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The Alphabet / David Sacks

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13th Dec 2004 | 21:12

Over the weekend I read The Alphabet by David Sacks, which is a history (or just-so story) of how our letters came to have their shapes and sounds. It's very readable and informative, and this Guardian review does a good job of summarizing the best bits.


However it is a rather straight-line history. It fails to explore some of the interesting tributaries, such as the divergent shapes of S and Σ or Runic script or the influence of black letter and gothic scripts. The latter is an irritating omission given their brief appearance in the explanation for the shape of lower-case t.

I'd also like to know about the genesis of modern Hebrew and Arabic scripts which have diverged interestingly from our Greek inheritance. And, closer to home, some more comparison between the different sound values used by different languages would have been nice. There's a fair amount about g/j/y (which is required to explain their history) but some more about c/s with maybe something about Cyrillic to give it more context would have been useful.

But perhaps I'm asking a bit too much for a book that's already over 400 pages long.

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Comments {4}

from: vyvyan
date: 13th Dec 2004 13:40 (UTC)

Traditional historical grammars of individual languages usually provide lots of information on script history as well as phonology and grammar, if you're interested in a particular area.

Incidentally, Hebrew and Arabic scripts do not derive from the Greek one (if that was what you meant); rather, they are descended from a Semitic vowelless alphabet which was also the source of the Greek alphabet.

As general textbooks on writing systems, the works by Florian Coulmas and Geoffrey Sampson spring to mind.

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Tony Finch

from: fanf
date: 14th Dec 2004 04:58 (UTC)

Yes, poor phrasing on my part. I meant that Hebrew and Arabic are very different from Greek and its descendents.

I found http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0500281564 which looks like it might have a useful amount of extra breadth. Sampson's book http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0804712549 also looks plausible, though at a textbook price.

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from: vyvyan
date: 14th Dec 2004 06:58 (UTC)

You should be able to borrow such books from the UL, though, shouldn't you? (checks quickly) Um, Sampson's Writing Systems is normally borrowable, but seems to be on loan atm (bloody undergrads...); however, Coulmas' Writing Systems of the World is available and unborrowed, in its 1989 edition anyway.

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Tony Finch

from: fanf
date: 14th Dec 2004 16:38 (UTC)

Ah but then I can't build up my own library :-)

Nevertheless the UL is an excellent place to be reminded of. Thanks.

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