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Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z – by David Sacks

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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.

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  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    this sounds cool. it’s kindof amazing, the stuff you can find out about the language (or related bits) with just a little digging.

    a long time ago, i worked for a company that did software related to printing presses. i got a huge dose of the history or typography. great stuff. even things like the origin of ‘upper’ vs. ‘lower’ case.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Very cool review, Mark. I’m reminded, for some reason, a night some years ago when I was in an… altered state. I laid upon the floor for a number of hours mouthing sounds and letters with my lips and tongue, fascinated with the way that unconscious physical manipulation of our muscles produces sounds, letters, and language. Far out, eh?

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • http://nightdragon.diaryland.com Mark Edward Manning

    Mark Saleski: “a long time ago, i worked for a company that did software related to printing press.”

    It was, without a doubt, the invention of the printing press that thrust our letters into the limelight, as it were. In fact, most of our lowercase letters, since the Romans dealt only with capitals, come from Charlemagne’s scholars – the “Carolingian” style.

    Eric Berlin: “[I] was in an… altered state. I laid upon the floor for a number of hours mouthing sounds and letters with my lips and tongue, fascinated with the way that unconscious physical manipulation of our muscles produces sounds, letters, and language.”

    I agree, the impulse to riff off sounds and hold them in wonderment – much the same as infants do – is a very human thing. Thanks for republishing my review! Much appreciated!

  • http://windsormedia.blogs.com Yvonne DiVita

    And I thought I was the only screwy one in love with the alphabet! Thanks for introducing this great book. It’s a must have…my life has been so empty without it. Great review, too.

  • http://www.angel-and-soulmate-selfhelp.com/blog.html Angela Chen Shui

    Wonderful review… thanks for sharing this book!

    How many times have we all sighed exasperatedly, trying to figure if a word we just spelt that suddenly looks all wrong is correct or not? English is sometimes so weird but manipulating letters to spell words to create magic inside is such a privilege and amazinggggggg fun.

    See… there’s an example. That word.. privilege. Just last week or so I had to spell check it! ;-)