Thursday, September 15, 2011

Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History Of Our Alphabet From A To Z By David Sacks

Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z

Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z
By David Sacks

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Average customer review:
(18 customer reviews)

Product Description

David Sacks has embarked on a fun, lively, and learned excursion into the alphabet–and into cultural history–in Letter Perfect. Clearly explaining the letters as symbols of precise sounds of speech, the book begins with the earliest known alphabetic inscriptions (circa 1800 b.c.), recently discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, and traces the history of our alphabet through the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans and up through medieval Europe to the present day. But the heart of the book is the twenty-six fact-filled "biographies" of letters A through Z, each one identifying the letter's particular significance for modern readers, tracing its development from ancient forms, and discussing its noteworthy role in literature and other media. We learn, for example, why letter X may have a sinister and sexual aura, how B came to signify second best, why the word mother in many languages starts with M. Combining facts both odd and essential, Letter Perfect is cultural history at its most accessible and enjoyable.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product Details
  • Amazon Sales Rank: #131115 in eBooks
  • Published on: 2007-12-18
  • Released on: 2007-12-18
  • Format: Kindle eBook
  • Number of items: 1
Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Following up on his Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World, Sacks here delves into the origins of the Roman alphabet. Its beginnings appear to lie with Semitic-speaking mercenaries in Egypt, who borrowed from their overlords' hieroglyphics to create a system of sound-representing signs, many of which survive today in the Hebrew alphabet. Along the way, the Indo-European Greek language borrowed the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians, which when transmuted by the Romans gave us 24 of our 26 modern English letters. The bulk of the book offers beautifully illustrated capsule biographies of all 26, including J and V, which did not enter regular usage until the 17th century and were not standardized until the 19th. Beyond initial "A", the Sacks covers the first letters of several of the words for God; M, which begins an extraordinary number of the words for "Mother"; and "O," which requires the most shaping by the lips. There are essays on lexicographers (Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, among others), on printing, and on how the letter X came to stand for the unknown in mathematics because Descartes's printer was running out of Ys and Zs to print all of the mathematician's equations. Such anecdotes, and the care evinced throughout, make this a demanding gem of popular linguistic history, and any book that includes a chapter called "The Birth of `V'ness" certainly avoids taking itself too seriously.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
From aleph (ancient forerunner of our own a), discovered carved in Egyptian stone as part of the oldest known alphabetic inscription, all the way to the repeated Zs that help give the rock group ZZ Top its name, journalist Sacks unfolds the romance and magic of the English alphabet. Although Sacks writes for nonspecialists, he distills an impressive range of scholarship into his examination of the alphabet's complex cultural history. Readers learn about the astonishing recent archaeological discoveries in central Egypt that have overturned previous theories locating the alphabet's origins in ancient Canaan. We likewise learn about the surprising linguistic flexibility that allowed a single alphabet to jump language barriers around the world, thus giving most of the globe's literate populations recognizably related scripts. This is a delightfully entertaining and engrossing tale of how the score of Roman letters that arrived in England in the seventh century eventually gave us everything from the poetry of William Shakespeare to the official grades used by meat inspectors to evaluate chicken. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

"At a time when it has become more important than ever to read clearly and intelligently in order to dismantle the daily traps of propaganda, this delightful book lays bare for us, with wit and wisdom, the very building-blocks of our culture: the mysterious letters of the alphabet that rule our language and thought."
—Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading

"Reading David Sacks's wonderful Letter Perfect is like sitting rapt before the coolest teacher in school. Sacks's excursion through the alphabet is witty and smart.  I was reluctant to finally leave the classroom."
—Mark Dunn, author of Ella Minnow Pea

"[Letter Perfect] is distinguished by its remarkably long and broad view of the topic and its omnivorous sense of fun. … [A] clear and appealing discussion. … [A] dazzlingly diverse array of facts. … From discussions of the letter A's role in meat grading, bond rating, student ranking, and punishment for adultery to Z's exotic associations with Zorro, Sacks makes the history of the alphabet a joy to read. Recommended for most libraries."
Library Journal (US)

"An always clever -- but rarely too clever -- educational and entertaining history of the alphabet. A refreshing combination of erudition and breeziness."
Kirkus Reviews

"Sacks unfolds the romance and magic of the English alphabet. Although Sacks writes for non-specialists, he distills an impressive range of scholarship into his examination of the alphabet's complex cultural history. This is a delightfully entertaining and engrossing tale of how the score of roman letters that arrived in England in the seventh century eventually gave us everything from the poetry of William Shakespeare to the official grades used by meat inspectors to evaluate chicken."

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful.
5Beautiful, delightful, and highly informative
By Dennis Littrell
Scrabble players take delight. Linguists and lovers of the phonetic stand up and cheer. In this original and delightful book the letters take on their own personalities as author David Sacks reveals their origins and their transitions from ancient tongues into modern English. Combining classic erudition (Sacks is the author of The Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World) with contemporary references and allusions--such as "p" being for "Puff Daddy" and "w" for President George W. (Dubya) Bush--David Sacks brings the alphabet to life and reveals its long and twisted history. The sounds and shapes of the letters are explored in minute detail. We can trance the evolution of the letter "a" from its Phoenician origins as the symbol for an ox to its use by Hebrews as "aleph" to its incorporation by the Greeks as "alpha," and know that A was always first. We can see how the letter "e" (the most frequently used letter in the English language) was once shaped like a stick figure man in Egypt around 1800 B.C. in a long dead Semitic language, and how it became the logo for Enron (tilted up so that it supposedly symbolized "ascent and power"). Sacks reveals that one such Enron sculpture sold for forty-four thousand dollars at an auction in September 2002.

Why does X stand for the unknown and not Z? Sacks has the answer. How did G become C when the Greeks had gamma as the third letter of their alphabet? Indeed why do we have an alphabet at all? Why do we have alphabetic writing instead of the nonalphabetic kind as used by the Chinese and others? Sacks answers these questions and hundreds of others. He is obviously a man who takes delight in esoteric detail and in learning for the sake of learning, but he writes like a popular artist, not like a pedant. He takes delight in contrasting the old with the new. The way the book is structured invites us in without preliminary. There is no table of contents, but there is an index. The "chapters" are not numbered. (They are lettered, of course!) The beginning word of each chapter is the same as the focus of its subject matter. Thus the chapter on A begins, "Associated with beginnings, fundamentals, and superiority," while the next chapter has "Below the best or second in sequence."

A form of each letter in some specialized or historic typeface and/or some information about it graces the offsetting page of chapter beginnings. An emblem from the Department of Agriculture for "Grade A" is one example; an embedded M in an illustration from the Mad-Hatter's party in Alice in Wonderland is another; and three zees penned by American type designer Frederic W. Goudy is still another. Each letter has a personality tag: there is the "Dependable D," the "Gorge-ous G," the "Exzotic Z," etc. There is a Preface and an introductory chapter entitled, "Little Letters, Big Idea." The morphological history of each letter is illustrated showing the progression in many cases from the Egyptian hieroglyph to the Phoenician letter and then through the Hebrew, Greek and Roman adaptations and on into English. It was the letter N not the letter S that was originally an Egyptian snake, although Ben Johnson called S, "the serpent's letter," and it is often depicted as such. And it is M that comes from the hieroglyph for water, not, as one might think, W.

There are sidebar mini-essays and longer ones set over gray shading, each one focusing on some aspect of letters and their history, such as "The Alphabet in the Middle Ages," or "The Creation of American Spelling." Sacks does not neglect the sounds of letters and how they have been pronounced over the ages. In so far as possible he gives that history as well. He even explains why some letters are pronounced with an initial vowel sound, S and F, for example; and how others are pronounced with a trailing vowel sound, such as, B and C. This is a highly visual book written in an infectious style that makes the alphabet anything but boring. It is a beautiful book and one to treasure. I am much impressed.

35 of 40 people found the following review helpful.
5Fun with Letters
By Jim Allan
David Sacks doesn't feel like an expert here.

He's hazy or slightly wrong on pronunciation on occasion and sometimes writes things that just aren't quite what a true expert might write. He repeats that old untruth that the Greeks added vowels to the Phoenician alphabet instead of correctly stating that the Greek extended the use of letters for vowels that were already being used in some circumstances for vowels by the Phoenicians. It is possible that the first Greeks to learn the Phoenician alphabet never realized that it theoretically contained consonants only. Not quite correct is: "Amazingly, with the sole exception of Korea's Hangul script (invented in isoldation in the mid-1400s A.D.), all of today's alphabetic scripts have a common origin." But all that's needed is to insert the words "commonly used" before alphabet scripts to avoid one bringing up John Dee's Enochian script, Deseret, Shavian and various other non-Latin invented alphabets. Yogh is introduced as an invented Old English letter which is not really right but it is too involved here to say why not. The sample given for Old Enlish letter wynn looks too much like a _p_ (perhaps because it is?)

Sacks barely escapes tumbling into the false legend that the Chinese script is not largely sound based. But mostly Sacks is very right, throwing out facts amusingly and accurately and sometimes going out of his way to debunk standard legends. I've seen far worse by supposed experts, probably because this kind of book falls between disciplines. Sacks mixes genuine scholarship with an unpretentious style making heavy material seem delightfully light. There are no documenting footnotes but Sacks is not intentionally presenting anything that is not easily checked. Despite the errors I've mentioned I'm very impressed by the accuracy and obvious care and enthusiasm shown in this book. Sacks is excited by what he's finding out, almost always does get it exactly right and he wants you to share his excitement. It's all a bit casual and gosh-wow! a style which might be annoying to some. But he carries if off for me at least and it's nicer than putting the reader to sleep.

I already knew most of what Sacks writes but found his presentation and style made it seem fresh again. And perhaps because he's not an expert he's very good at putting in details that experts often leave out. The center of the book is twenty-six chapters, one covering each letter of the English alphabet. He provides for each its origin and development from the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions if it was found there and from the later Sinaitic inscriptions if not, tracing its form through Phoenician, Greek and Latin and providing examples of the changes in shapes and pronunciation it has undergone on the way. Sacks adds examples (often very amusing) of how the letter is used distinctively in modern English and of the feelings that the letter arouses. For letters (and their sounds) do arouse feelings, some seeming familiar, some trite, some exotic (like X and Z). Sacks is often studidly silly as in his discussion of the relationship between C and G:

<< Oversimplifying somewhat, we can say that C stole G's identity. G was the alphabet's original number 3, centuries before C existed. Then, a change: G disappeared and C became letter number 3--similar to G yet lacking in voice. Where had the real G gone? Not dead, but banished from the developing alphabet, G wandered four and a half centuries in limbo, until, its services being at last missed and appreciated, it was recalled to the letter row, to spot number 7 (ousting another letter). There G abides today, staring with who-knows-what emotions at the back of C, four places ahead. >>

Mixed among the letter chapters are numerous separate articles on the stages of the evolution of the alphabet, typesetting, American spelling, lost letters from Old English and Middle English, Baby Language used by Grown-Ups and other interesting side issues. An article called "A Pecking Order of Scripts" giving the origin and evolution of mixing styles on a page from which our casing system developed is especially well done using an example manuscript and explaining it. There are also a number of tables giving forms and pronunciation. One strange defect: there is no table of contents or listing of tables making it difficult to locate a particular article or table. But there is a list of illustrations at the back of the book and a good index.This is a very enjoyable book for light reading as well as for detailed study.

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful.
3Each Letter is a Story
By Stephen Holland
Language Visible tells the story of the alphabet, one letter at a time. Each letter gets its own chapter and Sacks follows the development of that letter over 4000 years from the origins of the alphabet, through the Phonecians, Greeks, Romans, and through to the modern English alphabet. The concept is good, and Sacks has a knack for making his subject interesting. However, the book starts to become tedious by about the letter M. The book is an adaption of a series of columns that the author wrote for he Ottawa Citizen and has been published almost verbatim with the addition of a few sideboxes of additional material. This results in a lot of material being duplicated in different chapters. Language Visible would have benefitted greatly from a thorough edit that removed duplicate information and made the chapters read more like chapters in a book and less like self-contained newspaper columns.

The book is aimed at people who have no knowledge of the history of the alphabet and does a good job of explaining how the modern English alphabet came to be. There are some factual errors, but they are minor and do not affect the overall histories of each letter. More annoying was Sacks attempts to discuss the influence of pop culture on various letters. His comments on the rock band U2, for example, suggest that he has very little understanding of pop culture in the year 2003. All in all this book is well worth reading, even if you find yourself skimming through the later chapters in order to find material that was not covered earlier in the book. The book is ideal for keeping on the coffee table so that you can dip into it during breaks in the hockey game. The short chapters also make it
ideal breakfast reading.


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