The alphabet is such a fundamental part of our lives we very rarely stop to wonder where it came from – or why its letters are shaped the way they are, how they came to signify the sounds they do, how it all actually works. So, what is the alphabet?
Take that, Kipling
At some stage in primary school I got, through the Ashton Scholastic Book Club, my very own copy of the Just So Stories. How the Whale got his Throat and How the Leopard got his Spots were all well and good (and reading the book was worth it just to come across the word ‘Limpopo’ – so exotic and tantalising and melodious), but the only story that really got stuck in my mind was the one about little Taffy and her dad in How the Alphabet was Made. I loved it, and read it again and again, and every time it infuriated me even more.
In the story, a girl from long, long ago hangs out with her dad, and together they devise the alphabet. ‘A’ comes about because it’s shaped like the mouth of someone saying ‘ah’, and so on. But it just frustrated me. I knew the alphabet had to have come from somewhere, and I really, really wanted to know where, but I didn’t know whether this story was all made up, or based on half truths, or based in actual history (there’s an illustration of an artifact at the end – real or made up?) – and I didn’t know how to find out either way.
Skip forward a zillion years, and I finally find relief and answers in a little book called A is for Ox.
How I found it
I was in my local second-hand bookshop for no other reason than that browsing shelves calms me down, and I saw A is for Ox. I got it down because I mistook it briefly for the kid’s book title A is for Musk Ox but instead I discovered it was the answer to every question Kipling raised. Also, it was one of those most-beautiful-books-in-the-world-(but-super-expensive) Folio editions. Also, this one was in pristine condition, only eight bucks, and smelled like printing presses and shoe leather. I bought it.
Bugatti Veyrons, Vermeer, cathedrals and so on
Even before I talk about the text (which is pretty great), a few notes on the physical and visual object.
There are things in the world that you own because they do their job – say, a dictionary, a suburban weatherboard house, the kind of framed artwork in a hotel, a Volvo. Then there are things that you get (if you can) because they’re pleasurable – a coffee table photo book, an architecturally-designed house, an oil painting, a Lotus Elise. And then there are objects that go way beyond either category and make you go, ‘I think right now I am looking at evidence that the human race is really capable of almost supernatural awesomeness.’ Like being in Cologne Cathedral, or seeing a painting by Vermeer, or the Bugatti Veyron. This book is like those things, and it kind of makes me feel kind of wobbly in the arms it’s so lovely.
How do I love it? Let me count the ways. The impeccably-bound cover with its perfectly crisp hospital-corner folds. The rough rubbled texture of the canvas. The gold-embossed A. The sturdy hinge that opens to reveal bright orange endpapers that match the book sleeve and the subtitles and illustrations inside. The sturdy matt pages that make a little ‘foop’ sound when you flip through them. The perfect layout of text: the rounded but elegant serif font, the use of colour and italics in the subtitles and running heads, and the word spacing that’s somehow been engineered to give justified text with minimal hyphenation, even in lines containing strings 26 characters long. The incorporation of ancient symbols in the text without disruption. The harmonious layout of images. The examples of beautiful fonts like Trajan and uncials. The balanced design of the double-page spreads for each letter of the alphabet. The infographic in the middle. The smell of the State Library and expensive shoe shops. Yeah, I have a kind of bibliophilic boner for this book.
What’s more, the author seems to have done both the design and the text – as well as some of the graphics, like taking the rubbing of the inscription that’s the background image on the cover. This is spectacularly awesome. She and Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the writer and designer of The Cloudspotter’s Guide, should get together for a nice cup of tea one day, and fall in love over their mutual book-making genius, and maybe even create a super race of book-making progeny that will ensure the arguments over whether e-books will render real books superfluous will never ever be raised seriously ever again.
The writing part
This is a small book, divided into two parts. The first half tells the story of alphabet creation, which basically goes like this: Egyptian hieroglyphs gradually morph into a system of single sounds, which is adopted by the widely-traveling Phoenecians, who spread it to the Greeks, who add vowel symbols, which are then adopted by the Etruscans, who change the usage of certain symbols because their language doesn’t have need for some sounds (like ‘g’ or ‘b’), who then pass the system on to the Romans, who put the sounds back in, and from there the written forms (particularly lower case) continue to evolve based on what are the easiest shapes for the writing tools of any given time.
It’s an interesting story that covers the effects on letter shapes of various tools (wedge-shaped cuneiform tool, chisel, pen) and of language (e.g. with or without voiced consonants) and of writing style (left-to-right, vice versa, or boustrophedon) and of need (quick records of transactions, or extended religious passages). It’s basically giving you the background and vocabulary to understand the second half of the book, where a double page is devoted to the evolution of each letter of the alphabet.
It’s always bugged me when people say something like, ‘The letter A formed from something that looked like an ox’s head, which then naturally evolved to the A shape we all know and love today.’ Why couldn’t the ox head also have become an V or an O? No explanation. But in this book you are given some of the intervening story: the ox head had its antlers extended, which then formed the basis of the more abstract shape, which turned to its side with the Greeks (and changed sides depending on which direction they felt like writing at the time) and then eventually sat upright. Then the Romans gave it the eyegasmically proportional form we are familiar with. And the two lower case ‘a’ forms arose from a calligraphers taking short cuts, also described in the text and images.
Understanding the story of the alphabet’s development turns out to also explain extra stuff like why we have two letters (k and c) for the hard ‘k’ sound in English, and why the Americans say ‘zee’ and the Brits say ‘zed’, and why there are two forms of the lower case letter ‘a’ and so on.
At the end, in a short section, the author makes a comment on how new communication media – like emails and txting – are causing our written forms 2 evolve onwrds just like the ancient processes that created the alphabet in the 1st plce. It’s a nice way to finish the book. And then at the very end, the index uses the ancient letterforms as section headings – in the same burnt orange colour as the book endpapers. Even lovelier.
Now I may actually be able to re-read Just So Stories again – and calmly. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not the real story about how the whale got its throat, either.
This book was mostly read in the Ground Floor Cafe.
Special bonus link
The history of the formation of letters not specific enough a subject for you? Here is a whole blog about just the lowercase letter ‘g’.