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Alpha Beta

3.7  ·  Rating Details ·  243 Ratings  ·  32 Reviews

The idea behind the alphabet - that language with all its wealth of meaning can be recorded with a few meaningless signs - is an extraordinary one. So extraordinary, in fact, that it has occurred only once in human history: in Egypt about 4000 years ago. Alpha Beta follows the emergence of the western alphabet as it evolved into its present form, contributing vital element

Kindle Edition, 336 pages
Published (first published August 24th 2000)
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(showing 1-30)
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Marc Weidenbaum
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 mate ...more
Apr 21, 2007 orelia rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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 lin ...more
Jul 17, 2009 Erik rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ela ...more
Jo Coleman
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
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
Dec 06, 2014 Christopher Rush rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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 m ...more
Richard Rogers
Dec 24, 2016 Richard Rogers rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 an
Interessant, aber an vielen Stellen etwas arg langatmig. Und erklärende Grafiken hätten dem Buch ziemlich gut getan.
Jul 15, 2016 Megan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
- 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
Mike Dixon
Aug 22, 2013 Mike Dixon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 impress
Sep 30, 2013 Bandit rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
May 23, 2008 Kristian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Kristian by: Bill Moran, typography teacher extraordinaire
Shelves: own, design
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 any
Rio Lam
Apr 29, 2014 Rio Lam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ha
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
Feb 04, 2013 Marcus rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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, ...more
Jim Bilbro
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 upo ...more
Jul 20, 2009 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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, heir ...more
Aug 13, 2010 Amanda rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 11, 2014 Lionkhan-sama rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 theo
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.
May 21, 2011 William rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
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!
Oct 22, 2010 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jul 02, 2008 Ann rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jun 21, 2008 Will marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language, we-own
One of my brothers gave this to me as a gift. I am very interested; just haven't gotten to it for some reason.
Mar 21, 2009 Nikku rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting account of how written language develops and how we ended up with the letters we ended up with today.
I only made it half way through this one. Too many tangents and way too few images to explain the evolution of shapes.
Jan 30, 2008 Rebekah rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Austin
I wanted a little less history lesson, a little more lingusitics lesson. Okay, a lot less history lesson. Not what I expected but interesting none the less.
Jun 10, 2007 Naomi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: история
I thing I most remember about this book is description of the way in which the written script developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Natasha Chowdory
Natasha Chowdory rated it it was amazing
Aug 29, 2012
Kat rated it really liked it
Jan 12, 2010
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John Anthony Garnet Man is a British historian and travel writer. His special interests are China, Mongolia and the history of written communication. He takes particular pleasure in combining historical narrative with personal experience.

He studied German and French at Keble College, Oxford, before doing two postgraduate courses, a diploma in the History and Philosophy of Science at Oxford and Mon
More about John Man...

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