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Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  333 ratings  ·  47 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 chara
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 13th 2001 by John Wiley & Sons (first published August 24th 2000)
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Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World

by John Man

I checked out Alpha Beta from the library of the Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church library where we gather sometimes for our Greek conversation class.

First, I read a little about the author, John Man, who seemed like he might be a rather interesting writer. I, as we all have probably, wondered where “X” came from or “Q” for example, but Man didn’t cover individual letters so much. Instead, he tackled the evolution of our alphab
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
Jan 07, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about
John Isles
This is an easy-reading account of the history of alphabets, the ancient peoples who used them, and their modern discoverers. In the course of the story the author introduces his thesis crediting the alphabet for the rise of monotheism and indeed much of western civilization; but these ideas seem to be undermined by the use of alphabetic scripts for example in polytheistic Hindu India, and the ascendency throughout most of history of the alphabet-free Chinese civilization.

I had quite a few quibb
Jul 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 06, 2007 rated it it was ok
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
Aug 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: random-stuff
This is a wonderfully readable book about a confusing subject or group of subjects. I had never given any thought to how our alphabet developed, or the depth of study it requires. For instance, did you know that there is a whole sub-specialty dedicated to the various pronunciations of r, or that they still can’t read Etruscan? Once you think about it the alphabet is really a very confusingly inadequate thing. After all, there are so many sounds that it can’t represent, but to have a symbol for e ...more
Jo Coleman
Dec 02, 2015 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Remington Purnell
Sep 08, 2015 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Christopher Rush
Nov 15, 2014 rated it did not like it
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
Bri Lamb
Jun 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
Having read several books on the topic of how languages are formed, I was interested to see how Man approached the subject, but I was disappointed. The title is deceiving. Man tends to dance around the topic without getting to the real meat of the alphabet itself. It's more of an alphabet travel log, if you will. Interesting info on the cultures of the peoples who formed the alphabet but not what I was looking for in the book. I expected a bit of background info but I think it was a bit overkill ...more
Richard Rogers
Dec 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Deane Barker
Jul 17, 2017 rated it did not like it
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 k
Mar 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
More than just a book about the development of the alphabet, Alpha Beta incorporates the development of languages and histories of the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern parts of the world and how alphabets impacted evolution. I was not aware that Constantine changed his name before he died to Cyril which was then used to describe the form of writing we now know as Cyrillic. John Man's writing style makes it fun to read; not all dry facts. He weaves in myths and popular bible stories making it all com ...more
Reem Ka
Oct 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Slight, but amusing. If one knows a bit about the development of language already, there's not much to be found here. ...more
Sweemeng Ng
Nov 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-books
Very good history on western literacy.
Tsholo Mothibi
Apr 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful, lyrical and absolutely sublime
May 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not the linguistic development story I was expecting but a really interesting analysis of how power, conquest and imperialism led to written language.
Stephen Bywater
Jan 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Meandering, but thoroughly engaging.
Feb 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
Excellent and readable account of the history of writing and alphabets. As a general history, it is recommendable.
Sohini Bhattacharyya
John Man is one of my favourite authors. Alpha Beta was informative, but lacked flow. A clear conclusion or stance seems missing. Will possibly re-read this book to figure out if I understand it better then.
Dec 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sold
This is the history of the development of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, and it’s an interesting one, too.

I was expecting something different – maybe more a roll call of each letter, going into its development. Instead, it was more academic, and more enlightening than I had expected.

The book also concerns itself partly with the origins of written language, the move from pictographs to syllables to letters.

And about English, where the letters came from (Etruscans, we think) and where i
Jul 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
- 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 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 18, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Rio Lam
Oct 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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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

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