Ever since I was just a little tyke, I had a fascination with letters. I loved playing with them. The refrigerator, the radiators and anything else that had a magnetic quality in the house were covered in my “wetters” (and numbers). In fact, I can clearly remember one day in nursery school – my memory is scary like that – when my teacher told me, “Today, I want you to give somebody else a chance to play with the letters.” I accepted this, but I wasn’t happy. And the next day, I went right back to playing with the letters. Even to this day, at age 35, I still love language and words, and the letters that help to communicate ideas to us.
Author David Sacks clearly feels the same fascination for these alphabetic symbols as I do. His recent (2003) book Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z takes a detailed but humorous look at how our letters came to be. His previous book, The Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World is what compelled him to look even further into the history of the alphabet, exploring how the Greeks got their alphabet from the Semitic Phoenicians, and how the Etruscans and then the Romans got their letters from the Greeks.
He gives an overview of the alphabet as a whole, and then devotes entire chapters to each letter (Chapter A, Chapter B, etc.). In addition to what the letters may signify in our society (A is top-quality, F is shackled with being known for the infamous “F-word,” X means the unknown or stands for something very risque), he analyzes their sounds and how their shapes came about.
For those with an admittedly dry sense of humor, the book is loaded with laugh-out-loud attempts to personalize each letter, such as: “J was born from I … The pregnancy and birth labor took 1,000 years,” “Like many mothers of grown children, U looked rather different in days before the kids came along,” and “For centuries, letter S has been robbing Z of jobs.” But it is this kind of writing that Sacks indulges in that makes reading about all 26 letters such a worthwhile endeavor.
Given that he stresses several times throughout the book that all of our vowels and several of our consonants take on multiple duties throughout English, that our alphabet is stretched rather thin and could use new letters for certain sounds, that gets me thinking about spelling reform – or, rather, alphabet reform. Sacks would appear to advocate it.
But despite the lack of specialized letters that would be a help to the spelling of English, our letters do as good a job as they can, given their multiple jobs. And although our Roman alphabet does not convey every single sound available in most languages that use it – English, French, German or even Latin – who are we to complain about the tasks to which the letters have been assigned? They’ve been around much longer than any of us have. Our letters are … well, loveable.
You will hold a higher regard for them too after reading Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z.