Excerpt from Letter Perfect by David Sacks, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Letter Perfect

The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z

by David Sacks

Letter Perfect
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2003, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2004, 416 pages

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Yet this is no textbook. It does not deal exhaustively with the subject, and I hope it is never boring. Facts are pursued with an eye toward what is enlightening, surprising, fun. The aim is to inform and entertain. I hope to convey how fascinating these 26 little shapes can be, how they contain within themselves thousands of years of culture and history.


The basis for this book was a 26-part weekly series that I wrote about the letters of the alphabet for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper (Ottawa, Ontario). The series covered one letter per week, from January to July 2000.

But the first inspiration dates to 1993, when I was at work on my one previous book, the Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World (Facts On File, 1995). Facing a huge assignment beyond my rudimentary knowledge, I was anxiously researching the ancient Greeks.

One topic was the Greek alphabet, including its origin, sometime around 800 B.C. I had learned in college that the Greeks, with no writing of their own at the time, acquired their alphabet by copying it from the Phoenicians (a Semitic people famed as seafarers, based in what is now Lebanon). I could have written those words on an exam–"the Greeks took their alphabet from the Phoenicians"–without understanding what that meant. I had always imagined some imitation by analogy: that the Greeks, impressed by the Phoenician letters, had gone off and invented two dozen letters of their own, to be Greek letters.

But my studies of 1993 taught me differently. The Greeks had copied more literally than that. (Pardon the pun.) The Greeks didn't copy just the idea of the Phoenician alphabet; they actually copied the Phoenician letters and started using them to write Greek.

Does it sound trivial? At the time, the realization stunned me. The ancient languages of Greek and Phoenician were as different as English and Arabic. Greek was (and is) a language of the Indo-European family; its modern relatives include English, German, Spanish, and Russian. The Phoenician tongue, now vanished, belonged to a separate language group, Semitic, whose major modern representative is Arabic, although Phoenician itself was probably closer to Hebrew. Semitic and Indo-European languages do not sound at all alike; their vocabularies are unrelated. And yet . . .

The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters; the earliest working Greek alphabet, probably 26. The first 22 letters of the Greek list were nearly identical to the Phoenician in sequence, shapes, names, and, usually, sounds (with the exception of five vowel letters, which the Greeks had invented by reassigning certain Phoenician letters to symbolize vowel sounds). In later centuries the Greeks would adjust their alphabet away from the Phoenician model. But around 800 B.C., it seems the Greeks picked up Phoenician letters, made some changes and additions, and began writing.

What if a bunch of illiterate Anglo-Saxons in A.D. 600 had gotten their hands on the Arabic alphabet and started using it to write Old English? Could they have done so? I wondered. Wasn't that basically what the Greeks did?

There must, I thought, back in 1993, be more to these letters than I understood. How could Phoenician letters be so adaptable? Logically, wouldn't most of them be unusable for Greek, since the two languages were so different?

Eventually I moved on from the ancient Greece book, got a day job, and turned to a new mental interest: the history of the alphabet. I had never studied it before, but felt compelled to do so now. There seemed something fundamental here that I had missed in my education.

What I found was that alphabets have routinely jumped from language to language, across all sorts of language barriers, down through history, thanks to the adaptability of letters generally. Our Roman alphabet in English is the product of four such leaps: After being copied from Phoenician letters, the Greek letters were copied, in turn, by a different people, the Etruscans of Italy (around 700 B.C.). Etruscan was a tongue as different from Greek as Greek was from Phoenician, yet the letters adapted easily: They now became Etruscan letters, for showing Etruscan speech. Then the Etruscan letters were copied by other Italian peoples, including the Romans, whose language, Latin, was totally unlike Etruscan. Again the letters had made the jump. As Rome conquered Italy and lands beyond, the Roman alphabet became the writing of Roman Europe. Surviving the empire's collapse (around A.D. 500), Roman letters were fitted to newer tongues, including primitive English (around A.D. 600). Today those letters have grown up to become our own.

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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