Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story

Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story

by Michael Rosen

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How on Earth did we fix upon our twenty–six letters, what do they really mean, and how did we come to write them down in the first place? Michael Rosen takes you on an unforgettable adventure through the history of the alphabet in twenty–six vivid chapters, fizzing with personal anecdotes and fascinating facts. Starting with the mysterious Phoenicians and how sounds first came to be written down, he races on to show how nonsense poems work, pins down the strange story of OK, traces our five lost letters and tackles the tyranny of spelling, among many many other things. His heroes of the alphabet range from Edward Lear to Phyllis Pearsall (the inventor of the A–Z), and from the two scribes of Beowulf to rappers. Each chapter takes on a different subject – whether it's codes, umlauts or the writing of dictionaries. Rosen's enthusiasm for letters positively leaps off the page, whether it's the story of his life told through the typewriters he's owned or a chapter on jokes written in a string of gags and word games. This is the book for anyone who's ever wondered why Hawaiian only has a thirteen–letter alphabet or how exactly to write down the sound of a wild raspberry.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619025165
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 02/01/2015
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael Rosen is a former Children's Laureate and the bestselling author of We're Going on a Bear Hunt (which won the Smarties Best Book of the Year Award) and many other books. He has also presented Word of Mouth on BBC Radio 4 since 1998. He has a Phd in Education, been awarded five extra honorary doctorates by various universities and made Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Literature) by the French government. In 2013 he became Professor of Education Studies at Goldsmiths. Find out more on Michael's website:

Read an Excerpt




• 'A' STARTS ITS life in around 1800 BCE. Turn our modern 'A' upside down and you can see something of its original shape. Can you see an ox's head with its horns sticking up in the air? If so, you can see the remains of this letter's original name, 'ox', or 'aleph' in the ancient Semitic languages. By the time the Phoenicians are using it in around 1000 BCE it is lying on its side and looks more like a 'K'. Speed-writing seems to have taken the diagonals through the upright, making it more like a horizontal form of our modern 'A' with the point on the left-hand side. The ancient Greeks called it 'alpha' and reversed it, with the point on the right-hand side, probably because, eventually, they decided to write from left to right. Between around 750 BCE and 500 BCE the Greeks rotated it to what we would think of as its upright position. The Romans added the serifs which you can see on inscriptions like Trajan's Column in Rome.

a AND a

Writing the lower-case 'A' by hand seems to have produced first an upside-down 'v' shape, which slowly acquired a connecting loop making it resemble the 'two-storey' 'a' you're looking at now. This belongs to the standardized script known as 'Carolingian minuscule' which Charlemagne's scribes created.

The 'single-storey', lower-case 'a' that persists in children's reading books and a good deal of advertising began its life with Irish scribes.


The people who preceded the Romans on the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans, were probably the first people to give the name of the letter a monosyllabic sound: 'ah', derived from the Greek word 'alpha'. The Romans followed suit and gave that name to the Romance languages of Europe. Surely, then, with the arrival of the Norman French, we anglophones should be calling it 'ah' as well? However, between the Normans and us lies the 'Great Vowel Shift', a phenomenon that caused people between 1400 and 1600 to change their 'ahs' to 'ays'. (In case you think this is beyond belief and some hokum invented by linguists, you should talk to New Zealanders who are, even as I write, in the throes of turning their 'pins' to 'pens' and their 'pens' to 'pins'. Shifting our vowels is something that groups of us like doing sometimes.)


In English, 'a' – either as a single letter in the middle of a single-syllable word, as the initial letter of a word, or in conjunction with other vowel-letters, 'y', 'w', 'r' and 'h' – can indicate a wide range of sounds: 'cat', 'was', 'all', 'and', 'late', 'father', 'hail', 'haul', 'Michael', 'ray', 'threat', 'beat', 'boat', 'dial', 'ah', 'raw', 'cart' and so on.

On rare occasions we can write 'aa' as in the names 'Aaron' and 'Saab'.

'A' and its partner 'an' does service as our 'indefinite article'. In many cases, this indicates that we are not referring to something that I the speaker or you the listener have referred to just before. 'I was at a football match', 'I was eating an apple'. The plural of 'a' is no article at all or 'some', 'both' or a number. 'I was eating apples.' However, we do say things like, 'That was a day to remember,' where the total construction indicates we are 'referring back' to something that we all know about.

(The 'definite article', 'the', is usually for when you want to indicate that you, the listener, or the world beyond has been talking, writing or referring to the thing spoken about before. 'I was eating the apple,' i.e. the one you mentioned.)

The history of 'an' is a peculiar one. It seems as if there was once a sufficient number of words like 'nuncle' ('uncle') for the 'n' to migrate across from the 'a'. King Lear's Fool calls him 'nuncle'.

'Ah!' is a very useful sound. It can mean many things depending on the notes you hit as you say it. You can indicate that you're surprised, that you knew it all along, that you're satisfied, that you've been hurt, that you're sympathetic, or you're pretending you're sympathetic, that you've caught someone out and so on. It can be linked to 'ha' as in 'Ah-ha' or to four 'hahs' if you're the BeeGees.


An alphabet is a stunningly brilliant invention. We could call it a 'cunning code' or a 'system of signs' whereby we use some symbols (letters) to indicate some of the sounds of a language. By combining two or more letters (as with 'th' or 'sch') we can indicate more of the sounds. Though it is wonderful, there are some snags for users of what I'm calling the 'English alphabet':

• We do not use these letters and combinations to indicate the same sound every time we use them. The letter 'c' can be the soft 'c' in 'ceiling' or the hard 'c' in 'cook'.

• We do not always use the letters to indicate the same sound to different readers over time (i.e. between now and the past), or across space (i.e. from region to region). In Shakespeare's time, 'do' rhymed with 'go'. People with a London accent pronounce the 'u' in 'hut' and the 'a' in 'hat' differently from people with a Yorkshire accent.

• We do not always use the same letter or combination of letters to indicate a given sound. We can make the 'oo' sound in 'root' by writing 'oo', or 'ou' as in 'you', or 'ough' as in 'through', or 'o–e' as in 'lose', or 'u–e' as in 'rune'.

• We write letters side by side but this shape doesn't always represent the timing of the sounds we make when we speak. Say 'head' and the 'h' carries over into the 'ea'.

• Letters don't represent all the sounds we make when we speak. Think 'due' and 'sue'.

Becoming or being a reader of English involves absorbing all these variations and then forgetting that they exist. We're able to do that mostly because we write and read in order to pass messages or 'texts' between us – messages that we want to be full of meaning, full of stuff that matters to us. As we read and write these messages, we learn the shape and look of words including the ones that grammarians call 'irregular'. We learn that the word 'debt' sounds like 'dett' but is written 'debt'. After all, we see it often enough.

Though it's possible to describe all this as a 'system of symbols and sounds', it's not only that. Our forebears devised alphabets so that they could store and retrieve meaning. 'Meaning' can be the meaning of names, directions, reports, feelings, ideas, dreams, experiments or investigations . . . We store meanings when writing with the alphabet, so that these meanings can survive over time and/or space: a graffito on the side of a train does both, as does an instruction on how to build a flatpack wardrobe. An inscription on a gravestone is usually intended to last over time but we want it to stay put. A tattoo is usually intended to last a lifetime, stay put on a person but move with that person. A birthday card travels from sender to receiver, lasts for the length of the birthday celebration and more often than not is destroyed. Some books have survived long beyond their authors' wildest dreams, sometimes by staying in the same place for hundreds of years.

In the case of the alphabet I'm using, people have used some of the letters in a constant way over thousands of years. Someone in what is now Italy, whose name began with an 's' sound two thousand years ago, may have had someone carve an 'S' on a stone after he died just as someone might do that for 'Sam' in England today. This continuity has enabled us to access meanings going back hundreds or thousands of years.

Some aspects of how we use letters change. Film-makers invented subtitles so that we can hear words in one language, whilst reading it in another; people with impaired hearing can read what people on a screen are saying. When the Norman French took over the ruling class in England from 1066, they brought some sounds (like 'j') that the Germanic peoples living in England did not use. Over time, the 'j' in 'jam' came to be used by everyone in England. Meanwhile, most people in England stopped using the 'ch' sound that most Scots people make today when saying the word 'loch'. These changes show up in the letters of the alphabet. This is part of why and how the alphab +et is such a clever invention. We get it to do what we want it to do.

At any given moment, people in a locality or a country speaking the same language do not use the alphabet in the same way. For thousands of years, most people hardly used it at all. The storage of meaning in letters was something that only a very few people knew how to do. The origins of the alphabet lie within those castes of people who had the right to write: priests, the makers and executors of laws and punishments, and accountants, mostly. With TV available on smartphones, voice recognition, automated translation and the digitizing of image and sound, the use of the alphabet is changing rapidly. Another kind of code – based on the serial variations of two numbers – is storing meaning. Though using the technology to store and read meaningful symbols (e.g. pictures, music, speech and writing) is very simple, very few people know how to do the coding. It is quite possible that the use of the alphabet of letters will decline in the next hundred years. We could ask whether a new clerisy has already emerged who have become the tiny minority who know how to write this digital code.

The ultimate reason why the use of the alphabet changes is because we change, whether that's through war, migration, new technology, new kinds of work and leisure, new systems of government or new forms of education. It seems odd to think that the reason why I say a 'j' sound and that there is a letter for that sound is because, nearly a thousand years ago, in the wars between the tribal warlords of northern Europe, a French-speaking group got the upper hand in the part of the world where I happen to live. I can hold an instrument in my hand and tap the letters 'y-is-s-s-s' and ten seconds later my son hundreds of miles away knows that we are both celebrating the same goal. The instrument that makes this possible comes after 250 years of scientific industrialization and some dubious exploitation of labour and mineral resources that took place far from where I live. My freedom to write a word in this non-standard way comes as a result of the mass education and artistic revolts of the last 150 years: my son and I have both learned to write but we don't get nervous making up new spellings. We're not scared we might get told off by the invisible teacher, grammarian or priest in our heads.

When I've texted my son, I put the instrument down on the table next to a newspaper and, let's say, my copy of Emil and the Detectives, and I go on watching the TV. Though this all seems seamless, the frontiers of different technologies, different languages, different typefaces, and different uses of alphabets, symbols and codes are all nudging up against each other on my table. The names of the footballers I'm watching on the TV are a coming-together of different uses of letters: the commentator tells us that Cazorla would like us to pronounce his name as 'Cathorla' with a soft 'th' as in 'thorn'. Giroud, the commentator explains, has a 'd' on the end of his name but we don't say the 'd', and the 'G' sounds like the 'j' in 'bijou'. The goalkeeper's name is Szczesny. The commentator explains that the team look like they're 'playing 4, 4, 1, 1' with Cazorla 'playing in the hole'. This too is yet another system of signs created partly in language, partly by the movements of the players.

This running of languages and sign-systems in parallel to each other is not new. In the British Museum sits the basalt slab known as 'the Rosetta Stone'. Though one of its languages – Egyptian hieroglyphs – lay undeciphered for hundreds of years, the stone holds the key to understanding a crucial moment in the history of the alphabet: how human beings invented the idea that squiggles on a surface could indicate the sounds we make to each other in order to express ourselves, to communicate and to make meanings for each other that last as long as the material they are written on. Matching squiggles to sounds is known as the 'phonetic principle'. It's not known for certain who first invented it, and it's not known whether different groups of people invented it separately or influenced each other. Though this kind of behaviour seems obvious to us, it was not how humans first invented writing. The first writing was a form of drawing. Matching signs to speech comes later.

The history of the alphabet is also a history of how we uncovered that history. The Rosetta Stone is inscribed in three languages: Egyptian hieroglyphs and two kinds of Greek. The script gives out the terms of a decree from the 'Manifest God, King Ptolemy' – a decree which included that no rower employed in the task of taking priests to the residence of Alexander should be press-ganged into service – a piece of humane legislation that I always spend a moment of pleasure thinking about, unless it was a neat way to prevent the Emperor from being surrounded by potentially recalcitrant and rebellious strong men. In comparison, the story of how the stone was handled by Europeans is squalid. If ever we were trying to find an example of how language, letters and alphabets can be the subject of rivalries, wars and plunder, the Rosetta Stone does it all.

The British and French invaders of Egypt in the early nineteenth century fought over the stone. Today, people still argue over which of the European scholars who pored over its three languages first cracked the code of the hieroglyphs. The Frenchman Jean-François Champollion is usually given more credit than the Englishman Thomas Young, though Champollion himself gave Young some credit. This overlooks the fact that Ahmad Bakr ibn Wahshiyah, who lived in Egypt in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, wrote a treatise on hieroglyphics, pointing out that the glyphs were both pictorial images and single symbols signifying sounds.

How the international use of letters works across time and place can be seen in the thread of scholarship which links ibn Wahshiyah to Champollion: there was first an Arabic manuscript of the book Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham in which ibn Wahshiyah deciphered a number of Egyptian hieroglyphs; there was then a translation of the Arabic manuscript in a book published in English in 1806 by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall as Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained, with an Account of the Egyptian Priests, their Classes, Initiation, and Sacrifices in the Arabic Language by Ahmad Bin Abubekr Bin Wahishih; someone called Silvestre de Sacy – a colleague of Champollion – read this English version of the Arab manuscript; sixteen years later, Champollion's complete decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared. There is, then, the strong possibility that an Arab scholar and expert on magic, statues, agriculture, alchemy, physics and medicine, writing at the same time that King Alfred was trying to get people to read English, may have played a significant part in unlocking the crucial fact that hieroglyphs were not only pictures but that some of them also represented specific sounds. To grasp how this works, the Egyptians some four thousand years ago did the equivalent of changing a picture of an apple from representing the word we say as 'apple', to representing the sound 'a', changing our picture of a ball representing the word we say as 'ball', to representing the sound 'b' and so on.

What we don't know for certain is whether the ancient Egyptians were the first to do this, nor whether they passed it on to others. In other words, we cannot be sure that the ancient Egyptian writing is an ancestor of what you're reading now. Around the same time, other peoples living relatively near to the Egyptians were developing scripts that also used phonetic principles – but in different ways. For example, the ancient Sumerians, from what is now present-day Iraq, developed a way of using symbols to represent syllables. An analogy would be if we had a symbol for a bird's beak or 'bill' based on a picture of a bird's bill. This 'bill' symbol could be used again and again in a word like 'building' (where our 'buil-' sounds the same as 'bill'), or in 'possible' (where our '-ble' sounds like 'bill'). Another way to imagine the 'syllabic principle' is to think of the possibility of us using the ampersand, '&', to write 'hand' as 'h&'.

What has just taken me a few minutes to describe would have taken people hundreds of years to evolve. Though these breakthroughs lie at the heart of our culture, we can only speculate why people tried to make them. In terms of trade, pictograms are an easier way to translate words because you don't have to use abstract symbols like 'h' or 'y' representing sounds in different languages. The pictogram for 'eye' will work for my word for 'eye' just as well as for your word for 'eye', each of which may well sound completely different.

Alphabets are extraordinarily useful to a group of people speaking the same language, as they can be compressed and combined to indicate almost any sound – and therefore any word – we might want to say, in any combination of phrases, sentences, verses or passages of any length. Inventing alphabets based on the 'phonetic principle' or the 'syllabic principle' suggests, therefore, some stability on the part of a group of people speaking the same language. But we shouldn't forget that the Chinese have had an incredible stability in terms of language-use but have not felt it necessary to develop an alphabet. And the Chinese are doing just fine.

The Sumerians and ancient Egyptians were clearly crucial players in the history of alphabets. Their invention and the widespread use of their writings can be seen in a place like the British Museum today, where their writing tells stories, shows prayers, gives instructions on how to pass on to the land of the dead and much more. However, we cannot know definitively whether their knowledge was picked up by the first people we know for certain are the key source for the alphabet I'm using. Moreover, in telling the story of deciphering old inscriptions like the Rosetta Stone (rather than that of the evolution of the alphabet), it is important to mention that scholars transfer a principle they've learned from one script across to another.

The archaeologist who applied what I'll call the 'ibn Wahshiyah–Champollion' principle of decoding to ancient scripts was a man by the name of Alan Gardiner and he made the breakthrough in 1916 while studying an inscription of symbols from Sinai which he figured did not say, 'box eye cane cross' but a word made from the initial letter of the Semitic words for 'box', 'eye', 'cane' and 'cross', making, he thought, the word 'baalat' or 'lady'. This piece of writing dates from around 1750 BCE and it was produced by people who are described by scholars as 'Semites'.

By the way, if you ever wonder how excited people get deciphering ancient scripts, you should remember George Smith. Though this young man with no formal education beyond the age of fourteen wasn't the first person to decipher the cuneiform script of the ancient Sumerians, he was responsible for spotting that they wrote about the Flood before the Old Testament writers did. This eureka moment came in 1872 as he pored over a dusty clay tablet, plucked from the desert sands of Iraq, which constituted all that remained from the library of Nineveh. He was so excited by the discovery that he leaped up, ripped off his clothes and ran round the British Museum.

In the inscriptions of the Semitic people, scholars see the first certain forebears of the alphabet you're looking at. It's possible that they adopted the phonetic principle from the Egyptians, the Sumerians and others, but not certain. It's possible that they incorporated some of the symbols – possible but not certain.

Following the Semites, the next group in the family tree that leads to what you are reading now are the Phoenicians who originated in what is modern Lebanon. They are known to have been a highly inventive, active, trading people, working their way all round the Mediterranean and beyond, speaking a language, it's thought, akin to ancient Hebrew. By about 1000 BCE, they were using a twenty-two-letter alphabet probably inherited from the Semites. Anyone who remembers or knows their Roman history will remember Carthage and the Carthaginians. For some of us, Carthage was an inky word in our Latin exercise books, but it was indeed a real place founded by Phoenicians near to present-day Tunis in Tunisia. We would have hundreds of Phoenician books today if it wasn't for the fact that the Romans sacked Carthage and burned the Phoenicians' library. The history of storing meanings is not always a pretty one.

The Phoenicians used abstract versions of objects to indicate letters: a bifurcated (horned?) sign was an 'ox' (in their language 'aleph'), and on down through the words for 'house', 'stick', 'door' and 'shout' up to 'tooth' and 'mark'. You don't have to be all that fanciful to see that in many of the cases, the sign had evolved from the object and that the corresponding letter came to signify the first sound of the name of that object.


Excerpted from "Alphabetical"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Michael Rosen.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Story of A,
A is for Alphabet,
The Story of B,
B is for Battledore,
The Story of C,
C is for Ciphers,
The Story of D,
D is for Disappeared Letters,
The Story of E,
E is for e. e. cummings,
The Story of F,
F is for Fonts,
The Story of G,
G is for Greek,
The Story of H,
H is for H-Aspiration,
The Story of I,
I is for Improvisation,
The Story of J,
J is for Jokes,
The Story of K,
K is for Korean,
The Story of L,
L is for LSD,
The Story of M,
M is for Music and Memory,
The Story of N,
N is for Nonsense,
The (True) Story of O,
O is for OK,
The Story of P,
P is for Pitman,
The Story of Q,
Q is for Qwerty,
The Story of R,
R is for Rhyme,
The Story of S,
S is for Signs and Sign Systems,
The Story of T,
T is for Txtspk,
The Story of U,
U is for Umlauts,
The Story of V,
V is for Vikings,
The Story of W,
W is for Webster,
The Story of X,
X Marks the Spot,
The Story of Y,
Y is for Yellow,
The Story of Z,
Z is for Zipcodes,
The Oulipo Olympics,
Further Reading,

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