Let­ter of the lore in a charm­ing his­tory

Al­pha­bet­i­cal: How Ev­ery Let­ter Tells a Story

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

By Michael Rosen John Mur­ray, 431pp, $35 (HB)

MICHAEL Rosen’s Al­pha­bet­i­cal is the per­fect book for any­one who rel­ishes the in­tri­ca­cies of lan­guage and let­ters. This is the book he has al­ways wanted to write, Rosen says, and his en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge and in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm for his topic are ev­ery­where ev­i­dent.

Rosen, much loved Bri­tish poet, broad­caster (BBC4’s Word of Mouth), aca­demic, and pub­lic speaker, who has writ­ten or con­trib­uted to about 140 books for adults and chil­dren ( We are Go­ing on a Bear Hunt), in­ves­ti­gates the evo­lu­tion and func­tion of the al­pha­bet that forms English words.

He asks, ‘‘ Why 26 let­ters?’’ and ‘‘ Why does one let­ter come ‘ af­ter’ another one?’’ And with online searches, will we need al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der? It cer­tainly helps with this book’s ex­cel­lent in­dex.

Rosen writes: ‘‘ 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 the lan­guage.’’

The open­ing chap­ter, A is for Al­pha­bet, pro­vides a pot­ted his­tory of the al­pha­bet and how it is used to make mean­ing, and con­cludes: ‘‘ There can be no full, unabridged story of the al­pha­bet . . . This book is 26 scenes — with di­gres­sions — taken from the drama.’’ The di­gres­sions are of­ten ar­cane and ex­ten­sive, al­low­ing Rosen to tell charm­ing, in­trigu­ing but al­ways rel­e­vant sto­ries.

Each chap­ter (scene) starts with a brief, lively his­tory of the let­ter, in­clud­ing how it came to look and sound as it does to­day. Th­ese sec­tions end with ex­am­ples of sound play. For D, ‘‘ doo­dle, did­dle, dude . . . In dull mo­ments you can try say­ing, ‘ Ken Dodd’s dad’s dog died’.’’ For G, ‘‘ We play with the ‘ g’ sound by say­ing some­one is ‘ ga-ga’ . . . The best way to of­fend a ven­tril­o­quist is to say, ‘ Got­tle a geer’ . . . Some peo­ple have the gift of the gab.’’

Rosen cer­tainly does. He also has a spell­bind­ing poet and sto­ry­teller’s voice. He re­veals a gift for seam­lessly mesh­ing hard in­for­ma­tion, per­sonal anec­dote, jokes and puzzles with ed­u­ca­tional, cul­tural and lin­guis­tic ques­tions and wry, pointed, ob­ser­va­tions: (color, re­al­ize)? It will hap­pen, so re­lax.

Each let­ter is made to do some heavy lift­ing. His light, of­ten play­ful touch masks Rosen’s eru­di­tion and ex­haus­tive re­search. His fo­cus is of­ten on how chil­dren learn and are best ed­u­cated, and in B is for Bat­tle­dore (the term is ex­plained) he looks at rag­ing de­bates about meth­ods of teach­ing read­ing, not­ing that chil­dren learn in dif­fer­ent ways and at dif­fer­ent rates. Rosen served as the fifth Bri­tish chil­dren’s lau­re­ate from 2007 to 2009. Bri­tish lau­re­ates gen­er­ally see their roles as ad­vo­cates for chil­dren, read­ing, li­braries, choice and ac­cess to books. Rosen crit­i­cised the Bri­tish na­tional cur­ricu­lum for favour­ing ‘‘ lit­er­acy as an end in it­self, while push­ing open-ended literary en­joy­ment into the side­lines’’. We need him in Aus­tralia.

Rosen sweeps all over the world and across time for ex­am­ples, il­lus­tra­tions and ex­pla­na­tions. We learn about dis­ap­peared let­ters, the enor­mous debt we owe the Greeks, Vik­ings and oth­ers; about ‘‘ as­pi­ra­tion’’ — should we say ‘‘ aitch’’ or ‘‘ haitch’’? In I is for Im­pro­vi­sa­tion, Rosen mar­vels at our ca­pac­ity for im­pro­vis­ing sounds: ‘‘ The al­pha­bet is not a sci­en­tific rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sounds, it’s a cul­tural one . . . Bri­tish ducks say ‘ quack’ ... The French are more nasal and say ‘ coin, coin’ (pro­nounced ‘ kwang-kwang’).’’

He in­ves­ti­gates and riffs on signs and sym­bols (semaphore, morse code, braille) and the use of ci­phers and codes stretch­ing from Mary, Queen of Scots to Ed­ward Snow­den. ‘‘ No elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion is con­fi­den­tial,’’ Rosen con­cludes. How top­i­cal! He tells us: ‘‘ The twit­ter hash­tag owes its ori­gins to peo­ple in cha­t­rooms mark­ing the topics of their con­ver­sa­tion.’’ He con­fesses: ‘‘ I’m not sure how I was able to func­tion in life prior to the in­ven­tion of the Twit­ter ironyalert.’’

In W is for Web­ster, Rosen looks closely at how dic­tionar­ies came about in the US and Bri­tain (‘‘dic­tionar­ies hon­our al­pha­bets’’) and

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.