Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Alpha Beta by John Man

John Man’s book Alpha Beta is on the history of the Roman alphabet, as you might be able to guess from the title. He covers a range of related topics, such as non-alphabet systems, symbols, rebus, archaeology, orality, and history, and his book is imaginative and exciting. He includes many interesting titbits of information, such as how some of what we think is Roman is actually Etruscan and how Cyrillic is named after Cyril but wasn’t created by him. He refers to languages as diverse as Chinese, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Korean and he explains “why Czechs and Slovaks today look to the West, and use the Latin alphabet.” (299)

One of the major points Man makes in this enjoyable work is that what alphabet is used where and how is often about power. “Script, status, power, identity: the four were indissoluble.” (100) He analyses hieroglyphics and the Greek alphabet to explore their importance to their own societies as well as to later ones. “With this new-fangled intellectual device [writing], the Greeks could aware their own though processes, become self-aware, refine ideas, exchange them, build upon them, create systems of ethics, philosophy and science, evolve new forms of poetry, pioneer history. In brief, it was the alphabet that allowed the ancient Greeks to lay the foundations of civilized discourse as Europe and its descendant cultures came to know it.” (21)

He also explores why alphabets change, or don’t. “Change, it seems, does not arise spontaneously from within. Something has to happen to release a new creative impulse.” (81)

He has what he terms three Working Theories of Script Evolution:
“1 In a writing system, complexity knows no bounds and imposes none.
2 A writing system will last as long as its culture, unless changed by force.
3 New writing systems emerge only in new, young, ambitious cultures.” (82)
In other words, much is required before a language will change.

Another interesting section in this book is where Man discusses four assumptions about literacy and culture and explains how they are false. The assumptions are:
“that alphabetic literacy must have spread from the top levels of society downwards;
that the alphabet would immediately be considered a superior achievement, and be instantly taken up by anyone with a claim to intelligence and culture;
that non-literate cultures are necessarily simple and inferior;
that poetry is more refined than prose and must therefore come later.” (231) Man demolishes these ideas.

While some people might think that one alphabet is better or more sensible than others and while Man does comment that Korean is perhaps one of the most sophisticated and successful of all alphabets, he also writes, “the alphabet is an intellectual device with which to symbolize speech, and it is a mistake to equate it exactly with anything in the real world. Since it exists in minds, any physical representation is only one of an infinite variety. There is no Absolute Alphabet.” (114) There are many possible alphabets, with no single right one.

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