“What is the A-ness of an A?” asked a visiting Belgian letter carver in a lecture he gave in Cambridge. An interesting question for the assembled audience but when spoken out loud it caused some embarrassed titters in the audience so afterwards I suggested he choose any other letter except perhaps P.
It remains, however, an interesting question. Why is the letter A made up of two diagonal strokes which meet at the top with a crossbar connecting them? It turns out the answer is because it used to be written upside down with the point at the bottom and the ‘legs’ sticking up at the top so that they represented the horns of an ox. It slowly got turned by subsequent cultures who adopted the symbol that was eventually given the phonetic sound we use it for today and became the first letter of our alphabet.
In fact, the name for the 26 letters we use to produce the thousands of words in our lives comes from that first letter which the Greeks called Alpha but was originally derived from the Northern Semitic name for ox, which is Aleph. So, although one can make an A without the crossbar and it still reads as an A, the crossbar is somehow essential to the A-ness of an A.
Our alphabet could be viewed as a historical record of commerce and conquest
Every letter of our current alphabet has an equally interesting history. The alphabet is arguably mankind’s greatest invention but because we use it ourselves on a daily basis it somehow disappears behind the meaning of the messages it is used to convey.
Just think how much information you have acquired and dispensed through the writing of words made up of letters. Imagine if you had been restricted to communicating only with those who were in the same place at the same time as you? That was the reality for the human race until only about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, a tiny percentage of our time on earth. It is perhaps no coincidence that the evolution of the human race from just another band of hunter-gatherers competing with many other species for survival to the dominant one on the planet has occurred during the period in which we have developed the ability to communicate complex concepts over the limitations of space and time.
How else could the concepts and collaborations in technology and science required to send an electric car into space have been achieved and how would we know as much as we do of past cultures if they had not written down and carved their thoughts in writing systems made up of letters?
The Alphabet Museum seeks to create a space in which visitors can appreciate the alphabet as not only a tool for expressing thought but as a thing in itself. An expression of our culture’s long aesthetic and historic development which is contained within those 26 characters. For instance, did you know that the letters X, Y and Z are at the end of our alphabet simply because the Romans needed to add them in order to pronounce words in Greek once they had conquered that land? Our alphabet could be viewed as a historical record of commerce and conquest over millennia, each letter adopted and altered many times throughout its development by succeeding cultures as they interacted with one another.
Eric Marland, curator of the Alphabet Museum for Letter Arts Trust.
Image: Mitch Blunt