Alpha Beta Alpha Beta by John Man
Publisher: Wiley
Year: 2001
Pages: 320

I borrowed this particular book from my friend Abou, who is a big Classics buff, and who raved about it after buying it from the bargain book shelf at Barnes & Noble. Because this is the exact same way I came upon Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard, I thought I should read it. I happen to be a linguistics buff myself, so I was very interested.

And a little surprised, as it turned out. The book wasn’t quite what I expected, having much more to do with archæology and anthropology than directly with orthography and the alphabet. There is a good reason for this, of course, since the adoption of an alphabetical system (as opposed to the pictographic language written in China, for instance) had very much to do with who conquered whom, as well as shifts in markets, cultures, attitudes, and governments.

I was only surprised because I expected something more of a technical, scholarly discussion of the nature of the alphabet, and what I received was an anecdote-laden history of the alphabet’s origins, more in the style of Bill Bryson than Albert Baugh.

Man takes the stance that the alphabet was a particular cultural phenomenon that need a particular environment to take root—namely, a burgeoning civilization on the edges of an established one—and speaks of it in terms of Richard Dawkins’ “meme,” a “gene” of information that is passed from one generation to another, in this case bidirectionally.

One of the neat features of the book is the appendices, which offer timelines for the development of different alphabets, as well as an extensive table that offers information about various alphabets, including their cultural context and phonetic comparison to the modern Latin alphabet. In fact, as you will find out if you read the book, we can trace the origins of conceptual alphabet back to Egyptian hieroglyphic or its script counterpart, hieratic, and then through various Semitic variations, and finally into the Greeks, and then Etruscans and Latins. Sometimes he veers into conjecture, but none of it is specious seriously pushed. Man just likes to have fun with his topic, which in my experience is one of the best ways to teach it.

§1586 · December 27, 2006 · Tags: , , , , , ·

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