Daniels and Bright.

Okay you all made me get up and look and I found this nice summary answer:

From Andrew L. Sihler. New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. NY, 1995. p.21.

Yeah, and the persistence of K in, like, two words is even harder to explain. If it weren’t for that, we would now know of K only as a Greek letter, like theta or omega, used maybe by scientists if at all.

Excellent point. I suppose K was saved by just the couple of abbreviations and later when it was again found to be useful in other languages. The prestige of Greek still may have influenced the process, though.