A Is for A

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What is “A”? he A is the root: it’s where we be­gin, the build­ing block of any­thing else we want to say. “Ev­ery­thing be­gins with A” be­gins Gertrude Stein’s To Do: A Book of Al­pha­bets and Birth­days. 1 The al­pha­bet is rad­i­cal. Spell-cast­ers have looked to the runic al­pha­bet for cen­turies. The Ouija board re­lies on the mys­ti­cal space of the al­pha­bet as the medium through which we will con­tact the spir­its. In Leo Tol­stoy’s Anna Karen­ina, Levin pro­poses to Kitty us­ing an al­pha­bet­i­cal code. Dou­ble abecedar­i­ans have the al­pha­bet run­ning from a to z down the left-hand side of the poem and from z to a down the right-hand side; Al­bert the Ma­son wears a fez, / But the fez is shaped like a cherry might be the first two lines in such a form.2 Philo­soph­i­cally, we go from A to Z; geo­graph­i­cally, from A to B; tau­to­log­i­cally, A to A. A is the univer­sal af­fir­ma­tive: “All X are Y.” A is the first in a se­ries of hy­po­thet­i­cal things: A is part­ners with B. Ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse is ei­ther A or not-a. A means ac­cel­er­a­tion. A is the most com­mon blood group. Ace. Am­pere. Alto. The scar­let let­ter. Q and.

THow to Spell “A” A was orig­i­nally a con­so­nant. Ever since the be­gin­nings of the al­pha­bet, A has al­ways been the be­gin­ning of the al­pha­bet. In 1998, ar­chae­ol­o­gist John Dar­nell dis­cov­ered rock carv­ings in Egypt’s Val­ley of Ter­ror, about thirty miles north of the an­cient city of Thebes, that proved that the al­pha­bet as we know it was in­vented around 2000 B.C. by Semitic peo­ples liv­ing in Egypt. That first al­pha­bet was six­teen to twenty-two char­ac­ters long and based on hi­ero­glyphs. This early al­pha­bet was tech­ni­cally an ab­jad, or con­so­nant-only, al­pha­bet. (Semitic writ­ing sys­tems don’t have sym­bols for vow­els.) The first let­ter, the Semitic con­so­nant aleph, mean­ing “ox,” was drawn with the sign of an ox’s head. Beth, the next let­ter, was adapted

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