January 1st, 2007  |  Published in etc  |  3 Comments

The family Spanish expert is, of course, Alison. If it hadn’t been for her, my one term of Spanish a few years ago would have been much more horrible, because she could tell me things about the language as a fluent non-native speaker my Colombian instructor didn’t always think to.My instructor, for instance, never really thought to mention how remarkably consistent Spanish pronunciation is compared to English. It’s so consistent, for instance, that “c” and “qu” seem to have the hard “k” sound nailed down tight. We were just supposed to memorize the words and not try to work out patterns or rules we could apply.

So out on the coast this weekend with Al and Dunetchka (who’s from Puerto Rico), I suddenly realized that my massive Spanish vocabulary of a few dozen words didn’t seem to include any with “k” in them at all. Who needs it with “c” and “qu” handling “Quixote,” “cucaracha,” “queso,” “chubacabra,” “escuela,” “con,” “cajones,” “corazon,” and the few others I could remember with a hard k?

So I put it to Dunetchka and Al … what does “k” do in Spanish? Where does it get used?

Al pondered for a few minutes and couldn’t think of anything. Dunetchka was insistent that “k” is all over the place (and no … her name doesn’t count owing to a peculiarity I have not researched well enough to generalize about involving Russian names and people of our generation in Puerto Rico). But there we were in a cottage with no Spanish dictionary and no Internet connectivity. Even my phone’s built-in browser could not access the ‘net and deliver me the recipe for a pecan pie, which was awful until I called my parents and they produced not only a recipe for pecan pie, but THE recipe that Aunt Dabo … the family pecan pie aficionado … swore by. I will share that recipe in another post with some commentary, because I now have an opinion about pecan pie preparation outside the desirability of toasting the pecans before putting them in the sugar/egg slurry.

Anyhow, Dunetchka did happen to have brought along a Spanish-language cookbook, so I flipped to the index, thumbed to the j’s, overshot the k’s, thumbed back from the l’s and found myself in the j’s again. A cookbook as thick as three of my short (even stubby) but substantial fingers had no “k” entries in its index.

Dunetchka at this point was driven to distraction, because she couldn’t think of any Spanish words with “k” in them, so she tried to brute force the issue by just skimming the cookbook, looking for k. She was stymied.

So I came home today and just downloaded Debian’s wspanish package and grepped its word list for “k”.

This is what I got out of 86,061 single-word lines of dictionary file:

  1. acampak
  2. alkermes
  3. cok
  4. cu·kera
  5. cu·kero
  6. cuakerismo
  7. cuentakilÛmetros
  8. folklÛrica
  9. folklÛrico
  10. folklore
  11. folklorista
  12. ka
  13. kan
  14. kantiana
  15. kantiano
  16. kantismo
  17. kappa
  18. kÈfir
  19. kermes
  20. kili
  21. kili·rea
  22. kilo
  23. kilÛmetro
  24. kilociclo
  25. kilogr·metro
  26. kilogramo
  27. kilolitro
  28. kilomÈtrica
  29. kilomÈtrico
  30. kilovatio
  31. kiosco
  32. kirie
  33. kirieleison
  34. krausismo
  35. krausista
  36. kurda
  37. kurdo
  38. vodka
  39. volapuk
  40. yak

A few checks of online dictionaries have indicated that Spanish just doesn’t have much use for “k” outside of metrics and some borrowed words. Fancy that. Seems like a reliable bar bet, though. Ed? You’ve always got something interesting to make out of stupid shit I wonder about.


  1. Ed Heil says:

    January 2nd, 2007 at 8:06 am (#)

    Sure. This is what I can come up with off the top of my head.

    The reason English uses “k” a lot is that we use a Roman alphabet but we’re not a romance language, to put it bluntly.

    “K” was an import even in Latin, used almost exclusively in Greek words (of which there were a lot). The native letter for that sound was “C” (which originally did duty for both “C” and “G” before the latter picked up an extra tick to differentiate it).

    In Romance, the “C” sound split up. Before front vowels (e and i) (of which there were a lot, since Latin diphthongs like ‘ae’ and ‘oe’ turned into ‘e’) ‘c’ was softened, to ‘s’ or ‘ts’ or ‘ch’ or whatever. It was still written the same, since all c’s in that position were softened, so there was no need for a separate letter to differentiate it. One letter did duty for both just fine because the different pronunciations were consistent with their environments.

    Now, when you take that system and try to apply it to languages which don’t use that system — soft “c” before e and i, hard “c” elsewhere — you have a big problem. If you use “c” it’s going to be confusing, because “c” is supposed to have two different values depending on where it is, and that’s not the case. Luckily there’s the letter “K” lying around from the Greek alphabet, which has always been kind of exotic and little used, a historical anomaly.

    So you press it into service as representing the hard “c” sound which remains hard even before front vowels, like king, kiss, kill, and so on. This happened in Germanic languages in general, which is why you see a lot of K’s in German, Scandanavian languages, English, and so on, but few in Romance languages (are there many in French? Portuguese? you got those dictionaries handy? Find out!)

    This is probably a vast oversimplification but I think it gets the essence of the phenomenon right.

    Is that what you were hoping for? :)

  2. mph says:

    January 2nd, 2007 at 10:38 am (#)

    Perfect! :-)

    And yeah … the French word list I downloaded has more “k” words, but there aren’t many of them and most of them look borrowed.

  3. pablito says:

    July 20th, 2007 at 9:06 am (#)

    acampak no existe (inexistent?) in Spanish es un error del diccionario! (dic mistake)

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