The unknown history of a, b, c

The Alphabetic Labyrinth
August 9, 1996

It is hard to think of any major human invention about which more nonsense has been written than the alphabet. It does of course have a very long and complex history. The earliest script which can be called alphabetic was created for a Semitic language, somewhere between Syria and Sinai before 1500bc; the details are unknown, since early Semitic inscriptions are rare and hard to date. But this alphabet, though a progenitor of our own, suffered from a fatal defect. It noted only consonants, leaving the reader to supply the vowels. This system works tolerably well in Semitic languages; it is as if we wrote sng and read this as sing, sang, sung and song according to context. But we might also read it as snag.

So when around 800bc a Greek was shown how the system worked - quite probably in Phoenicia - he quickly saw many snags in adapting it for Greek. If, for instance, he wrote a word lgs, it might be read as the Greek words for word, plague, hare, shrill, etc. He had therefore to devise a notation for the five basic vowels of his language. The zero consonant became A, a light aspirate became E, a guttural fricative O, and the two semivowels Y and W could, following a Semitic precedent, be used for I and U. There is no doubt that the Greek alphabet was modelled on the Phoenician, because some of the letters retained in a corrupt form their Semitic names (alpha is plainly 'aleph), and the standard order from A to T still survives with modifications today.

But instead of clinging to this proof of paternity all too many scholars relied exclusively on letter forms to prove the origin of the system. This has repeatedly been proved a delusion. For centuries attempts were made to derive the Semitic letters from Egyptian hieroglyphs, except by those for whom the alphabet was written by the finger of God on Mount Sinai, and who therefore derived the hieroglyphs from that. In fact writing systems have been created independently in several different parts of the world.

The idea of writing up the subsequent history of this amazing invention is a good one, but its objective needs to be clarified. Is it a history of the letter forms, of the phonetic values attached to the signs, or of extra-linguistic values given to them? Johanna Drucker seems not to have made up her mind, except to ignore the differing use made of the alphabet by different languages. She is attracted by manuscript hands and printing fonts, but devotes most of her space to esoteric subjects such as the Kabbalah and theories of origins inspired by the Bible. This is rather like a history of the wheel which ignores the vehicles it has been used to move.

Part of the reason becomes clear when it is appreciated that the classical languages are a closed book for her. The references to antiquity are all to secondary sources, which might not matter. But when she comes to the early modern period, where much published work was in Latin, it becomes a major disadvantage. The title of a 17th-century book is given as Alphabeti Vere, but in case anyone thinks this means "in the springtime of the alphabet", it reappears in a caption as Alphabeti Vere Naturalis Hebraici, still with no construction for the genitive, but at least translatable as "of the truly natural Hebrew alphabet".

A specimen of early printing is attributed to Venice, although the text reproduced firmly states (in Latin) that it was printed in Augsburg. I forbear to quote her translation of the doggerel Latin verse invented to include every letter of the Latin alphabet (Te canit adcelebratque polus, rex gazifer, hymnis), for although ludicrous it is not funny.

Not surprisingly her Greek is weaker than her Latin. It is alarming to be told that the Greek for Christ is (in different places) Kreistos or Xreistos and has six letters. This last is probably a confusion with Jesus, which has six letters in its Greek form. Several Greek names are mangled in transcription. It is almost inevitable that the name of the Indian script Devanagari should be misspelt, despite two attempts. The English word guttural is used four times, only once spelt correctly.

One gains the impression the author searched the catalogue of a major library for titles containing the word alphabet. The works so revealed were briefly summarised on a card index and any interesting illustrations were copied. The index was then rearranged chronologically to form the basis of the book. This would account for the rather breathless gallop through the centuries, listing many sources but rarely pausing to examine them in any detail. It is not a work of scholarship, it is too inaccurate to be instructive, and for the most part it is not very entertaining.

John Chadwick is emeritus reader in Greek, University of Cambridge.

The Alphabetic Labyrinth

Author - Johanna Drucker
ISBN - 0 500 01608 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £29.95
Pages - 320

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