Alphabets & Writing Systems

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When I Think of the Alphabet


When I think of the letter A, I think of amazing, ambitious, aspiring artists. I think of awful angry, ackward aliens. Ithink of addition, Africa, airplanes, androids, animals, Antarctica, ants, apartments, apples, aquariums, astronauts, and Australia.

by Alexandra Asprakis

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Letter Perfect

Letter Perfect

The A-to-Z History of Our Alphabet
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This book attempts a voyage of discovery among the letters of the alphabet. Like islands of an archipelago, the 26 letters will be visited and explored, one at a time. Each island’s geography and local lore will be examined briefly, also its relationship to other islands in the navigational stream. Some islands may prove more lush or lofty than others. But any one will yield substantial mental nourishment to visitors, along with glorious vistas onto language, literature, and history of the past 4,000 years.

Where do our letters come from? How did they get their shapes, their assigned sounds, their sequence, immortalized in our “Alphabet Song”? Why do we use “Roman” letters for English–also for Spanish, Czech, Turkish, Swahili, Vietnamese, and many others–while some languages (Russian, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, etc.) use different types of letters? What is a letter, exactly? What’s an alphabet? These are among questions to be answered with authority and zest.

And smaller questions, perhaps more intriguing. Why is X the unknown? What is The Story of O? Where did Irish rock band U2 get its name? Why does “mother” start with M? What’s Q’s source of pride? Which two letters came last to the alphabet? (Answer: J and V.) Why is Z called “zee” in the United States but “zed” in Britain and other Commonwealth countries? Which animal did A originally symbolize? (An ox: the A’s legs were horns, pointing upward, 3,000 years ago.)

Every letter has its own chapter here. Typically, the chapter briefly explains the letter’s origin in ancient Near Eastern alphabets, including the Phoenician alphabet of 1000 B.C. (In this aspect, the book has benefited from a spectacular archaeological discovery made public in A.D. 1999 that placed the alphabet’s invention in Egypt, sometime around 2000 B.C.) Each chapter traces its letter’s history through ancient Greece and Rome, medieval England, and subsequent stages, and discusses the letter’s noteworthy roles in literature, traditional iconography, modern marketing and pop culture, and other categories. V for Victory. Presidential “Dubya” (W). Xbox, X-Files, X-Men.

Each chapter tries, where possible, to find the letter’s single chief significance for modern readers–its “personality,” as expressed through speech or visual media. For instance, letter A means quality. B is forever second best. C is inconsistent in sound: Its troubles with commitment stem from an unstable childhood. O’s shape can be highly inviting. S is the letter of the serpent, whether for evil or for nature. N needs your nose for pronunciation. And H, phonetically, barely qualifies as a letter at all.

Beyond the letters themselves, this book is partly about languages: English first of all, but also Latin, Greek, ancient Semitic tongues (of which Hebrew is the closest modern equivalent), medieval and modern French and other Romance tongues, and German, all relevant to the story of our 26 letters. While I don’t speak every one of those languages, I have background in a few and have strived for accuracy in research.

The book uses language topics as the key to explaining the alphabet. Letters are images of language: They were invented, around 2000 B.C., to show tiny sounds of speech. Letters, when combined correctly, re-create the sounds of words (whether in English, ancient Greek, Arabic, Russian, etc.). If you take the spoken tongue as your starting point–any language outside of a test tube was spoken long before it began to be written–and you picture an alphabet being fitted to the language, like clothing, amid adjustments, then the history and meaning of the letters become suddenly clearer.

Some books on the alphabet have viewed the letters primarily as items of visual design. Visual, indeed handsome, they surely are. But that approach makes it tough to explain how a letter got its sound(s), especially regarding irregularities. Why does C go soft in pronunciation before E, I, or Y? Why does J mean the sound “j” in English but “h” in Spanish and “y” in German? Such questions are easier to answer if you begin with the language sounds, not the written symbols.

Yet this is no textbook. It does not deal exhaustively with the subject, and I hope it is never boring. Facts are pursued with an eye toward what is enlightening, surprising, fun. The aim is to inform and entertain. I hope to convey how fascinating these 26 little shapes can be, how they contain within themselves thousands of years of culture and history.

The basis for this book was a 26-part weekly series that I wrote about the letters of the alphabet for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper (Ottawa, Ontario). The series covered one letter per week, from January to July 2000.

But the first inspiration dates to 1993, when I was at work on my one previous book, the Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World (Facts On File, 1995). Facing a huge assignment beyond my rudimentary knowledge, I was anxiously researching the ancient Greeks.

One topic was the Greek alphabet, including its origin, sometime around 800 B.C. I had learned in college that the Greeks, with no writing of their own at the time, acquired their alphabet by copying it from the Phoenicians (a Semitic people famed as seafarers, based in what is now Lebanon). I could have written those words on an exam–“the Greeks took their alphabet from the Phoenicians”–without understanding what that meant. I had always imagined some imitation by analogy: that the Greeks, impressed by the Phoenician letters, had gone off and invented two dozen letters of their own, to be Greek letters.

But my studies of 1993 taught me differently. The Greeks had copied more literally than that. (Pardon the pun.) The Greeks didn’t copy just the idea of the Phoenician alphabet; they actually copied the Phoenician letters and started using them to write Greek.

Does it sound trivial? At the time, the realization stunned me. The ancient languages of Greek and Phoenician were as different as English and Arabic. Greek was (and is) a language of the Indo-European family; its modern relatives include English, German, Spanish, and Russian. The Phoenician tongue, now vanished, belonged to a separate language group, Semitic, whose major modern representative is Arabic, although Phoenician itself was probably closer to Hebrew. Semitic and Indo-European languages do not sound at all alike; their vocabularies are unrelated. And yet . . .

The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters; the earliest working Greek alphabet, probably 26. The first 22 letters of the Greek list were nearly identical to the Phoenician in sequence, shapes, names, and, usually, sounds (with the exception of five vowel letters, which the Greeks had invented by reassigning certain Phoenician letters to symbolize vowel sounds). In later centuries the Greeks would adjust their alphabet away from the Phoenician model. But around 800 B.C., it seems the Greeks picked up Phoenician letters, made some changes and additions, and began writing.

What if a bunch of illiterate Anglo-Saxons in A.D. 600 had gotten their hands on the Arabic alphabet and started using it to write Old English? Could they have done so? I wondered. Wasn’t that basically what the Greeks did?

There must, I thought, back in 1993, be more to these letters than I understood. How could Phoenician letters be so adaptable? Logically, wouldn’t most of them be unusable for Greek, since the two languages were so different?

Eventually I moved on from the ancient Greece book, got a day job, and turned to a new mental interest: the history of the alphabet. I had never studied it before, but felt compelled to do so now. There seemed something fundamental here that I had missed in my education.

What I found was that alphabets have routinely jumped from language to language, across all sorts of language barriers, down through history, thanks to the adaptability of letters generally. Our Roman alphabet in English is the product of four such leaps: After being copied from Phoenician letters, the Greek letters were copied, in turn, by a different people, the Etruscans of Italy (around 700 B.C.). Etruscan was a tongue as different from Greek as Greek was from Phoenician, yet the letters adapted easily: They now became Etruscan letters, for showing Etruscan speech. Then the Etruscan letters were copied by other Italian peoples, including the Romans, whose language, Latin, was totally unlike Etruscan. Again the letters had made the jump. As Rome conquered Italy and lands beyond, the Roman alphabet became the writing of Roman Europe. Surviving the empire’s collapse (around A.D. 500), Roman letters were fitted to newer tongues, including primitive English (around A.D. 600). Today those letters have grown up to become our own.

English is by no means the only example. Roman letters today convey the sounds of other tongues that Cicero never heard of: Polish, Zulu, Azerbaijani, Indonesian, Navajo–and about 100 more, all in daily use. The Cyrillic alphabet works equally well for Bulgarian and Mongolian as for Russian. Arabic letters, devised originally to show the Arabic language, provide writing in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and other places where people don’t speak Arabic. Behind such facts lies the letters’ ability to leap across languages.

The more I dug into this, the more important it seemed. I was finally getting the idea that the letters have a kind of genius–a genius for showing the sounds of speech. Because they denote the smallest particles of sound (“t,” “p,” “m,” “u”), letters in quantity are beautifully flexible and precise. They can be arranged in endless combinations, as necessary, to capture sounds of words. This allows the letters to be fitted from one language to another: You could easily write English phonetically, in the letters of Hebrew or Cyrillic. (Bored office workers at computers do it idly.)

“People don’t understand this concept,” I recall thinking. “This isn’t being taught at school.”

I had learned a new respect for the alphabet, and from this point–for it was just a beginning–I proceeded to dip into other aspects of the story: typography, phonetics, the individual letters’ use in brand names and design, the whole psychological message of letters in certain presentations. What I uncovered was a trove of wisdom and lore worth celebrating. And worth sharing.

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