May 19, 2021

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How 26 Letters Shaped
the Western World

by John Man.
Barnes & Noble Books, 2005 (312 pages)
[previously published in UK]

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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

FOREWORD (pages 1-3)

"This book is about one of humanity’s greatest ideas — the idea of alphabet — and its most widespread form: the system of letters you are now reading. Three features of the idea stand out: its uniqueness, its simplicity and its adaptability. From the alphabet’s earliest manifestation 4000 years ago, all other alphabets take their cue; and all reflect the idea’s underlying simplicity."

"This is not the simplicity of perfect design. The strength of the alphabet as an idea lies in its practical imperfection. Though it fits no language to perfection, it can, with some pushing and shoving, be adapted to all languages. Like our own big-brained species, which can be outrun, “outflown” and “outswum,” but not “outthought,” by other species, the alphabet is a generalist. In software terms, its success lies in its ‘fuzziness’."

"But Where did this idea of alphabet spring from? How and where did it spread as it matured into the Roman letter system that is now the world’s most familiar script? How did we discover the answer to these questions?"

"It is a good time to examine such things, because the roots of the alphabet are still emerging. It seems increasingly certain that this revolutionary, one-off concept arose in Egypt, about 2000 BC. These discoveries will remain controversial until more evidence is found, interpreted and accepted, but one thing you can bet on: as archaeology becomes ever more effective, astonishing advances are still to be made."

"One day, perhaps, some cache of scrolls or inscriptions will reveal the genii — perhaps even the individual genius — who mined the first treasure-trove of letters from Egyptian hieroglyphs."

[However], "I focus on the idea and its transmission from culture to culture, from Egypt, to Rome, to us. It seems to me that I had little option in this choice of theme, for otherwise there would be no end. A full history of the alphabet would be a library, with specialist sections on scores of alphabetical systems and their cultures, on the impact of literacy down the centuries, on the psychology of reading, the techniques of writing, the strange Worlds of magi who turned the ABC into ‘abracadabra’."

"Each letter has its own history. There is little in this book about technical advances or grand historical processes — the papyrus trade, printing, imperialism, the Internet. These are the tides that carry the western alphabet across the world, but they have little impact on the Roman alphabetical code, let alone the underlying idea that unites alphabetical scripts from Abaza to Zulu — that all human speech can be symbolized by two or three dozen meaningless marks."






5) INTO SINAI (pages 119-153)

6) THE LAND OF PURPLE (pages 155-183)

7) THE SELFISH ALPHABET (pages 185-194)

8) THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD (pages 195-236)

9) WHY WE DON’T WRITE ETRUSCAN (pages 237-263)

10) THE LIMITS TO GROWTH (pages 265-283)

APPENDIX 1 (pages 285-287)

APPENDIX 2 (pages 289-296)

BIBLIOGRAPHY (pages 297-301)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pages 303-304)

INDEX (pages 305-312)

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AUTHOR NOTE = After working in journalism and publishing, I turned to writing, with occasional forays into film, TV and radio. A planned trilogy on three major revolutions in writing has resulted in two books, 'Alpha Beta' (on the alphabet) and 'The Gutenberg Revolution', both republished in 2009. The third, on the origin of writing, is on hold, because it depends on researching in Iraq. (On the fourth revolution, the Internet, many others can write far better than I.)

I live in north London, inspired by a strong and beautiful family - wife, children and grand-children. I usually write non-fiction, mainly exploring interests in Asia and the history of written communication. So 'The Lion's Share', available only on Kindle, is something different — a new edition of a thriller written some 25 years ago when I was not sure what I wanted to focus on. It is about the 'real' — in quotes, i.e. fictional — fate of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia.

Most of the time, I like to mix history, narrative and personal experience, exploring the places I write about. It brings things to life, and it's a reaction against an enclosed, secure, rural childhood in Kent. I did German and French at Oxford, and two postgraduate courses, History and Philosophy of Science at Oxford and Mongolian at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (to join an expedition that never happened).

My interest in Mongolia revived in 1996 when I spent a couple of months in the Gobi. 'Gobi: Tracking the Desert' was the first book on the region since the 1920's (those by the American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews). In Mongolia, everything leads back to Genghis. I followed. The result was 'Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection', now appearing in 20 languages. Luckily, there's more to Mongol studies than Genghis. 'Attila the Hun' and 'Kublai Khan' came next.

Another main theme in Asian history is the ancient and modern relationship between Mongolia and China. 'The Terracotta Army', published to in 2007, was followed by 'The Great Wall', which took me from Xinjiang to the Pacific. 'The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan' (combining history, character analysis and modern leadership theory) and 'Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe's Discovery of the East' pretty much exhausted Inner Asian themes for me.

So recently I have become interested in Japan. For 'Samurai: The Last Warrior', I followed in the footsteps of Saigo Takamori, the real 'Last Samurai', published in February 2011. After that, more fiction, perhaps.

SUMMARY = The idea behind the alphabet — that language with all its wealth of meaning can be recorded with a few meaningless signs — is an extraordinary one. So extraordinary, in fact, that it has occurred only once in human history: in Egypt about 4000 years ago. Alpha Beta follows the emergence of the western alphabet as it evolved into its present form, contributing vital elements to our sense of identity along the way. And today, it seems on the verge of yet another expansion through the internet.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Tracking the alphabet as it leaps from culture to culture, John Man weaves discoveries, mysteries and controversies into a story of fundamental historical significance. The Israelites used it to define their God, the Greeks to capture their myths, the Romans to display their power. In the tradition of the international bestseller The Universal History of Numbers, John Man has written a wonderfully engaging narrative that could be called the "universal history of letters." It illustrates how our alphabet came to be. How it was influenced by scribes as well as kings, cultures ancient and extant, politics, religion, even mythology. How so many adventures came to accompany its evolution. How truly unique a prize it is.

The book weaves its way from man’s earliest scratches on bone to the first wedge-shaped marks in Mesopotamian clay, from the Pharaoh’s hieroglyphics to the Torah’s innovative characters, from Homer’s epics to the lost culture of the Etruscans, all the way to the Internet explosion. What surfaces is an intriguing blend of characters, controversies, and stories, including that of a perplexing picture disk found on Crete, a robbery in the Egyptian desert, the invention of Cyrillic; and even a continuing mystery surrounding the missing head of British archeologist William Flinders Petrie. We are ever reminded of the alphabet’s power. The Romans used it to display their strength, the Greeks to capture their myths, the Israelites to define their god.

Ultimately, the book offers an extraordinary rediscovery of the alphabet’s vital contribution to our sense of identity. For while the Western world of today is divided by languages, it remains largely united by the alphabet. And, as Man makes clear, from pre-alphabetic systems to the recording of human speech, from the oral traditions of our ancestors to the literacy of our children, the deceptive simplicity of "ABC" holds within it a rich, potent, and passionate history.

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[1] In the tradition of small books that try to explain a lot (think How the Irish Saved Civilization), John Man's Alpha Beta is an excellent survey on the history of letters. They may have played a more dramatic role in the advancement of Western culture than most people realize: "The Greeks, so this argument runs, would not have been so influential but for the invention that fixed their writings, the invention that they named after its first two signs, alpha and beta: the alphabet." This opinion will no doubt ruffle a few feathers in the classics departments at universities, which have instructed students on the intellectual and literary achievements of the Greeks for generations.

Man seems to challenge the idea that the Greeks offered something inherently worthwhile. "Possibly nothing of their oral genius would have been preserved but for a piece of astonishing good fortune. They just happened to live near one of the cultures that had stumbled on the alphabet, and they just happened to be at a crucial state in social evolution that made them open to its adoption." This is a fascinating argument, and Man makes it a compelling one, although it is also possible to believe the Greeks had the additional good fortune of producing a storyteller as good as Homer.

Most of the book is a well-told tale that runs a course from the first symbols pressed into clay tablets to the advent of the Internet — the Greeks are just a piece of it. The book covers the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Etruscans, and several other cultures in some detail.

One of the most interesting sections discusses the Koreans, creators of "an alphabet that is about as far along the road towards perfection as any alphabet is likely to get." Man is a colloquial writer; reading the book is like listening to a popular college professor lecture on his favorite topic. The complex and controversial scholarship on the alphabet becomes instantly accessible to non-expert readers on these pages. Anyone interested in the power of words and the history of civilization will find Alpha Beta irresistible. – John Miller, Review

[2] The alphabet's worldwide diffusion can be compared to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, John Man proposes in his narrative search for "Alphabeticus Originalis." Sweeping from one ancient culture to another, Man unearths archaeological finds, debates biblical myths and provides scientific evidence to support his theory of the alphabet's germination and development. Using a highly accessible format sharper than the dull edge of the usually historical text, the book traces its subject on a historical journey around the Mediterranean. Beginning with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform, Man, a historian and travel writer, follows the evolution of letters from one great civilization to another. Alpha Beta should appeal to anyone with even a mild interest in ancient civilization and an affinity with language.

Paying his respects to the early development of script in China and an especially practical Korean alphabet, Man drives into Sinai in his four-wheel drive to begin his study of the Israelites. "What emerges in the Sinai wilderness — or the metaphorical wilderness — is a blueprint for group survival unprecedented in history." The blueprint, Man explains, was based on monotheism and fixed commandments. And it worked because the laws were written in a simple script that did not require excessive knowledge: an alphabet. In the Phoenicians, Man finds another people to support his hypothesis. "These port peoples needed a good writing system if only to keep trade records... They were ripe for the alphabet, knowledge of which was slowly filtering outwards from its southern Palestine dispersal center."

Similarly, the alphabet arrived in Greece "and attached itself to a society at a crucial stage in its evolution — a youngish culture ... with no apparent loyalty to an established writing system." Quickly moving along the Mediterranean, a "land that must have seemed ripe for the plucking" is encountered. But before discussing the true founders of Rome, Man devotes several pages to the outrageous exploits of Thomas Dempster, a forgotten 17th-century Etruscan scholar and "hooligan."

While some of the details about Dempster are amusing, they provide one of several examples of extraneous material in an otherwise concise and effective approach to such an overwhelming idea. Moving on to the Etruscan alphabet, Man picks up the pace and explains the possibility of a Phoenician or Greek influence. While many mysteries remain about the Etruscans' origins and their alphabet, their influence on a much better-known people and alphabet is hard to ignore. Debunking the popular myth of Romulus as Rome's founder, Man points to archaeological research for "an account of Rome's origins that dignifies not the Romans but the Etruscans."

After tracing the expansion of the Roman language, Man reaches his limit with the introduction of Cyrillic and travels at breakneck speed to the present. From one chapter to the next, he goes from the Etruscans to the Soviets. The book should appeal to anyone with even a mild interest in ancient civilization and an affinity for language. – Associated Press, Books 2001.

[3] A richly absorbing exploration, from B.C. to PCs, of the evolution of the most fundamental "characters" of our cultural history, the alphabet we so much take for granted. John Man writes with a compellingly restless curiosity and immediacy. The ever surprising, exotically detailed narrative in his informative book makes it as un-dryly enjoyable as a successful archaeological dig of one of Alan Moorehead's colorful histories of African exploration." David Grambs, Author of The Describer's Dictionary and The Endangered English Dictionary.

[4] Letter perfect — the best histories and mysteries of our ABC's! – Jeff McQuain, author of the books, Never Enough Words and Power Language.

[5] Text that is crisp, taut, and as clear as a bell... A fascinating story with many a beguiling subplots along the way. – New Scientist.

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[1] C. L. Fluty - The adventures of the alphabet and how it grew = John Man has written an informative and imaginative history of how the alphabet originated, developed and was disseminated worldwide. He traces how the earliest prototype of a sound-symbol system developed in Egypt via symbols extracted from hieratic to form the "proto-Sinaitic" script around 2000 BC, through its descendant "proto-Canaanitic", to the Phoenicians, from them to the Greeks, who added vowels to create a true alphabet, and on through the Romans to spread throughout Europe and its colonies. He also follows its peregrinations eastward, to form the various Semitic, Indic, Tibetan and Southeast Asian scripts; and how those inspired the creation of what may be the world's most nearly perfect script, Korea's Hangul (Great Script).

Man cites ample data, but he also makes imaginative leaps, hypothesizing about how some of the "great leaps" in the alphabet's evolution may have come about - yet he always makes clear the distinction between what is known and what is only conjecture. Still, his conjectures are illuminating and make good sense, as well as interesting reading. In his hands, the alphabet's story comes alive, through all its historical and cultural twists and turns. Above all, he points out how this brilliant concept has endured and conquered the world because of its simplicity and its very imperfection, the "fuzziness" that allows it to be adapted to hundreds of languages around the world. As Man says in his Introduction, the genius of "the underlying idea that unites alphabetical scripts from Abaza to Zulu [is] that all human speech can be symbolized by two or three dozen meaningless marks."

[2] John A. Dodds - Short, fun overview of the history of Western alphabets (with a side trip to Korea) = This book is a brief overview of how writing in general, and the alphabet in particular, got going. As other (mostly more negative) reviews note, the style is conversational and not "straight-through" in any way. I do not mind the diversions. They are mostly used to illustrate a point or sometimes to explain the archeology behind particular pieces of knowledge or conjecture about how the alphabet got going. The author does take a significant diversion to explain the Korean alphabet's history, which is fascinating, but he then returns to the West and talks about Greek, Roman --- with neat explanations of how their alphabet came from the Etruscans, and Cyrillic. For a short book, it work. But it is too bad there could not be more on how we ended up with some other major alphabets worldwide, such as Arabic, Devanagari and related Indian scripts, the scripts of Southeast Asia, and the odd scripts like Georgian and Armenian. Overall, a fun, quick, and informative read.

[3] Robert P - Very interesting. Slightly disjointed = I found digressions distracting. However, I learned many things I did not know and believe others will as well.

[4] Patricia A. Wade - A bit more complex than I needed but interesting.

[5] Harry Eagar - Does the script drive the text? = "Alpha-beta" is an odd little book that does not really live up to its subtitle. That is, it does not show how the alphabet shaped the western world. It might have been better described as a philosophical musing about who adopts a script and why. John Man's hypothesis is poorly supported. His hypothesis is, in brief, that young, ambitious and aggressive cultures on the borders of older, established cultures, which have inferior writing systems, are the ones that tend to adopt the novel, as yet unproven script.

Considering that the alphabet matured along the eastern part of the Mediterranean, it goes without saying that the cultures adopting it were aggressive. But, then, so were the cultures, notably Egypt and Khatte [Man's spelling of the word customarily rendered as Hatti], which stuck with hieroglyphics or cuneiform. Both the latter died out, it is true, but only after many centuries of coexistence with other alphabets. And while Islam arose right in the middle of all this, the Arabs did not follow the path of intellectual development that the West did.

Man might easily have said that scripts shaped the Arab world, too, but then where would he be? Any literate society is shaped by literacy, but it is far from obvious that the way people write directs the development. His way of thinking is but a short step from Benjamin Whorf's ideas about how the structure of language shapes what we think, but Whorf is not widely followed nowadays. Man is a bit more persuasive in his mulling over what makes a writing system, although, again, humans are capable of doing anything with any system. True, it is a lot easier to do long division with an Indian numeral system than with Roman numerals, but the Romans got the right answers, all the same. If ease were the highest value, then not much would get written at all. The book has a number of amusing anecdotes, which are not always related to the development of alphabetical scripts.


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