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.)

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