English is by no means the only example. Roman letters today convey the sounds of other tongues that Cicero never heard of: Polish, Zulu, Azerbaijani, Indonesian, Navajoand about 100 more, all in daily use. The Cyrillic alphabet works equally well for Bulgarian and Mongolian as for Russian. Arabic letters, devised originally to show the Arabic language, provide writing in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and other places where people don't speak Arabic. Behind such facts lies the letters' ability to leap across languages.
The more I dug into this, the more important it seemed. I was finally getting the idea that the letters have a kind of geniusa genius for showing the sounds of speech. Because they denote the smallest particles of sound ("t," "p," "m," "u"), letters in quantity are beautifully flexible and precise. They can be arranged in endless combinations, as necessary, to capture sounds of words. This allows the letters to be fitted from one language to another: You could easily write English phonetically, in the letters of Hebrew or Cyrillic. (Bored office workers at computers do it idly.)
"People don't understand this concept," I recall thinking. "This isn't being taught at school."
I had learned a new respect for the alphabet, and from this pointfor it was just a beginningI proceeded to dip into other aspects of the story: typography, phonetics, the individual letters' use in brand names and design, the whole psychological message of letters in certain presentations. What I uncovered was a trove of wisdom and lore worth celebrating. And worth sharing.
Excerpted from Letter Perfect (originally published as Language Visible in hardcover) by David Sacks (pages vii-xii from the preface). Copyright© 2004 by David Sacks. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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