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Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z
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Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z

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3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  357 ratings  ·  54 reviews
Letters are tangible language. Joining together in endless combinations to actually show speech, letters convey our messages and tell our stories. While we encounter these tiny shapes hundreds of times a day, we take for granted the long, fascinating history behind one of the most fundamental of human inventions -- the alphabet.

The heart of the book is the 26 fact-filled
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Hardcover, 416 pages
Published August 19th 2003 by Broadway Books (first published January 1st 2003)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 961)
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Sammy
An interesting, if overlong, experiment. "The Alphabet" is a much-needed book and wonderful reading for people like myself. Because my personal and professional passions lie with writing and language, I'm always frustrated by dimwits who want to "Reform" the language, or somehow make it "easier" and "more logical". Look, every language has its advantages and disadvantages: this is what comes of being an organic creation, particularly for our culture which is lucky enough to have evolved with bot ...more
Karen
A fascinating history of the English alphabet, broken down by letter. Sacks tells you who first created the letter (to the best of our knowledge), how it was used and pronounced in its original language, and how it came to be drawn and pronounced as it is today. A wonderful book for nerds. Now being published under an alternate title, Letter Perfect.
Caroline
Language Visible is a most excellent book. Finally, all my questions about the alphabet are answered: why we have hard and soft Gs, two sizes of letters, and two different styles of printing lowercase a. Now I know why the Spanish J is pronounced as the English H and why C is duplicated by K and S. It feels like I have been waiting for this for years.

It is written in an informal, conversational style, with the occasional dip into irreverence. Originally a series of magazine articles, there is a
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Natalie
I would not recommend reading the book from cover to cover in one sitting, since the design that allows you to jump from one letter to another out-of-order means that there is some repetition that could become tedious. However, it's an accessible book filled with interesting details about the evolution of our Roman alphabet over the millennia. At least check out the chapters on F, G, T, U, Y, and maybe Z. Plus some more.
Erin
Okay, I was totally confused in the library since I could've sworn the title was "Letter Perfect", but I found it (after some searching) as "Language Visible". So, apparently they did a title switcharoo at some point. If you're looking for this one, check under both titles. (Edit: The hardbound version will be titled "Language Visible", the paperback "Letter Perfect". The British version has yet another title.)

I haven't quite finished this yet, but have found it to be a worthwhile read thus far.
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David
Sacks' tour though the history of the alphabet is enjoyable, and he does a fabulous job of tracing the development of sounds and pronunciation through time. The lengths of the chapters get steadily shorter the further you get into the book - A is a lot longer than T, for instance, even though those two have similar prominence in English (the old linotype order was ETAOIN SHRDLU - that doesn't quite match the actual letter frequency, but is close enough for an approximation). Mixed in with this a ...more
Bob Hartley
Everyone who asked me what book I was reading when I was reading The Alphabet laughed at me. My mum said, "I can tell you the alphabet! A, B, C..."

Obviously it's more than that. I've always wondered how the Greek letters got their names and stuff so there were interesting points. It seems to me Sacks is interested in graphic design, because he shows a pretty extensive knowledge of typography, calligraphy, and illustration. He also throws in the odd pun, so he's my kind of guy. The thing is, this
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Maurizio Codogno
Anche questo libro era fuori commercio, e l'ho acquistato di seconda mano dai fondi di una biblioteca (dello Stoke-on-Trent College), dove in effetti non era mai stato chiesto in prestito. Il tema, come dice il titolo stesso, è l'alfabeto, inteso come insieme delle 26 lettere che lo compongono; dopo un capitolo introduttivo che racconta come dal primo alfabeto (semitico ma egizio, precedente a quello fenicio) l'idea sia stata man mano presa da altre popolazioni che se lo adattavano ai propri suo ...more
Black Elephants
It was during a free day in Fukuoka in a horrible, ghastly, sinful bookshop that carries a selection of English books that would make any foreigner living in Japan tremble in delight and despair that so much information on science, Japanese literature, modern novels, beach reads, cookbooks, art books could exist for ingestion where I decided to forego another novel of pleasure and improve my mind through "extensive reading". Who would have believed that a randomly chosen book would prove to be s ...more
Steve
Sachs provides a sporadically excellent description of the historic development of the alphabet. As opposed to a system based on actual visual representations of the word, pictographs, or writing systems based on symbols to represent words, logograms, the recognisable series of 26 letters can re-combine to form countless patterns of phonemes. Such flexibility can also be transferred across different languages, making the alphabet one of history's most enduring legacies. From it's emergence in Eg ...more
kingshearte
"David Sacks has embarked on a fun, lively, and learned excursion into the alphabet - and into cultural history - in Letter Perfect. Beginning with the earliest known alphabetic inscriptions (circa 1800 BC), recently discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, the book traces the history of our alphabet through the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans and up through medieval Europe to the present day. But the heart of the book is the twenty-six fact-filled "biographies" of letters A through Z, eac ...more
Pita-eater
It is easy to forget the alphabet’s individual letters with so many lovely words to distract us. And yet, the Roman alphabet has a fascinating history, just as the English language does. In Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z, David Sacks traces the history of the alphabet from 2000 B.C. through present times and devotes a chapter to each letter of the alphabet. Sacks got the idea for the book while writing Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. His fascination wi ...more
Karen
The part of Letter Perfect that made me laugh out loud: (This is from Chapter G): "The G spot—a small region of female sexual sensitivity, distinct from the clitoris and located somewhere along the vagina's front wall—is named for German gynecologist Ernst Grafenberg, who announced its existence in writings of 1950s. Since then, generations of husbands and boyfriends have failed to find it."

Fantastic book, one that I will reference and reread parts of. I was not overly fond of the formatting, th
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Ian
I didn't like this book for several reasons, the most prominent of which was that all of the information presented can easily be found by browsing through Wikipedia for 20 minutes- a significantly faster alternative to reading this book. For a casual reader, this book might be entertaining, but only as trivia, while to people who are looking for more in-depth information, this book is useless.
Nikki
This book tells the story of how our letters came to be. The story of many of them is similar. Start with the Phoenicians, move to the Greeks, an ill-understood stop with the Etruscans, (or is that the other way around?) then the Romans, then Anglo-Saxons with some input from the French. The books is interesting and accessible (reviewers call it "lively" and "engaging") but there is quite a bit of overlap because of the way he chose to tell it--one letter at a time. Because letters are related i ...more
Kristine
Technically I haven't actually finished, but since every chapter is sort of a stand-alone essay on a letter, I'm going to claim I like the book.

I think the intro is worth reading, even if you go no further with the book. The origins of our letters are tied up in the history of human civilization, and it's fascinating to read how each letter came into being, and then evolved through borrowings and adaptations, both in sound and in shape. A used to be upside-down, and started as a symbol for ox.
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Dr. Awkward
This is an excellent book, with clear and exciting history of each letter in the English language. It helps if you have a general background knowledge of European history, but the author kindly provides most of the relevant information for you.

If you love history, language, and how a hundred little elements can come together over thousands of years of history to make one language -- this is the book for you!

My only complaint would be that the author occasionally injects his own opinions on aspec
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Lora
This looked interesting when it came through the cataloging pile at work. It traces the history of writing from Phoenician (or pre-Phoenician even) through Greek, Etruscan, and Roman writing all the way past the Middle Ages and movable type to now.

There are very very interesting details about each letter. It's interesting to know that a mere 200 years ago the English alphabet had only 24 letters: J and U were absent, at least in an official capacity as separate letters. The author discusses fon
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Liz De Coster
While the information in this book was interesting, it could have used another round of editing. Compiled from a series of essays written for a Canadian newspaper, a lot of the source materials for quotations and examples were repetitive, and whole chunks of information were reiterated in every other chapter. There were whole sidebars to the book printed in size 8 italicized font, a pain to read even for somebody with good eyesight. Many of the examples provided by the author might be appropriat ...more
Deirdre
Yes it is an interesting look at each letter of the alphabet. It looks at how they changed and shifted over the years and the hows and whys of their usage in different languages.

As an occasional calligrapher though, I did find it lacking in that while he mentions letter shift and changes he really doesn't reflect the materials used with letter shifts. I also had to smile when I noticed him discussing how i as j was often used at the beginning and end of words and I would lay odds that it was bec
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Nicholas Whyte
http://nhw.livejournal.com/490899.html[return][return]I was disappointed. The book can't quite decide whether it's a serious investigation of the history of orthography or a collection of fun trivia snippets. I did learn a lot about the first Semitic alphabet, from which most others are descended, and its descent to us through the Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans and French. But I was disappointed not to learn more about other alphabets than ours - especially the Georgian script which as m ...more
Walt
This book was fairly good; it provided lots of information on the histories of various letters. I already knew most of the information, but for those who haven't researched the subject very well it serves as a great introduction and is well written and fairly well organized.
Rebecca Makkai
I grew up with two linguistics professors for parents, and I tend to be unimpressed by vernacular linguistics books if only because I grew up hearing so much of this stuff at the dinner table. But Sacks branches out in so many different directions (often kind of free-associating, though productively) and includes such recent discoveries that almost all of this was fresh for me. It was little repetitive, as if he didn't trust that people would read the book sequentially. He's probably right that ...more
Allison Hebel
This book is amazing. I read every word!!!! Who would have thought the alphabet I use all the time could be so interesting. This book enlightened me, and taught me about the words I take for granted everyday. David Sacks did a wonderful job teaching about our letters and kept it entertaining. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in English or the written word, and to everyone in general.
Joss
Excellent read! Language geeks will love the anecdotes explaining stories behind the name of "omega", or why 'x' is the unknown in maths, and other stories showing how language is a kind of ecosystem that spans centuries.

As a language teacher, I am particularly interested in ways with which I can explain why, on the surface of it, languages don't always make sense (my students are teenagers, so they are quick to judge). This book is full of great examples for this.

One on my favourite books this
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Elentarri
Interesting, but repetitive and thus annoying.
Maria
Good information in general. Some factual errors however which I found a little disappointing (e.g description of the pronunciation of certain letter sounds in French). Mostly seems factually accurate though. I did enjoy the explanation of some of our phrases which use letters in them. I am very much put off though by the atrocious jokes which I hope he was forced to put in by his editor. If the jokes had been left out I would've given this a better rating. Witty they are not.
BarbaraNathalie
This little book is a gem for anyone who is enamored with the story of our alphabet. I am an alphaphile(I'll have to look that up to see if I have it right). I love our words and learning all the nuances asociated with them and the letters that create them. This book is a fun fest for anyone who is curious about how our letters came to be. It is also an intelligent discourse about the linguistic nature of letters. Loved it!
Veronica Juarez
Clever, enlightening. If you like the history of written language, then this book is for you, you'll understand a lot of things about words, pronunciation and the long way every single letter has taken to us. If English is your second language, this book can help you to compare the english alphabet with other languages, in my case, Spanish and you'll find it really fascinating.

Shannon
It must've taken David Sacks a million years to do the research for this, which of course implies that he's built his own time machine. Then again, if he has a time machine, it'd probably be easier to do his research. Nevermind. Anyway, great book: the alphabet is truly one of humankind's greatest inventions, followed closely by the internet and kittens.
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