Language Visible

I just finished Language Visible by David Sacks. It is an in-depth look at the English alphabet, letter by letter, from their origins in Egyptian hieroglyphics by the Semites (who took the hieroglyphic shapes and assigned them individual sounds) through the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and French. Some fascinating tidbits:

  • I knew that some languages were right-to-left (RTL) and some left-to-right (LTR) but I wasn’t aware that some changed over time. And when they changed, they changed the direction that the letters were written — which is crazily intuitive but not something I’d ever thought about.
  • J, V, and W are three of the newest letters of the English alphabet. J a derivative of I; V a derivative of U, and W also a derivative of U. Indeed, English didn’t have its full compliment of 26 letters as a standard until the mid 1800s. The last two (I and J) got brought formally in thanks in no small part to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828. Aside: we also have Webster to thank for some of the spelling differences between American and British English. He “envisioned a distinctly American language, to help unite the new nation and make it independent of Britain’s printing presses and other cultural influences” — in other words, he intentionally created differences.
  • The English alphabet and spelling was heavily influenced by the Norman invasion, which booted out some Anglo-Saxon letters like thorn, eth, wyn, and yogh.
  • The Old English spelling of ye as in “Ye Olde Tavern” for instance, is actually pronounced the and always was. The ‘y’ is actually a thorn using the closest-looking Roman character at the time (handwritten thorn had evolved to look like a ‘y’) and is pronounced like ‘th’.
  • The author’s observation on the class origins of some English words was fascinating (pp 152-3). For instance, Old English gives us sheep, cows, calves, and swines and French gives us mutton, beef, veal, and pork. This and much more thanks again to the Norman invasion.
  • I knew the alphabet started out as what we would call all-uppercase. What I didn’t know is that the letter shapes we call lower-case were just another form of uppercase letters when they were created. Our lowercase letter shapes first saw their beginning from unical uncial, circa 300 AD, created for easier writing on parchment. These were standardized by the English cleric Alcuin under Charlemagne in around 789 AD, and adopted by the Italian printers in the 1460s as the model for lowercase letters in the “roman” print.
  • The uppercase letters we use in print are heavily derived, if not entirely lifted, from those used in Rome around 100 AD. I’d never fully realized just how gorgeous the lettering on Trajan’s column was until I saw them individually (sorry J, U, and W) in this book.
  • In general, with few exceptions, the English alphabet has survived mostly unchanged for thousands of years. Sounds have morphed over time, a few letters added or removed, but in large, the letters I write today have existed for thousands of years.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is fascinated about language, the history of letters, and letter shapes. One of the best parts about the book is that you know how far along you are with every chapter dedicated to a single letter. This also makes it easy to put down and pick back up. Sadly, the Seattle Library has one copy and I’m a week overdue in getting it back (sorry to the person who is in the hold queue after me!) so you might be waiting awhile if you’re looking for a copy there.