Alpha Beta

Ranging from ancient Egypt to the internet, this is an excellent introduction to a revolutionary innovation, says Nick Rennison

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Reviewed by: Nick Rennison
Author: John Man
Publisher: Bantam Books
Price (RRP): £8.99 (paperback)

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The idea of the alphabet may well be the most potent humans have ever had. The unifying notion behind alphabetical scripts – that all human speech can be symbolised by 20 or 30 written squiggles – was a revolutionary one and proved essential to the development of our civilisation. Imagine a hieroglyphic Shakespeare or a great philosophy expounded in pictograms. It’s not easy.

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In this briskly written account of alphabetic evolution, John Man traces the story from its probable beginnings in ancient Egypt to the Roman alphabet’s current dominion in cyberspace. On the way he turns his attention to such varying subjects as a library of Phoenician tablets unearthed in the 1920s, a Korean emperor’s search for an ideal alphabet, the debates about Homer’s identity and the puzzle of what happened to the Etruscans and their language. It’s a story that invites more exposition than Man has the space to provide but his book is a lively introduction to it.