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Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the…

Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World (original 2000; edition 2001)

by John Man (Author)

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394641,952 (3.55)16
Title:Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World
Authors:John Man (Author)
Info:Wiley (2001), Edition: 1, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:all-books-currently-owned, to-read

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Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World by John Man (2000)


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» See also 16 mentions

English (5)  Swedish (1)  All languages (6)
Showing 5 of 5
This is the history of the development of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, and it’s an interesting one, too.

I was expecting something different – maybe more a roll call of each letter, going into its development. Instead, it was more academic, and more enlightening than I had expected.

The book also concerns itself partly with the origins of written language, the move from pictographs to syllables to letters.

And about English, where the letters came from (Etruscans, we think) and where it went from there. He also takes a side trip into what he considers the perfect alphabet, Korean.

This is a short book but lots of fun, and makes me want to read more about the development of the alphabet. Anybody know a good book?

For more of my book reviews, go to Ralphsbooks. ( )
  ralphz | Dec 31, 2018 |
There is just so much that we don't know -- cannot know -- about the development of the alphabet. But the evidence that there is, combined with much speculation, begins to create a version of the story.
( )
  annodoom | Jun 12, 2013 |
Like a lot of books with high-concept titles, this one isn't really true to its billing. It is not a biography or even a history of the alphabet as we English-speakers know it. It's a survey of all the alphabets that have battled it out over the history of humankind -- a broader editorial scope that is challenging to sum up pithily. Certainly there's an emphasis on all things A to Z, but with a lot of time spent on Chinese, Korean, Cyrillic, cuneiform, hieroglyphs, and so forth. (The Korean material is especially interesting.) It's a fascinating, relatively quick read.

One side note: there's a fascinating side bit in here about Thomas A. Sebeok, a retired professor from Bloomington, Illinois, who developed a plan for how to mark for thousands of years that a given spot is poisoned by nuclear waste.

Showing that no symbols could do the job, he determines that the best plan, if any, would be to create an "atomic priesthood" whose sole role would be to maintain the continuity of this important information, generation after generation.

Even though I've followed the Long Now organization for many years, I only now have connected Sebeok's plan with the group's projections, and with Neal Stephenson's novel, Anathem, which features a priesthood quite similar to the one described here.

According to this post from the Long Now, Sebeok was not on the minds of the group's founders, even though there are striking parallels in their perspectives:

1 vote Disquiet | Mar 30, 2013 |
Alphabet > History
  Budzul | Jun 1, 2008 |
Very well written ( )
  nholmes | Sep 23, 2006 |
Showing 5 of 5
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John Manprimary authorall editionscalculated
Retzlaff, JoachimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 047141574X, Paperback)

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's 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 Alpha Beta 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 nonexpert readers on these pages. Anyone interested in the power of words and the history of civilization will find Alpha Beta irresistible. --John Miller

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:57 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Praise for Alpha Beta"This book comes at the perfect moment as we rediscover the importance in early reading of cracking the alphabetic code. The story of how that code came into being is a fascinating one, and Man is the ideal writer to tell it." Times Educational Supplement"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.

» see all 2 descriptions

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