ALPHABETICAL: How Every Letter Tells a Story
By Michael Rosen
Counterpoint. 431 pp. $25
Now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me?
If you’ve ever chanted the alphabet song or taught it to a child, you’ve lied there at the end. You don’t know your ABCs — not even close. Sure, you know the order of the letters; congratulations. But do you know when we started using capital letters? Or how a wavy line with five peaks in a 4,000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyph became our M? Or for that matter, do you know, as They Might Be Giants has so sagely asked, who put the alphabet in alphabetical order?
Michael Rosen knows his ABCs. A poet, novelist and host of the BBC radio show “Word of Mouth,” he has spent a lifetime pondering and deciphering this “cunning code,” as he calls it. In “Alphabetical,” he doesn’t just explore the creation, evolution, pronunciation and uses of each letter throughout the centuries, but digresses into delightful tales of the personalities who shaped the English alphabet into what it has finally become. Though I shouldn’t say “finally.” In Rosen’s telling, letters are born, grow, fight, change or die. Don’t count on these 26 letters being the last word.
Rosen is an alphabet anarchist. He regards rules of spelling and usage as arrangements of convenience — and temporary ones at that. “At any given moment in time, a writing system is asked, by the people who know how to use it, to perform tasks,” Rosen writes. “If any of these tasks break down because the symbols don’t work or are thought to be insufficient or redundant, then it will follow that people will invent new symbols and processes for writing and reading.” Just about anything that causes individuals’ lives to change — war, migration, technology, industry, education, government — can propel changes in the alphabet.
“Alphabetical” is organized into 26 chapters (surprise), each devoted to one letter. They begin identically, with a brief explanation of a letter’s origins, name, uses and pronunciations. In creating letters, the Phoenicians and the Greeks are usually at work early, with the Romans jumping in late, adding the serifs and probably taking too much credit. Rosen’s descriptions betray his nerdy excitement — “The Phoenician ‘Q’ from 1000 BCE was ‘qoph’ which possibly meant ‘monkey,’ possibly ‘a ball of wool’!” — and also make you reconsider the purpose of individual letters. “If spelling were a matter of purely rational divvying-out of letters to match sounds,” he explains, “then all soft ‘s’ sounds would be indicated with ‘s,’ and all hard ‘k’ sounds with the ‘k;’ the ‘c’ could be buried with Caesar.” And he refers to the Great Vowel Shift — the period between 1400 and 1600 A.D. when pronunciation of the letter A went from “ah” to “ay” and when E morphed from “ay” to “ee,” among other changes — with a reverence some might reserve for the Treaty of Westphalia or the Big Bang.
But with each letter, Rosen also veers off course, using the chapters as excuses to explore whatever he finds instructive or entertaining. In the chapter “D is for Disappeared Letters,” for example, he uses the opening lines of “Beowulf” to show how letters such as “yogh” and “wynn” have left us. In “J is for Jokes,” he explains why the alphabet has only 25 letters at Christmastime (“No-el, no-el, no-el, no-e-e-el”). And in “U is for Umlaut,” he destroys my faith in ice cream by explaining that the corporate name Häagen-Dazs “doesn’t mean anything to anyone anywhere in any language.” There’s a scoop for you.
So, consciously or not, the book’s organization tracks the author’s vision of his subject: basic predictability interspersed with enormous variations, sudden leaps and barely grazing tangents. It also seems to be a book Rosen was born to write. In endearing asides, he recalls quizzing his father with the toughest words he could find in the dictionary (“How could he possibly know the meaning of ‘heterostrophic’?”) and sitting by his mother as she typed, watching how “her long fingers hammered away, how the metal letters stuck on their thin arms flailed to and fro, how the ribbon jumped up and down, and the ribbon’s wheels jigged around.” Rosen also gets nostalgic about a two-week typing course he took long ago: “All day we did the exercises, ‘frf’, ‘juj’, ‘kik’, ‘ded.’ Hours and hours forcing my mind, fingers, keys and letters to work along in synch. I loved it.”
Too many books take us deep inside an excruciatingly specific subject — a year, a speech, an object — and claim its outsize importance. (The titles are usually something like “[Name of the Thing]: The [Category of the Thing] That Shaped the Modern World.”) Rosen occasionally comes close, suggesting that the alphabet tells “the story of global power,” which is all about “how people in power have tried to make their messages secret whilst trying to read the secret messages of others.” Even so, he has a good case: Humanity’s transition from drawing pictures on walls to inventing symbols that match sounds was a true revolution. Rosen doesn’t have to tell us how momentous his subject is. His stories are convincing enough.
Still, for a guy so captivated by these 26 characters, Rosen can easily imagine a world without the alphabet — or at least a world in which its importance is greatly diminished. The power of alphabetical order, with us at least since Zenodotus organized the Library of Alexandria in the late third century B.C., has eroded in the age of Google and Wikipedia, Rosen argues. “When we use search engines,” he writes, “we don’t run our thumbs down any real, virtual or metaphorical alphabet.” And if the alphabet ceases to be the way we classify human knowledge, “why should the alphabetical order of letters survive?”
Besides, Rosen reminds us, the Chinese have not felt the need to develop an alphabet, “and the Chinese are doing just fine.”
The power to spread and transform the alphabet — once concentrated among medieval scribes, British and French printers, or Christian missionaries spreading words to spread the Word — has been democratized. Now, Rosen exults, with tablets and smartphones, “the smallest building blocks of the shared written language (i.e. print) are more in your hands . . . than they have ever been.”
And that is where he believes they should reside. The author is contemptuous of language reformers or protectors. “When people object to the way other people speak, it rarely has any linguistic logic to it,” he writes. “It is nearly always because of the way that particular linguistic feature is seen to belong to a cluster of social features that are disliked.” In other words, reformers are snobs. And when you read that George Bernard Shaw once dismissed apostrophes as “uncouth bacilli,” it’s hard to disagree.
But how do we know what’s right, then? For instance, is it “a historian” or “an historian, with the silent H? Rosen doesn’t care: “You choose. And once you’ve chosen, please don’t tell someone else that they’ve got it wrong.”
So let “Alphabetical” inspire you to improvise, innovate and disrupt with letters. We’re always beta-testing the alphabet, anyway. Rosen, for one, wants to add a letter for the sound at the beginning of words such as “about” and “America” (known linguistically as the schwa), and seems confident it’ll happen. And when you find yourself staring far too long at the shape of an F or comparing where you press your tongue to pronounce L vs. D, you’ll know you’ve opened an unusual book. After reading it, it’s hard to look at a keyboard, a street sign or even your handwriting in quite the same way.
For that you can thank Michael Rosen, a true man of letters.
Read more from Book Party: