Letter of the lore in a charming history
Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story
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