26 Stories to Tell

Why the letters of our alphabet look and sound the way they do.

Perhaps it is fitting that the English language should use the Roman alphabet. English has passed through so many evolutions, with so many influences and borrowings, and its words have changed so much in meaning over time, it might as well use a borrowed alphabet that has just as checkered a history, and use it in an irregular and abnormal fashion. A language that can have two words, “cleave” and “cleave,” spelled and sounding the same but meaning “adhere” and “divide,” can handle using a letter—C—to represent two quite different sounds, [k] and [s]. A language that can have dozens of synonyms for some words but does not have an easy future or past tense for “can” (“will be able to”? yuck) probably should have at least three letters to represent the sound [k] but still needs to combine letters to represent other basic sounds such as those heard in “sheathe” (the closing sound of which English used to have a perfectly good single letter for, but which we discarded for the sake of fashion). And a language in which words such as “awful” and “doubt” can go through a complete change of connotation within a couple of centuries could hardly do without letters like F, U and Y, all of which began life millennia ago as the same letter, a letter that stood for the sound [w]—a sound that is now represented by a letter made by a doubling of the original shape of the letter U (a shape now used by the newer letter V).

With this rather fascinating perversity and tortuous history as his focus, David Sacks—a writer on culture and a sometime classicist—decided it was about time to do an exploration of the full story behind each of the letters we use in English. And it is not a dry book; originally conceived as a 26-part series for the Ottawa Citizen, it has a reasonable amount of wit and a wealth of illustrations and tables, allowing the reader to see all the stages of evolution and to trace the whole process clearly. Sacks has done a lot of good research and illustration acquisition in support of his main through-line. The reader can see at a persuasive glance the various mutations the alphabet has gone through, from the first known use of signs to represent individual sounds in Egypt 4,000 years ago, through Phoenician adaptations and their evolution into Hebrew script, on to the adaptation and partial confusion of the Phoenician alphabet by the Greeks to include signs for vowel sounds, and on to the Latin forms by way of the Etruscans—who spoke a language quite different from Greek or Latin. And, from the perfection of the capital letter form in Roman inscription, Sacks shows the evolution of lowercase letter forms and the various changes in shape and sound value of the letters in the past two millennia, plus the sometimes hesitant addition of new letters, up to the completion of the set with the rather late and grudging acceptance of J and V as separate letters (they were not accorded full independence from their parents I and U until the 19th century). He does this in two ways: he gives each of our current 26 letters a chapter tracing its development from its earliest (and often surprising) precursor to its modern forms and usages, and he traces the development of the alphabet as a whole in the sidebars that follow many of the chapters.

Sacks’s information on the history of the letters is reliable and well researched. He enlightens the reader on things that have surely long puzzled many, such as the association of “Rx” with pharmacy (from an abbreviation of Latin “recipe,” meaning “take,” with the x actually just a slash on the tail of the R to indicate the abbreviation) and why we put X’s as signs of kisses at the end of a letter (because centuries ago the illiterate could sign an agreement with a cross or X and then kiss it as a promise to abide by the agreement). And he manages to get his facts straight on many details where many others have perpetuated misconceptions, for instance in the origins of “OK” and “mind your p’s and q’s” (I won’t give these away— actually, they would take too much space to explain here). I am particularly tickled that he explains how the Y in “Ye Olde” is actually a corruption of a now disused letter representing a “th” sound (so it is really “The Olde”)—now if only sign makers and marketers could get it straight.

Sacks is an enthusiastic author. His interest in the subject is well communicated to the reader, and he is sure to provoke a similar enthusiasm for the subject in many. He shows how nearly all the alphabets in the world are descended from the same original alphabet. He notes that the Hebrew letter aleph, precursor to our A, is seen in the Kabbalistic tradition as representing the divine energy that preceded and initiated creation, which is why (the Kabbalists contend) the Bible begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beth: Bereshith, “In the beginning.” He points out that baby talk seems to influence adult talk—in particular words for “mother” and “father,” which can be remarkably similar even in completely unrelated languages, tending to involve “ma” and “da” sounds. He also obliges the reader with explanations of such things as theories of how H (“aitch”) got its name, why W is a “double u” and not a “double v,” and how small i got its dot (I’ll tell you this one: in medieval script, the dot—originally a stroke: í—was added so the letter would be more distinguishable on the page, quite useful in words such as “minimum”).

Sacks does not stay in the past, either; he brings the letters right up to the present, discussing their popular usages (the viral spread of “e-” lately, for example, and appearances of M in books by Lewis Carroll and Ian Fleming) and connotations (very positive for A, for instance, and rather more negative for F).However, he does run a bit too far with some interpretations in order to press a nice, tidy point.Discoursing on O, he tells us (rather like an overzealous art student writing a museum placard) that brand names such as Veg-O-Matic “visually use O to suggest push-button ease,” that a fairly run-of-the-mill capital O on the word “offered” in a real estate ad “seems to invite a bid, or at least a look,” and that “the hidden source of O’s commercial strength” is “its subliminal vaginal reference.”Of S, he tells us it is “nearly an infinity symbol” and as such “can imply timeless continuity.” Not to me, it can’t.

Sacks also stumbles in one other area of some importance: pronunciation. This is something of a pity, since his history of the alphabet follows the evolution not just of the letter forms but also of their pronunciation, in English and in other languages. To be fair, it can be difficult to draw a clean line between details of pronunciation that are germane to the topic at hand and those that are not. Moreover, giving pronunciation guides in English can be cussedly difficult, what with the wild inconsistencies of our spelling, and Sacks could not get too technical without risking losing his audience. But he can only confuse readers by using “hard ‘ch’” to refer to a sound as in German “ach” on one page and to a basic [k] sound on the next, or by representing the sound heard at the beginning of “Zhivago” and French “je” as “shj” (what’s wrong with “zh”?). And if he is going to cite an example from another language, it would not be too hard to double-check it and avoid saying, for example, that the Mandarin pronunciation of “Beijing” ends in a hard [k].

There are also a few details of design that may not be Sacks’s fault but do detract slightly from the book. Sidebars that work well on a newspaper page can be more disruptive as multiple-page interruptions in a book. As well, one would think that a book that deals with the various forms of letters—even describing typefaces—would show careful attention to its own typography, but the designer has been confusingly inconsistent with the italic fonts in the sidebars. And a final irony: one would expect this book, of all books, to have a colophon, a little paragraph on an end page that describes the type faces used in the publication. It does not. In fact, the only place the word “colophon” is to be found in the book is on the bibliographic information page: “Knopf Canada and colophon are trademarks.”

With the above protests registered, however, I will nonetheless recommend Language Visible. In the main thrust of the book, Sacks has produced a valuable, well-researched and highly readable work, and if I am going to keep it on my shelf and use it as a reference— and I am—I can hardly say others should not do likewise. What’s more, I would recommend it to a very wide audience: pretty much everyone who uses the alphabet, which includes all of the readers of the LRC and probably some of their pets as well.