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Book Review 222: Alphabeta

December 7, 2011 - Harry Eagar
ALPHABETA: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World, by John Man. 312 pages. Wiley, $24.95

“Alphabeta” is an odd little book that does not really live up to its subtitle. That is, it does not show how the alphabet shaped the western world.

It might better be described as a philosophical musing about who adopts a script and why, although John Man's hypothesis is poorly supported. It is, in brief, that young, ambitious and aggressive cultures on the borders of older, established cultures that have inferior writing systems are the ones that will adopt the novel, as yet unproven script.

Considering that the alphabet matured along the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean, it goes without saying that the cultures adopting it were aggressive. But, then, so were the cultures (notably Egypt and Khatte [Man's spelling of the word customarily rendering as Hatti]) that stuck with hieroglyphics or cuneiform.

Both the latter died out, it is true, but only after many centuries of coexistence with alphabets. And while Islam arose right in the middle of all this, the Arabs did not follow the path of intellectual development that the West did.

Man might easily have said that scripts shaped the Arab world, too, but then where would he be? Any literate society is shaped by literacy, but it is far from obvious that the way people write directs the development. His way of thinking is but a short step from Benjamin Whorf's ideas about how the structure of language shapes what we think, but Whorf is not widely followed nowadays.

Man is a bit more persuasive in his mulling over what makes a writing system, although, again, humans are capable of doing anything with any system. True, it's a lot easier to do long division with an Indian numeral system than with Roman numerals, but the Romans got the right answers, all the same.

If ease were the highest value, then not much would get written at all.

“Alphabeta” has a number of amusing anecdotes that are, more or less but often less, related to the development of alphabetical scripts.


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