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Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z Hardcover – August 19, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Following up on his Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World, Sacks here delves into the origins of the Roman alphabet. Its beginnings appear to lie with Semitic-speaking mercenaries in Egypt, who borrowed from their overlords' hieroglyphics to create a system of sound-representing signs, many of which survive today in the Hebrew alphabet. Along the way, the Indo-European Greek language borrowed the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians, which when transmuted by the Romans gave us 24 of our 26 modern English letters. The bulk of the book offers beautifully illustrated capsule biographies of all 26, including J and V, which did not enter regular usage until the 17th century and were not standardized until the 19th. Beyond initial "A", the Sacks covers the first letters of several of the words for God; M, which begins an extraordinary number of the words for "Mother"; and "O," which requires the most shaping by the lips. There are essays on lexicographers (Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, among others), on printing, and on how the letter X came to stand for the unknown in mathematics because Descartes's printer was running out of Ys and Zs to print all of the mathematician's equations. Such anecdotes, and the care evinced throughout, make this a demanding gem of popular linguistic history, and any book that includes a chapter called "The Birth of `V'ness" certainly avoids taking itself too seriously.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From aleph (ancient forerunner of our own a), discovered carved in Egyptian stone as part of the oldest known alphabetic inscription, all the way to the repeated Zs that help give the rock group ZZ Top its name, journalist Sacks unfolds the romance and magic of the English alphabet. Although Sacks writes for nonspecialists, he distills an impressive range of scholarship into his examination of the alphabet's complex cultural history. Readers learn about the astonishing recent archaeological discoveries in central Egypt that have overturned previous theories locating the alphabet's origins in ancient Canaan. We likewise learn about the surprising linguistic flexibility that allowed a single alphabet to jump language barriers around the world, thus giving most of the globe's literate populations recognizably related scripts. This is a delightfully entertaining and engrossing tale of how the score of Roman letters that arrived in England in the seventh century eventually gave us everything from the poetry of William Shakespeare to the official grades used by meat inspectors to evaluate chicken. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
As the author points out on page ix of the preface, this is not intended to be a text book. No doubt expert linguists will be able to point out inaccuracies in the text, or quibble over some of the author's conclusions. For me, on the other hand, this is a veritable treasure trove of fascinating little nuggets of information on our familiar letters. Some of these are things I've known from childhood, looking at the big dictionary in the school library at the start of the section for each letter, where there would be diagrams showing the evolution of the symbol from ancient Phoenician up to the present day. I've picked up other bits of trivia along the way while doing research on historical topics such as the pivotal Battle of Hastings in 1066. Having it all together, under one figurative roof, on my own bookshelf, is priceless.
True, the book focuses on the English language, but by necessity it also talks about German, French, Italian and Spanish, as well as earlier languages stretching back to Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew and Phoenician. With a little ancient Egyptian thrown in for good measure. For that is another nifty thing about this book: it takes advantage of discoveries made as recently as 1999, linking our familiar alphabet to certain exotic-looking Egyptian hieroglyphs. The introductory section tells how a group of Semitic people living in Egypt some 4000 years ago hit upon the ingenious idea of using easily remembered hieroglyphic symbols to represent individual sounds, strung together to form words. All of a sudden ordinary people, be they butchers, bakers or bricklayers, could learn to read and write in a matter of days. Literacy was no longer the exclusive domain of scribes, kings and priests.
The main part of the book consists of 26 articles, one for each letter, which were originally published in the Canadian newspaper "Ottawa Citizen" over a period of 26 weeks. While they've been edited somewhat for the book, to include such things as page references to related topics, they don't appear to have been completely rewritten. This is made evident by a certain amount of repetition from one chapter to the next, as might be expected given how a person reading the original "M" newspaper article might not have seen the "A" article published three months earlier.
Actually, this suited me just fine: as quickly as I plowed through the book, devouring the whole thing in less than a week, things had a way of running together, so the repetition came in handy. Some day soon I'll have to reread it all ....
Besides tracing the history of the letters, the chapters also go into their cultural significance in English, clear up to the start of the 21st Century. David Sacks also has a whimsical sense of humor. For instance, when discussing the silent P in certain Greek-derived words like "psychiatrist", he makes this humorous aside: "As every schoolboy knows, there can be a silent P in swimming".
Other features I greatly enjoyed include the family tree linking all of the world's major alphabets back to the Egyptians (with the sole exception of Korea's Hangul alphabet, which was invented from scratch). Also, there are tables listing the ancient Phoenician and modern Hebrew alphabets, plus the original Greek, Etruscan and Latin alphabets. Plus, several of the chapters have inset grey boxes, sometimes extending for pages on end, discussing topics like the following:
1) The evolution of writing from Roman times through the Middle Ages, and where lowercase letters come from.
2) The impact of the invention of Gutenberg's printing press on the modern world.
3) Why there is a noticeable difference between British and American spelling.
4) What happened to certain runic letters which appeared in Old English works like Beowulf, but which have disappeared since?
Sprinkled throughout the book are answers to a myriad of other questions as well. Have you ever wondered why are there sign posts saying odd things like "Ye Olde English Pub?" Why does the Spanish J sound like H, while the V sounds like B? How did Julius Caesar likely pronounce "Veni, Vidi, Vici"? Why is it important to mind your P's and Q's? Where did the expression "okay" come from? What does "Beowulf" mean?
I could go on and on ad nauseam but will stop here. Just get the book and read it for yourself. You won't regret it.