Forgotten letters № 1: The letter kra

Forgotten letters № 1: The letter kra

20. March, 2018


If, like me, you like to look through the character picker in search of interesting, strange and curious symbols, then this blog series is for you. If not, you can revel in the fact that I have done the work for you, so you don’t need to open a character picker, let alone a word processor, to follow along. Because here, I will explain a few chosen symbols that you may stumble upon in your character selector, and tell you about their history and use and—as the title suggests—explain why they are no longer used.

My goal is to give the reader a little introduction to the part of the world of writing systems and typography that are not evident at first glance. In this first installment, I will talk about a letter, which has been in use within the borders of the Danish kingdom until 45 short years ago.

Forgotten letters № 1:

The letter kra (Kʼ ĸ)

When you open the character picker and scroll down from the basic latin alphabet from a to z, and past the Danish letters æ, ø and å, you find a list of letters with special diacritics. This is the character block that Unicode has dubbed “Latin extended-A”. Here you can find, among other things, the Polish letters ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ś, ź and ż. But for now, I am more interested in a character that doesn’t have little strokes, curves or dots added. And I am not talking about the Turkish dotless ı or the letter œ, which is a combination of an o and an e, or about the long ſ, which is a historical variant of s.


It can be interesting to explore the character picker.

The lettet that I have wondered about is the small letter, which can be found between ķ and Ĺ. And when I use the word small, it is partly to describe the size, and partly because there is no capital version of the letter. Unicode calls the letter latin small letter kra and has given it the character code U+0138. The letter looks like this: ĸ. So it looks like a Greek kappa (κ, ϰ) or a Cyrillic ka (к), but it is a Latin letter.

Capital letters

It is unusual for a letter not to have a capital form, but it is not unprecedented. For most letters, the capital letter is the starting point, because the Latin alphabet originally only had one case, which looked like the one we call upper case today.

One exception is the German letter ß, which was historically a ligature of two sʼs or sz (or rather ſs „ſs“ or ſz „ſz“, which became ß „ß“), which is why it is also called eszett. It started life as a lower case letter, and until very recently, there was no capital version of the letter, because no words start with the letter. And if you write German in all caps—that is, if you really want to get your message across—you can replace the ß with SS without any major change in meaning.

A capital Ð from The Saga of Beowulf1.

But there are letters that can be capitalized, eventhough they do not start any words. In Faroese and Icelandic, for example, the letter ð is never the first letter of a word, but the capital letter Ð still exists for historical reasons. This is just one of the arguments that lead to the capital eszett being added to the Unicode standard in 2008. And in 2016, the Council for German Orthography (Rat für deutsche Recht­schreibung) made the letter official2. Consequently, it is now optional, whether you write the word Straße in capital letters in the old way (STRASSE) or with the new capital letter (STRAẞE).

So what about the little kra ĸ that this blog post is about? How is it capitalized? It has to somehow distinguish itself from the capital K, and that is accomplished with an apostrophe, like this: .


Enough about the letter’s appearance and what makes it different from other letters. What has it been used for? And why is it not used anymore? It was used to write the consonant that is called a voiceless uvular plosive, and is written /q/ in the international phonetic alphabet (IPA). This sound can be described as a k-sound, which is pronounced further back towards the uvula—a bit like how “kra” is pronounced in Danish or German.

The letter ĸ, as it can be seen in a Greenlandic–Danish dictionary3.

The letter has been used to write Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) until the orthography reform of May 14, 19734, and can still be found in texts, that don’t follow the reform. The reform replaced ĸ with q—which makes sense as it distinguishes it from a regular k and at the same time it is easier to write on a typewriter (or even a word processing machine).

Additionally, long vowels should no longer be written with a circumflex (â), but by doubling the vowel (aa), and long consonants no longer with an acute accent (ák), but by doubling the consonant (akk). The reform also made sure to spell words closer to their pronunciation (phonetically) and less dependent on their history. For example, the central word in the picture above ĸuláinalik is now written qulaannalik.

These changes have made it easier to learn to read and write Greenlandic—firstly because of the closer connection between pronunciation and spelling, and secondly because of the omission of special characters. But the old orthography is not less impressive for that reason. Samuel Petrus Kleinschmidt was a missionary and a linguist, and he created the first orthography for Greenlandic in the middle of the 1800’s. This orthography spread to the people, and ever since, the Greenlanders have had a rich written literature.

The letter is not completely forgotten yet. First of all, it exists in Unicode, which makes it possible for us to use it in digital text today. And I assume there are Greenlanders who insist on using the letter to this day. Today, the letter ĸ is only officially used in the dialect Inuttitut (also called Nunatsiavummiut), which is a dialect of Inuktitut spoken in northern Labrador in Canada.

  1. Source: The Saga of Beowulf (Public domain 🄍). 

  2. You can find a recap of the German spelling change here (in German). 

  3. Source: Wikimedia (Public domain 🄍). 

  4. Source: The orthography reform of May 14, 1973 (in Danish). 


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