Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Rave review for 'Alphabetical'

Michael Rosen is brilliant, entertaining, wise, and a magpie -- he collects stories.
This large book is the story of the 26 letters of the alphabet (their personal histories -- yes, letters have histories!).
That is the central thread of the book.
But while Rosen tells each letter's story (A, in the capital shapes we know it) was originally a pictogram of the head of an ox, with a nose and two horns. The Egyptian/Phoenician/Semitic word for "ox" was something like, "Arr-leff". So we start with "Arr" for Arleff, and away we go.
B was a house (Beth).
C was a camel (Gimel, but never mind the C-G alternatives: this is similar to C-S and C-K as phonic alternatives).
But then, letter by letter, as Rosen explores the main "narrative" thread of his topic, he brings in extra stories that link with successive letters.

As one of the other briefer reviewers notes, the extra stories about D concern "Disappearing letters".
Try, for example, the "s" that disappears from "hostel" when we move to "hotel". The French use a circumflex accent (a "little roof") over the "-o-" to show that there is actually an invisible, disappeared "-s-". And, of course, the "-s-" we used to have, In English, and French, came originally from Latin.
Of course, how English, and French (and much more) came from Latin is another story.
By the way, a great deal of Latin came from Greek.
Many of Rosen's extra stories come from his own personal life: he has a rich cultural background.
His parents, Harold and Connie Rosen were pioneers in the educational research and upheavals that created the post-war Western English-speaking school system and curriculum that we know.

Wait a minute: this book is about the "Alphabet" not the "Alphabeta" (or could this be the "Alphabetagammadeltaepsilon"?).
But look, that "-bet" in "alphabet" comes from the Greek letter-name for what we call "Bee".
The Greek version of "B" is "beta". It looks just like our capital "B", but the lower-case Greek "b" is not much like our lower-case "b", is it?

The letter "V" is illustrated with extra stories about "Vikings".
But weren't they just thugs who murdered and plundered?
Yes, and no. They also were astounding boat, and church builders. Explorers and navigators. They were bodyguards to the Emperor of Constantinople. They created the first major Russian city. They (collectively speaking) invented "Beowulf" and other stories of dragons, and warriors. They built towns in Ireland.
Not your average thugs, eh?

Can you see how much there is that could be said about the Alphabet?
Other reviewers have complained about the size of Rosen's book.
The plain and simple fact is that the book COULD have been MUCH BIGGER!
There is a huge amount that could be said about the alphabet, and still not exhaust it.
This is a book I wish I had written.
Rosen shares his fascination with the alphabets (and with the alphabetas, and the alephbeths, and so on), and with rich, longevious, glorious languages.
Human languages.
The book is about an aspect of human ingenuity: WRITING!
Humans are curious, clever, DIVERSE people.
Rosen's book celebrates some of this ingenuity, curiosity, and diversity.
He needs 400 pages to start doing this, and it isn't a page too long.
Is there an Index?
Make your own. You will thank yourself later.
This is a book to revel in and treasure!
If you haven't read Michael Rosen's other books, you have a treat in store!
Michael Rosen never wrote a bad book!
With "Alphabetical" he wins, yet again! FIVE STARS IS NOT ENOUGH!!
John Gough -- Deakin University, retired -- jagough49@gmail.com