Another Detour: a History of the Alphabet!

Language Visible

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am fascinated by the history of writing and by the alphabet in particular. I think the alphabet is probably the best invention ever. Or at least, I’d put it in the top five, along with things like the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, and the discovery of mathematics and the laws of physics. It’s that significant and world-changing.

So imagine how excited I was when I discovered a book by David Sacks: Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z! (Not its only title. It’s complicated. **) What the book is is a history of how the English language got the 26 letters it has today. In fact — we almost had just 24 letters, since “J” and “V” did not get officially accepted as part of the alphabet until the mid-nineteenth century. That’s just one of the many interesting (to me) facts that this book presents.

David Sacks, a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa in Canada, introduces the general history of the alphabet before getting down to the history of each individual letter. And right there, I learned something I hadn’t realized: scholars no longer think that alphabetic writing began with the Phoenicians! Those people took it up when it was already a thousand years old. It seems that even this can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where some workers or soldiers in the employ of Egypt grabbed hieroglyphs for words that started with certain sounds, and used those pictures to represent the sounds themselves. Egyptian inscriptions have been found that show this alphabet in use for a Semitic language.

Through the Phoenicians, who refined this alphabet, and then through the Greeks (via trade with the Phoenicians) and then the Romans (adopting Greek writing), and then the various societies that arose as the Roman Empire vanished, we can trace those original Egyptian shapes as they gradually change into the forms and sounds that most of our letters have today. And an even more fascinating fact is that in virtually every language in the world that uses an actual alphabet instead of pictographs or syllabic writing, its alphabet descends from that original alphabet created in Egypt, either through the Phoenician alphabet or a sister South Arabian alphabet. Isn’t that cool?

Sacks also researched the history of each individual letter (and even some letters that no longer exist) and gives each letter its own chapter in the book. So as well as learning things like how the letter “F” actually began as the “W” sound and how it got changed, we learn how some letters have taken on a certain character over the centuries. (“A” means top-notch or top of the class, while the kind of lacklustre “E for effort” got a new lease on life with the development of the Internet and things like “e-mail” and “e-commerce.” And we know the various naughty things that “F” gets up to, while “V,” and “W” can thank their lucky stars that they had the mother they did — “U.”)

Along the way, we also learn some of the history of the societies through which the alphabet passed. We find out just how the trade between the Phoenicians and the Greeks moved the alphabet westward. (Imagine! If the Phoenicians hadn’t ventured as far as they did, we might be expressing things in very complicated, cumbersome pictographs at this very moment. Imagine a blog written like that.) And we realize that many of the Greek names for letters, which we are so familiar with through mathematics and other disciplines, are simply a translation of the original Semitic letter names into more Greek-sounding words. So the Semitic “daleth” became “delta.” “Gimel” became “gamma.” “Lamed” became “lambda.” “Kaph” became “kappa.” And so on.

We aren’t that far away from that very first alphabet, whatever we may think. Thanks to a rudimentary Egyptian picture=sound system picked up by groups of soldiers and transferred to their own Semitic language, there is a vast world of information and literature out there, in almost countless languages and dialects, that would have been much harder (if not impossible) to develop or to express if that ancient alphabet hadn’t existed.

If you love history and especially if you love the intricacies and history of language, I bet you’d really love this book.

(** See, regarding the book title, the thing is, according to Sacks, that he “took some bad advice.” Which is why the hardcover has the name of the book I read, while the name of the Canadian paperback is Letter Perfect: The A to Z History of our Alphabet, the name of the U.S. paperback is Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of our Alphabet from A to Z, and the U.K. hardocver and paperback are both just called The Alphabet. Like I said above–complicated.)

(And while we’re on the subject, might I recommend another post of mine on one of my writing blogs: Why the Alphabet is the Best Invention Ever.)

Reading Through the Bookcase: Artemis Fowl

My five Artemis Fowl books

I saved this till I had read all five of my Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer. (Even though I detoured twice before I finished the lot.)

When the Harry Potter books were well underway, a few other books began to appear that seemed to be taking advantage of the YA desire for fantasy novels along similar lines: stories that involved older kids or younger teens from our own world who suddenly discovered that there was a magical dimension to the world that remained hidden from everyone else (especially adults). One of the main series that started in the midst of Pottermania was the Artemis Fowl series.

It’s about a wealthy, pre-teen genius boy who discovers that the denizens of the old Faerie world of the legends (primarily Irish) had really existed but had just moved underground to create a whole new society there, when they came into conflict with humans. Artemis, being a self-proclaimed criminal mastermind, calculates how to find this fairy world, reasoning that he should be able to trick that society into handing over the legendary “pot of gold” that has been talked about in so many tales and myths. He manages to capture Holly Short, an elf who is the first female captain of the Lower Elements Police Recon squad (LEP Recon. Leprecon. Get it?), and  demands a large amount of fairy gold as a ransom.

And so it all begins! In the five books I have (naturally I don’t have all eight; when do I ever have a complete set??), we watch Artemis get more and more human and, more importantly, humane. Even while he retains his deviousness, he comes to appreciate and even love the citizens of Haven City, below ground (including such characters as Foaly the technowizard centaur and Mulch Diggums, a member of the dwarf race who burrow underground in a most…interesting way). And most of all, Artemis appreciates that the existence of Haven City and all the fairy races must remain a secret from humanity, lest other humans try to exploit the magical races and end up destroying them. So the fairies and Artemis do a great deal for each other over several years, and Holly Short develops a lasting friendship with Artemis and his brilliant and worldly-wise bodyguard, Butler, with all his underworld connections and martial arts skills.

Eoin Colfer at the Toronto Public Library, September 2011

Eoin Colfer at the Toronto Public Library, September 2011

I have friends who think that the Artemis Fowl books were just a “ripoff,” of sorts, of the Harry Potter books. The first Fowl book was published flush in the middle of the Potter popularity. And the series, as my friends are swift to point out, isn’t nearly as unified and deep in its ideas. Nor, they say, is it written all that well.

Frankly, I don’t agree, and I don’t care anyway.If this series were a clear copy of the storyline from the Potter books, that would be a different matter. (She says, shuddering at the horrible memory of The Sword of Shannara and the plot of The Lord of the Rings.) It’s true that this series takes up figures from legend and folklore and brings them into this world. So did the Narnia books. So do a lot of other books. And yes, the main character starts out about the same age as Harry Potter. (Artemis, too, was eleven years old at the beginning, and given that there are three more books after the ones I have, he’s likely to end up about the same age as Harry did.) It is said that there are only, really, about seven or eight basic storylines in the world, and that every story ever told is a variation of one of them. It doesn’t bother me that there are some similarities between stories. A pre-teen discovers a secret magical world connected to this one–how different could you make it, really?

And as to this series’ “not being written very well”…well, that has been a big complaint from people who don’t like the Harry Potter books too. (“She’s really not a very good writer.” How often I’ve heard that from people! The adults, that is, who weren’t sitting eagerly waiting for the next book or the next movie.) Neither of these series is grand, High Literature. But who cares? Eoin Colfer tells a really good story for the people who enjoy this sort of tale, and he adds some good laughs into the mix as well.

So I had a really nice trip through this part of the top shelf of my SF&F bookcase.

If you’re an Artemis Fowl fan yourself, it might interest you to know that Disney is supposedly developing a movie. If so, I can’t wait to see it!

And check out my own description, three years ago today, of an evening with Eoin Colfer at the Toronto Public Library.

A Detour to The Disappearing Spoon

Disappearing Spoon - book cover pic - PhylI may be doing the “Reading Through My Bookcases” thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t divert from time to time to read something else interesting. I was almost done my Artemis Fowl books (more on them in a future post), and I needed a break. And my birthday came up, and my mom sent some money, and I happened to buy a book that’s been on my TBR list for a long time: The Disappearing Spoon. So I read it.

And listen up, science buffs! It may be four years since it was published, but The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, is well worth reading, and it’s likely to be timeless. It’s about the periodic table—and yes, you heard me right. This is one of the books that takes the high school foundation of most of our scientific knowledge and actually brings it to life and makes it seem important to our everyday lives.

I’m sure that a lot of us saw the periodic table—that table listing all the known elements of the universe—hanging on the classroom wall in basic science classes or chemistry classes in school. The table organizes the elements in rows and columns that are determined by the things that groups of elements have in common. (Multiples of the same number of protons and neutrons in their nuclei, for example.) But there is way more to that table than just a bunch of lists. When you read Sam Kean describing how these elements were discovered, and then how scientists figured out enough about the elements to organize them into this table, you realize that almost the entire history of science is just sitting there in front of you, calmly waiting in all those rows and all those columns.

I’d always had the impression that most of the elements were just sort of “figured out” while isolated scientists here and there were doing their own experiments. Many of them were, but what I didn’t know was that the science world eventually figured out that there were way more elements out there to discover—there were gaps in the record that indicated that another element should exist between two others, for example—and then the race was on! I didn’t know what jealousies and grudges there could be as one scientist might get credit for discovering an element that another scientist actually discovered first. Oh, the woes of a delay in publication of an academic paper or of its presentation before an august scientific body! There was even a race between famous American and German universities to find new elements, and whenever the Americans found one, the news would make the New York Times.

I suppose we can still distantly relate to that one, can’t we, even though discoveries of new elements are now more theoretical than anything else? Except that we’ve come far enough that we’re now looking for the infinitesimally small particles that underlie those elements. Remember the excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson? That sort of thing happened a lot.

Kean gives us many anecdotes that show how fascinating and intriguing the history of the elements has been. Marie Curie got quite a reputation when she used to drag fellow scientists into a closet to show them her experiments with things that glowed in the dark. (The scientists’ wives didn’t take too kindly to this, but you might say that the radioactive elements gave them their eventual revenge by giving Curie aplastic anemia and bringing about her death.) Then there was the story from World War II about the German company (Metallgesellschaft) whose innocent-sounding subsidiary, American Metal, shipped tons and tons of molybdenum from a big mine in Bartlett Mountain in Colorado, to strengthen the huge German guns before the Americans finally stopped the shipments—in 1918.

People have actually hated certain elements, like followers of Gandhi who viewed the government’s requirement of adding iodine to salt (for genuine health purposes) to be just one more colonialist ploy, since common people who mined and sold salt as individuals could not add iodine to their products. People have also loved other elements a bit too much, like those who put toxic mercury into laxatives. What a way to go! And I had no idea that the plentiful aluminum that we easily throw away now used to be the most priceless substance in the world, before Charles Hall figured out how to extract it really cheaply. Put that aluminum tent over your turkey, next Thanksgiving or Christmas, and try to imagine wrapping it instead with a thin sheet of gold. It was like that.

Kean doesn’t deal with each element individually (he’d need 100+ chapters), but he organizes his chapters much a little bit like the periodic table itself is organized. That is, sometimes he deals with elements that are all in the same family, while at other times he talks about elements that all played similar roles. So you get such chapters as, “Elements in Times of War” (molybdenum is in here) or “Political Elements” or “Elements as Money.” The history and the science weave together in a fascinating and—dare I say it?—truly educational way. Chemistry class in high school was never like this! Maybe it should have been.

Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering why the book is called The Disappearing Spoon. You find that out in the chapter where gallium makes its appearance. It’s a silver-looking element that is quite solid at room temperature, but its melting temperature is slightly under 30 degrees Celsius (just below 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, it used to be a prank in laboratories to mold a teaspoon out of gallium, which would then melt when somebody tried to use it to stir a cup of tea. Oh, those wacky scientists!

I have an advantage in having gone four years since deciding I wanted to read The Disappearing Spoon. Now I can also look forward to reading Kean’s book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb, from 2012, as well as his book about how the human brain functions, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), published just this year. If those books are anywhere near as educational and informative as this one, they’re going to be a real treat!

Reading Through the Bookcase: Pat Barker

Regeneration Trilogy

I’m a bit late in updating, but believe me, I’ve been reading! I switched for a while away from my science fiction/fantasy shelves to go for some historical fiction. Next up on the fiction shelf was British author Pat Barker and her Regeneration Trilogy.

Remember that massive power blackout on the eastern side of North America for a day or two in the second week of August in 2003? My clearest memory of it is lying on my futon on the floor and reading this entire trilogy from start to finish, sweltering. Oddly, though, I didn’t remember a single detail from the books when I picked them up again this time. All I knew was that the story took place during World War I, and with this summer being the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, and all, I was very reluctant to read still more about it.

Silly me. Once I started this trilogy, I could not put it down. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed a set of books so very much, and I can see why, back on that hot summer day in 2003, I didn’t do a thing except read and read and read.

For one thing, except for some of the final scenes of the third book, none of the story actually takes place in the trenches or on the battlefield at all. Most of the first book, Regeneration, is set in the mental institution of Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, Scotland, where psychiatrist William Rivers treats soldiers who have come out of the war with psychological problems, trying to get them fit to send back to the trenches. I loved Barker’s portrayal of this man and his private thoughts and his relationships with his patients. She portrayed him as a very kind man who had his own faults and struggles–not to mention his own internal conflicts about morality and duty with respect to the war–but who thought and felt deeply about the welfare of his patients and what might be behind their mental difficulties. I’ve been so inspired that I want to find out much more about this man and what he was like in real life.

I love that a great many important characters in this trilogy were real people. I get intrigued by them and usually want to follow up and either read their own work or read what else is written and known about them. Rivers is the main character of the first book, but a very large role is also played by one of his patients, real-life poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is protesting the war and yet feels guilty for leaving his men behind in the field. And we meet another real-life poet, Wilfred Owen, who even I had heard of as a young war poet who died in battle. We even have a brief encounter or two with Robert Graves, Sassoon’s friend. (Yes–that Robert Graves, of I, Claudius and The White Goddess fame.)

The other main character was Billy Prior, who was not a real historical person but who was created, according to Barker, as a contrast to Sassoon and Owen. Dr. Rivers is still very present in books two and three, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, but not as much as in book one. We follow Billy Prior’s own struggles in book two with what we now recognize as PTSD as he finally overcomes a lot of his own difficulties and, in book three, heads at last back to the battlefield. It’s no surprise, of course, that those war camp/battlefield scenes are the least interesting parts of the trilogy, to me. Just not my thing. See: my reluctance to pick up the trilogy, above.

But the psychology of it all! Now, that’s my cup of tea. It was fascinating to see Rivers beginning to explore ideas and the germs of theories that we now see in full bloom, a century later. It was intriguing to see where the germs of those ideas might have come from, in the depths of a conflict that roiled up every possible type of psychological process.

I might have been reluctant to pick up this trilogy and read it again, but I am so glad that the reluctance vanished and I did so! I remembered hearing an interview with Ms. Barker not long before the 2003 blackout, where she discussed these books. That had been why I had bought them, in fact. I may have forgotten all the details after that first reading, but somehow I don’t think I’m going to forget anything from this trilogy this time around.

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