Read Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World by John Man Online


Praise for Alpha Beta "This book comes at the perfect moment as we rediscover the importance in early reading of cracking the alphabetic code. The story of how that code came into being is a fascinating one, and Man is the ideal writer to tell it." Times Educational Supplement "A richly absorbing exploration, from B.C. to PCs, of the evolution of the most fundamental charaPraise for Alpha Beta "This book comes at the perfect moment as we rediscover the importance in early reading of cracking the alphabetic code. The story of how that code came into being is a fascinating one, and Man is the ideal writer to tell it." Times Educational Supplement "A richly absorbing exploration, from B.C. to PCs, of the evolution of the most fundamental characters of our cultural history, the alphabet we so much take for granted. John Man writes with a compellingly restless curiosity and immediacy. The ever surprising, exotically detailed narrative in his informative book makes it as undryly enjoyable as a successful archaelogical dig of one of Alan Moorehead s colorful histories of African exploration." David Grambs, author of The Describer s Dictionary and The Endangered English Dictionary "Text that is crisp, taut, and as clear as a bell.... A fascinating story with many a beguiling subplot along the way." New Scientist "Letter perfect the best histories and mysteries of our ABC s!" Jeff McQuain, author of Never Enough Words and Power Language...

Title : Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780471415749
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 320 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World Reviews

  • Marc Weidenbaum
    2019-02-21 17:02

    Like a lot of books with high-concept titles, this one isn't really true to its billing. It is not a biography or even a history of the alphabet as we English-speakers know it. It's a survey of all the alphabets that have battled it out over the history of humankind -- a broader editorial scope that is challenging to sum up pithily. Certainly there's an emphasis on all things A to Z, but with a lot of time spent on Chinese, Korean, Cyrillic, cuneiform, hieroglyphs, and so forth. (The Korean material is especially interesting.) It's a fascinating, relatively quick read.One side note: there's a fascinating side bit in here about Thomas A. Sebeok, a retired professor from Bloomington, Illinois, who developed a plan for how to mark for thousands of years that a given spot is poisoned by nuclear waste. Showing that no symbols could do the job, he determines that the best plan, if any, would be to create an "atomic priesthood" whose sole role would be to maintain the continuity of this important information, generation after generation.Even though I've followed the Long Now organization for many years, I only now have connected Sebeok's plan with the group's projections, and with Neal Stephenson's novel, Anathem, which features a priesthood quite similar to the one described here. According to this post from the Long Now, Sebeok was not on the minds of the group's founders, even though there are striking parallels in their perspectives:

  • Erik
    2019-03-14 14:02

    While this is not a history of the twenty-six individual letters of our Roman alphabet, Man’s slender volume instead focuses on the idea (or meme) of an alphabet. More specifically, he deftly maneuvers between the development of pictorial writing systems, syllabaries, and finally alphabets first by way of Ancient China, the Near East, and then the early cultures of the Mediterranean. Of course, he doesn’t cover much new territory in the bulk of this volume that hasn’t already been explore or elaborated on elsewhere in both the academic and lay-reader world. (David Sacks’ well-written Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A-to-Z covers the same ground but in greater detail.) If I were to sing praises to any part of Man’s book, I more than happy to single out the last two chapters, “Why We Don’t Write Etruscan” and “The Limits to Growth.” In the first, Man takes us on an interesting historical detour as he recounts the explosive growth in the field of Etruscan studies starting in the seventeenth century after it lay relatively unknown for almost two millennia. Of course, much about these people still remains a mystery, as very little survives the careless and wanton destruction of their antiquities by both ancient Romans and the Enlightenment treasure hunters and scavengers. In the last chapter, Man sheds light on just how and why the Western and Eastern Europe split when the latter adopted the Cyrillic alphabet – and why several, including Romania, later switched. (Which recalls the same reason modern Turkey, under Ataturk, ditched Arabic script for Roman.) Man’s style balances both an effective readability with condensed scholarship that can please both the neophyte and the well-read.

  • orelia
    2019-03-03 11:57

    I can only take this book in small doses. This does not mean that I do not care for the book, but each page delves so deep into religion, history and philosophy that at times can feel overwhelming. What I greatly enjoy about this book so far is the linguistic analysis of the alphabet. I'll let you know my final thoughts when I turn that last page....My final thoughts are in. IF you are going to read this book, just stick to the first few chapters and the last chapter. This book is less about linguistics and more about the history of civilizations who might have created the alphabet.

  • Jo Coleman
    2019-03-09 16:03

    This is a proper rambling professor book and as such I can't really decide whether it should have five stars or two. Half the time he is explaining cuneiform and the spread of the Cyrillic alphabet brilliantly, and half the time he is giffing on about anecdotes from his schooldays. I will be keeping it around for the excellent appendix of all the alphabets.

  • Remington Purnell
    2019-02-19 11:12

    Alpha Beta is the equivalent of asking your grandmother what the depression was like but she ends up talking about her brother's socks for three hours instead. Not about the alphabet at all, but its sins are forgiven because it's still interesting and well-written.

  • Christopher Rush
    2019-03-06 11:57

    Take your pick: "complete shash," "utter piffle," "an embarrassment to humanity in every conceivable way," "an insult to people who think, have thought, or have accidentally bumped into people who have," "bigoted propaganda," "unbridled Antisemitism" (the only acceptable form of racism in academic circles, apparently), and possible more, but I am wholly tired of thinking about this thing (calling it a "book" is more than I can presently bear). I've read a few disappointing books this year, but man, this has to be the worst. As many have said, the wholly misleading title is less relevant to the content than had it just been called "Pages with Words on Them: Maybe."Statistically, most of this book is about the Eastern world, and like most of his coterie, Man lambastes the Western world and apotheosizes the East. Except for that "insignificant" people group, the "Asiatics," Man's embarrassing epithet for the Jewish people. Yes, he calls them an "insignificant" people multiple times. Perhaps one should notify the hundreds of thousands of people who have dedicated their entire existences to exterminate said people group that they are, in reality, "insignificant." I mean, honestly. His entire section on Israel was so surfeited with vitriolic arrogance, it's incredible it got passed anyone posing as an editor. Calling the Bible "Semitic legends" is one thing, but saying there's no archaeological evidence for Abraham and therefore none of the Bible is true is an embarrassment to all thinking and pre-thinking entities. I suppose there is archaeological evidence for Chingis Khan, Julius Caesar, and all the other famous people of history whose existences by which we have but anecdotal evidence to go. Their thigh bones, for example. Or dental records. Chariot licenses replete with photographic identification, no doubt.Fortunately, Man's summary of what the Bible says is so wholly inaccurate it could potentially be laughable over time, but while I was reading it (a generous term) I felt a spiritual kinship to King David, one of the earliest kings of this "insignificant" people, and likely experienced what Shepherd David felt internally when he first heard the cacophonous tones of that tall fellow from Gath. Laying all that aside, this book surely must be embarrassing even to an atheist. In one chapter, Man admits multiple times our understanding of Egyptian history and chronology is largely inductive, i.e., wholly made up, using the same high-quality techniques paleontologists use to tell us from bones how some dinosaurs were colorblind and disliked R&B.As admirable as it is he admits our understanding of pre-historic cultures is as tenuous as a successful guppy-holding contest during a nor'easter aboard a capsizing schooner, he utterly elides all his waning credibility by declaring "since the Bible doesn't fit into our timeline for Egypt, the Bible is completely wrong." Man is so afraid of admitting the potential boons of Judaism or Christianity, he goes so far as to water down the work done by the widows Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint as having "made peace" among the Huaorani after their husbands were killed - and then he has the gall to imply his ethnolinguistic work among the Huaorani was even more important than what they did! Honestly. Topping all this (and, painfully, far more), he tells us at the very end of this diatribe the efforts of Tyndale (and by extension Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL, and all the others) to translate the Bible into all the languages of the world as "anthropologically dangerous." Yes, Mr. Man, telling different people groups what other people groups believe in their own languages is dangerous - maybe you should have thought about that when you tried to tell us Westerners how much better Easterners are?As I said before, this book has almost nothing to do with the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. Most of the book is about how great the Chinese language and script are, how great Egypt's hieroglyphics were, how horrible Rome was for pretending the Etruscans didn't exist (and everything Etruscan is incalculably superior to everything Roman), and Cyrillic is even better than Times New Roman - and all the people who use Cyrillic, especially Stalin, are infinitely superior to people who use Roman letters (except for Man and his friends, no doubt). Man spends about 17 pages scattered throughout to eventually get to the origin of the Latin alphabet. He spends no meaningful time discussing "how 26 letters shaped the western world," which one would think he would have gotten around to, since that is the subtitle of this thing. Perhaps it's a mis-translation from the original Mongolian.He does spend an uproarious several dozens of pages telling us authoritatively how people have guessed about the origins of the Egyptian alphabet. "Since this symbol is an ox, and that sound also begins the word for 'mother,' it's quite likely all ancient Egyptian scribes used the ox symbol when they wanted to write the letter 'm.'" It's about that sensible. All of which, he admits, is pure speculation. So much of this book is Man selecting whatever made-up origin stories he prefers from his friends and telling us in rather acerbic ways how it's probably right. Thus, when cultures such as his friends and Eastern cultures make up entire narratives to explain things without any proof, it's okay. When Israelites do it, it's an attack on everything pure and decent in the world. Seems somewhat of a double standard.I suggest you don't read this book. It doesn't have much of anything to do with the origins or influences of the Roman alphabet. All influences have apparently been detrimental. Man has nothing accurate or respectful to say about cultures of which he doesn't approve; and when he relates anecdotes about Eastern rulers sacrificing thousands of victims, he laughs it off as something people sometimes do, goofy old tyrants. I can't understand why some people love this book. Oh, wait. Yes, I can.Usually I give away (or when feeling mercenary sell or trade in) books I know I'm not going to read again and ones my children will likely not need or want, but I just can't give this to any other human being. I don't know anyone I dislike enough to give him or her this thing. I'll return it back to the earth, allowing it to nutrify the subterranean universe. Avoid this thing.

  • Richard Rogers
    2019-03-13 15:12

    The first three quarters of this books is awesome. It answers a bunch of half-formed questions I've always had but didn't know how to ask. The scholarship is excellent; the narrative is entertaining; the information is useful and engaging.Until it isn't. I swear the last chapter was meant to lead into something wonderful that he forgot to write. We're learning about the Glagolitic alphabet and the history of the Russian church and the invention of Cyrillic letters and their spread to Mongolia and then... you reach the appendices. The book just stops, without summation, like a stream soaking into the ground. Maybe my copy is missing a chapter or something.Oh, well. The first 6 or 7 chapters in particular are worth the price, and then some. His discussion of the alphabet as a sort of evolutionary winner really makes sense, and I'd like to see more historians follow up on that theme and expand his ideas. Same with the Etruscan to Latin alphabet discussion--I'd like to see more of that. Still got questions there.In any case, I'm interested enough to look up his other books. Maybe he's got another gem.

  • Deane Barker
    2019-03-16 09:18

    Ridiculous book supposedly about the spread of the alphabet, but really about anything but that. This author hasn't found a tangent he didn't want to go off on. At any given point, I couldn't figure out if the author was talking about the purported subject, or just telling some random story about a historical figure in the name of...what?...color? Context?I read this entire book, but the only thing I can say with any authority is that I know nothing more about the spread of the alphabet than I knew when I started. I had hoped it would turn the corner at some point, but it never did. Or, perhaps it did, and all that was around the corner was some dude telling more random stories.

  • Reem Ka
    2019-03-01 10:02

    I am so glad that I went back to the bookstore and bought this book. It is an essential read for all of us since we are using the alphabets on a daily basis. It gives you a clear idea on the originality of the different alphabets used by different cultures. The author did an excellent work by explaining the story of how the alphabet came into being. 5 stars out of 5.

  • Robert Monk
    2019-02-22 10:55

    Slight, but amusing. If one knows a bit about the development of language already, there's not much to be found here.

  • Megan
    2019-03-04 10:52

    - emphasises the significance of alphabet usage on a society's culture - how having a simple system where letters correlate to sounds can impact on power distribution- evolution of language over time - how pictograms/cuneiform were sufficient for basic mercantile records but became limited for more complex and universal writing (e.g. Egypt's scribe class alone could master literacy), and so societies developed alphabets under certain conditions (but the book also stresses that richly nuanced and powerful literature does not need an alphabet e.g. Chinese)- Linear B - interesting - insight into the Etruscans and Phoenicians - Sejong's alphabet - wow- raises the idea that the societies of ancient Greece and Rome are considered so monumental, compared to other societies whose literary legacy is limited or lost, because of their alphabet use and preservation of their writing (not necessarily greater per se but an element of being in the right place and time perhaps)

  • Mike Dixon
    2019-03-05 12:16

    As a boy, I was driven mad by the English spelling system. Then I tried to learn Japanese and realized that there are far more messy ways to record words. My thanks go out to the inventors of the alphabet.In his excellent book, John Man traces its origins to the region between Ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. He speculates (convincingly) that the alphabet was the work of merchants who modified the ideograms of Egypt and rendered them as sounds.I was particularly impressed by his assertion that major changes in a writing system will never be made in a stable, literate society. There are too many entrenched interest groups.On that basis, I'm resigned to seeing the English spelling system remain unchanged. I guess much the same can be said for Microsoft and confess that I stick with it because the effort of changing is too great.

  • Bandit
    2019-02-20 13:04

    Fascinating reading. Genuinely interesting and, more importantly and not as ubiquitous as it ought to be among non fiction, wholly accessible book that explains among other things why this review is being written using this particular set of letters. Sort of a journey/evolution of the alphabet throughout history to get to the point where we have and utilize it today, but also a comprehensive brief history of ancient world and the way its sociopolitical structures affected and shaped the language. Well written and exceptionally informative, this was absolutely worth the time. Educating, yet entertaining and a smart thought provoking book. History may be written by the victors, but here we learn of what languages they used to do so and why. Recommended.

  • Kristian
    2019-03-20 16:06

    If you like type and history and interesting things, then this is the book for you. It delves into the history of our alphabet, as well as writing systems in general, and gets into things you would never think could possibly connect with just the alphabet, but wow, what a ride.The writing style is solid and engaging really drew me into the book. There are several anecdotes and side-stories that pop up as you read through the text that help keep everything exciting and interesting.I would say anyone who is a designer, a typographer, a linguist, a theologian, a history buff, or just into interesting concepts and ideas would enjoy reading this book.

  • Rio Lam
    2019-03-12 11:55

    This book almost got me to major in Linguistics (luckily, I didn't.) John Man did a great job writing this book in such an understandable and interesting way for dummies. Although it was certainly not for entertainment and took a little effort to finish, I've earned a lot of knowledge. It provides good demonstration, explanation, and analysis. However, at some point, I got lost with too much of history. If anyone wanted to read this book, I would tell them not to get intimidated :) It's not a hardcore theoretical book. Some parts may be hard, but the rest is totally okay for starters to read in a lazy afternoon or a cozy night.

  • Janie
    2019-02-22 12:04

    I had great hopes for this book. It's full of interesting stuff, but the way it was presented addled me and kept me from really sinking in to a deep enjoyment. Were I to clamor for a re-make, I'd ask for* more graphics* clearer discussion of the orthographic terms (I'm not sure if I was at an advantage or disadvantage as a linguist; I thought he did not address the linguistically salient points between a lot of the terms but I also felt that layfolk would be confused)* re-organize! tangents are great, conjecture (in such a field with such evidence) is inevitable ... just avoid of a mishmash hodgepodge of everything at once.

  • Marcus
    2019-03-21 15:08

    Well.... for a book that I found in the street, this was a pretty interesting read. Of course I'm kind of a language nerd, so reading about the development of encoding vowels consonants is pretty fun for me. J. Man did a great job of setting conjecture apart from fact. There is lots of conjecture. Very interesting thing about the surviving tradition of singing poets in Eastern Europe. And some thoughts about what the F happened to the Etruscans. If you like words, go for it. If you like letters, memorize it.

  • Jim Bilbro
    2019-03-07 09:00

    Easily readable general overview tracing the development of the Roman alphabet all the way back to proto-Sinaitic and Egyptian Hieroglyphics, with nice - if brief - discussions of Chinese and cuneiform scripts. There are, however, a number of significant over-simplifications, somewhat misleading assumptions, and even outright errors in a great many of the details. A quick read and a fair introduction for someone who knows little or nothing of the subject, but this book should never be relied upon as a source for students.

  • Anna
    2019-02-23 09:01

    This is an excellent read if you have some background in ancient near-eastern background or classics background. With a weaker background in ancient western cultures, I struggled to keep up with the names, places, and dates. However, it was worth the effort because I wanted to learn about alphabets around the world - if you're interested in Western languages especially, it's a great read. It also gave me a bit of pride in the Egyptian half of my genes for coming up with the source material, heiroglyphics. Great read, but tough.

  • Amanda
    2019-03-17 17:02

    Although very, pop-science-y, this book was interesting enough. Unfortunately, the author makes a lot of narrative out of things that aren't really designed for it (i.e. a single line on of text on a piece of broken urn). It ended very strangely, as though building up for some sort of analysis of the previous chapters, it just dropped you with some pithy statement about Chinese vs the Latin alphabet. Worth reading if you're interested in the subject but know next to nothing about it, otherwise I'd just use it as a bibliography.

  • Lionkhan-sama
    2019-03-06 17:05

    This is most certainly an incredible book. John Man has really spent the time and effort in gathering his sources and putting together his theory of the alphabet.I would go as far as to say that this book was mind blowing to me. Such an intense and different look into world history than what we are used to.Some very interesting information and speculations are brought to light, that I was completely unaware of.A unique and ambitious look into human history and the development of nations and theologies, based on the emergence of the written alphabets of this world.

  • Rebecca
    2019-03-20 17:11

    If you have any interest in lingustics and how language is formed, this is pretty interesting, even though the author does tend to go on random tangents that don't really have to do with the topic (but are enlightening anyway). I've always wondered where we learned to write and this answered a lot of questions.

  • William
    2019-03-05 11:18

    One expects a history of the 26 letters -- but that is not exactly the case. Instead, the author traces the roots of different alphabets and the evolution of writing systems. Still worthwhile for anyone who wants to know why we don't write Etruscan!

  • James
    2019-03-09 09:16

    This book was simply awesome. The only negative thing I can say about it is that it's too short. The author's writing style is fantastically disjointed, as he's constantly jumping from the main "stories" into great historical anecdotes. Easily one of the best books I've read in years.

  • Ann
    2019-03-07 17:07

    There is just so much that we don't know -- cannot know -- about the development of the alphabet. But the evidence that there is, combined with much speculation, begins to create a version of the story.

  • Will
    2019-03-11 17:13

    One of my brothers gave this to me as a gift. I am very interested; just haven't gotten to it for some reason.

  • Wolfgang
    2019-03-19 13:02

    Interessant, aber an vielen Stellen etwas arg langatmig. Und erklärende Grafiken hätten dem Buch ziemlich gut getan.

  • Nikku
    2019-03-20 11:53

    An interesting account of how written language develops and how we ended up with the letters we ended up with today.

  • Susi
    2019-02-26 09:03

    This is an interesting nonfiction about the development of alphabets and their effect on culture.

  • Jean-claude
    2019-03-21 15:13

    I only made it half way through this one. Too many tangents and way too few images to explain the evolution of shapes.