Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

September Books 5) The Alphabet

5) The Alphabet, by David Sacks

I put this on my Amazon wish list ages ago, and can't remember why; but anyway I decided I might as well buy it and read it a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The book can't quite decide whether it's a serious investigation of the history of orthography or a collection of fun trivia snippets. I did learn a lot about the first Semitic alphabet, from which most others are descended, and its descent to us through the Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans and French. But I was disappointed not to learn more about other alphabets than ours - especially the Georgian script which as most of you will know fascinates me. (Does the Georgian თ have any relation to our "t"? Does their ო have a common lineage with our "o"? Or უ with "u"?)

Also the fact that the book is essentially an assemblage of 26 newspaper columns, one for each letter, meant that several topics came up again and again without ever being fully explored. One topic that I already know a bit about, but where I'd hoped to learn more, was the Great Vowel Shift. One topic that I know almost nothing about and where I found the information provided infuriatingly minimal and repetitive was the evolution of minuscule letters, and indeed why we have upper and lower case now - Georgian doesn't, for instance, and Arabic takes a whole different approach to letter shapes.

I particularly hated the practice of inserting explanatory boxes for sub-topics within the main text. Apart from the fact that it makes the main argument (such as it is) difficult to follow, I found (ironically) the fonts used for some of the boxes difficult to read. And the structure became confusing rather than ordered. The only person who has really done these vignettes well is Norman Davies in his Europe: A History, and others shouldn't try to copy him unless they really know what they are doing.

So, in summary, an unsatisfying book on a fascinating subject.
Tags: alphabets, bookblog 2005

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