Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World
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Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World

3.63 of 5 stars 3.63  ·  rating details  ·  166 ratings  ·  23 reviews
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 charac...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 13th 2001 by John Wiley & Sons
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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
orelia
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
Erik
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
Mike Dixon
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...more
Bandit
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
Kristian
May 23, 2008 Kristian rated it 5 of 5 stars 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...more
Janie
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...more
Anna
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
Amanda
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...more
Marcus
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
Rebecca
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.
James
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.
William
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!
Ann
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.
Rebekah
Jan 30, 2008 Rebekah rated it 2 of 5 stars 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.
Jean-claude
I only made it half way through this one. Too many tangents and way too few images to explain the evolution of shapes.
Naomi
I thing I most remember about this book is description of the way in which the written script developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Will
Jun 21, 2008 Will marked it as to-read
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.
Nick
An interesting account of how written language develops and how we ended up with the letters we ended up with today.
Susi
This is an interesting nonfiction about the development of alphabets and their effect on culture.
Colleen
I got lost in big words and names of places sometimes, but overall pretty darn interesting.
Lisibo
A very interesting book if you like history and language.
Christina
Very approachable and informative.
Joshua
Joshua marked it as to-read
Apr 12, 2014
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Marc
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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
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