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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

3.93  ·  Rating Details ·  451 Ratings  ·  69 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
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published August 19th 2003 by Broadway Books (first published January 1st 2003)
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Apr 14, 2011 Karen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 06, 2011 Sammy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Dec 10, 2011 Caroline rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language
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
Aug 27, 2015 Kirsten rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction
I received this book from someone who didn't finish it, on the chance that I would.
I won't.

Me, reading:
Oh, this chapter is quickly interrupted by an inset. A seven page inset? Well let's find the rest of my paragraph and finish it. Right, now back to the inset. Hang on, this inset is interrupted mid-paragraph by a 2 page nested inset! Alright, let's finish that paragraph and the rest of the inset, then the nested inset... now, where was I? Right, page three of the actual chapter.

I assume these
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.
Jun 16, 2015 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book! I was frequently sounding out phonemes and giving little tidbits of information to my wife. She wasn't as into it as I was. Lots of great information, very readable.
Laura Nierman
This book is incredible. The first section is a historical description of how our alphabet (not language) came to exist and how all alphabets (pictographs and Korean being the exceptions) all derived from a single ancestor. Afterwards, Sacks goes through each letter of the alphabet and explains how it came into being and it's historical significance. Might sound dry though it is anything but. Definitely one of my all time favorite books. The information about our writing system is positively min ...more
Eva Filoramo
May 20, 2016 Eva Filoramo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Bellissimo libro che descrive la storia delle 26 lettere dell'alfabeto romano, sia dal punto di vista grafico sia da quello fonetico. Peccato non si possa tradurre in italiano, perché è tagliato sulla lingua inglese (che fino a un paio di secoli fa usava tre o quattro lettere poi scomparse, di cui una corrispondente al famigerato suono th).
Si scoprono aneddoti interessanti e divertenti e si impara anche un po' di corretta pronuncia di parole inglesi. Una lettera a sera, prima di dormire, garanti
M. Apple
While I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the origins of letters in the Western alphabet, I found myself wishing that the editor had more thoroughly examined the first half of the book. Redundancies abounded, and though the repeated information later in the book were usually accompanied by a "as we saw in Chapter X" phrase, there were few if any such internal references for at least the first hundred pages. It might seem a quibble, but the endless repetition began to grate.
The author also mak
Dec 06, 2010 Erin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 12, 2011 David rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Aug 15, 2015 Steve rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Mid 2. 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 emergenc ...more
"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
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
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
I like the idea of this book better than the execution. Sacks includes a lot of information and keeps a good pace, but because he goes through each letter of the alphabet in turn, it becomes very repetitive. I admit to skimming through the historical bits after the mid-point because the stories were so similar (Start with the Phoenicians, after several pit stops end up with the Anglo-Saxon and a lot of input from Old French.) I thought the first section of the book was the most interesting.

Jul 13, 2014 Ian rated it did not like it
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.
Jan 22, 2011 Nikki rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Sep 19, 2016 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book to make me realize I wasn't crazy to think I wanted to be a linguist when I was in high school. I still find the history of language fascinating. And it never really crossed my mind that even the alphabet has a history. Up until the early 1800s the English alphabet only had 24 letters. Who knew? The book is a little repetitive, as many of the letters share a common past, and offers so many fascinating tidbits that I will walk away remembering very few of them - but I would recommend it to ...more
May 01, 2016 Misha rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfic
Pretty decent. More of a 3.5, but being nice I bumped it up. One thing is the was originally a set of essays on each letter, so read at once, the same thing said for each letter becomes ... a petty annoyance. I started reading 1-2 letters a night and it was less so, though of course I hadn't forgotten what felt like cut and paste sections! I figure about >15% of the book was repetitious. Also, the weird bits of pop culture refernces to letters was off putting to me, but perhaps a draw at the ...more
Dr. Awkward
Dec 26, 2013 Dr. Awkward rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language, nonfiction
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
Jan 21, 2016 Itisme rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To think that 10 years ago I wouldn't have been able to imagine how I could read such a book. I loved this. Sacks injects humour into a topic that could make one's eyes glaze over.
Nov 17, 2013 Cat. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history, words
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
Liz De Coster
Mar 29, 2010 Liz De Coster rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Feb 26, 2010 Deirdre rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nicholas Whyte[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
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