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3.5 out of 5 stars15
3.5 out of 5 stars
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on 5 June 2001
This book is very much about the evolution of the Latin alphabet, and more or less stops after the Romans had finished its development in 200 BC or so. We get a quick tour of the history of the Cyrillic alphabet and its spread into non-Russian cultures, but next to nothing on how the Latin alphabet has been used in non-European countries. For example, the author tells us nothing about how Turkey changed from Arabic to Latin script in the 1920's, which has to be a tale worth telling. In an early section about how well different languages match spelling to sounds, he says that "Russsian isn't bad, because they had the benefit of a revolution", but fails to elaborate on that statement, either there or in the later chapter about Cyrillic.
Making this a book about the evolution of the Latin alphabet makes for a more straightforward story, but it left me wanting to know more about all the other alphabets out there, and how they ended up being so different from each other, despite sharing a common ancestry: alphabetic writing was only invented *once* and everyone else either copied their neighbour's alphabet or copied the idea of an alphabet from them.
Despite all of the above quibbles I did enjoy this book. The evolution of our alphabet is a fascinating story and John Man tells it well, but it is very much the story of *our* alphabet.
0Comment|5 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
If you are like me, this book will surprise you. I expected something like 26 chapters with each saying something about each letter of the alphabet and its origin.
Instead, the book tries to find the earliest precursors of the modern alphabet, and connect the dots from there to the use of modern languages on the World Wide Web. In doing so, the book relies on a combination of interesting conjecture, reviews of well-established but little-known scholarship, and cutting-edge, in-process research that will be new to most readers who are not in linguistics.
In reading Alpha Beta, the insights you get will be different from what you expected. An alphabet works well because it fits a lot of languages equally poorly. As such, it is a form of "fuzzy logic" that mathematicians love. Korea has developed the alphabet that is most closely connected to its base language. Most alphabets succeed because of the military and commercial strength of the culture that favors them, rather than how good they are. The mixtures of ancient alphabets, languages, and religions are much more complex than you probably ever imagined. The process of taking an oral tradition, and making it into a written one is also powerfully explained (as happened with both the Bible and Homer's masterpieces).
I graded the book down because it tended to tell me more than I wanted to know about how each of the cultures evolved, and less than I wanted to know about the details of how an alphabet's creation solved specific language problems.
After you finish this book, think about what the potential benefits could be of reforming the alphabet to eliminate more of the confusions inherent in expressing English. What would make it easier to be precise in this language, while making the language easier to learn?
Make your point clearly!...
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on 14 February 2001
The book attempts to provide a history of the development of the western alphabet. Along the way it touches on many interesting and thought provoking side issues to do with the history of western civilisation and language. Written in a clear and light style the book is perfect for those of us not already familiar with this sector of history. A great read, and will probably keep you armed with interesting facts to fill any of those 'conversational gaps' which might strike in the coming year.
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on 12 September 2009
The book begins well but becomes uneven as it progresses until it becomes downright superficial (when it introduces Cyrillic script). Good airport literature (it is where I picked it up).

The emergence of the alphabet makes very intersting reading, and so is its juxtaposition to Chinese, the other main script humanity uses. The excursion into Korean is illuminating.

Regretfully, rather than tracing the alphabet's evolution through its various declinations (Aramaic and its numerous derivatives including Indian scripts) the author puts it into his head to show the alphabet's allegedly effected the emergence of monotheism; also that it is a `meme'; and that it was the prerequisite for theoretical thinking. Each time he is out on a limb, wildly waving plausible scenarios in an effort to prove his point that "alphabet shaped the modern world".

Of course, domestication and literacy represent the two main transitions in human development. To put the Western (i.e. Semitic/Hebrew, Greek and Roman) alphabet at the core of civilisation smacks a little - may I say? - of ethnocentrism.
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on 16 February 2010
i really enjoyed this book. it was easily digestible and full of interesting facts on the origins of language, the alphabet and history. it's fascinating to discover how language shapes human history and the technicalities the alphabet has to overcome before it becomes a widespread thing.

by no means is this a really deep look at the origin of the alphabet, but as a fun, simple way to start exploring the history of this epic subject, i found this book to be really useful. i like to judge these kind of books on the amount of facts i can remember months after reading them and with this i found that it had implanted it's bits of knowledge firmly in my brain, a massive achievement really for such a sieve-like entity as my memory.

besides, it only takes a matter of hours to read so you may as well read it i reckon.
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on 1 August 2006
This book is fairly short and quite readable. However, I was expecting something a little more academic. There are too many diversions into what appear to me to be barely relevant asides, be they potted historical background or simple literary criticism.
0Comment|One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
If you are like me, this book will surprise you. I expected something like 26 chapters with each saying something about each letter of the alphabet and its origin.
Instead, the book tries to find the earliest precursors of the modern alphabet, and connect the dots from there to the use of modern languages on the World Wide Web. In doing so, the book relies on a combination of interesting conjecture, reviews of well-established but little-known scholarship, and cutting-edge, in-process research that will be new to most readers who are not in linguistics.
In reading Alpha Beta, the insights you get will be different from what you expected. An alphabet works well because it fits a lot of languages equally poorly. As such, it is a form of "fuzzy logic" that mathematicians love. Korea has developed the alphabet that is most closely connected to its base language. Most alphabets succeed because of the military and commercial strength of the culture that favors them, rather than how good they are. The mixtures of ancient alphabets, languages, and religions are much more complex than you probably ever imagined. The process of taking an oral tradition, and making it into a written one is also powerfully explained (as happened with both the Bible and Homer's masterpieces).
I graded the book down because it tended to tell me more than I wanted to know about how each of the cultures evolved, and less than I wanted to know about the details of how an alphabet's creation solved specific language problems.
After you finish this book, think about what the potential benefits could be of reforming the alphabet to eliminate more of the confusions inherent in expressing English. What would make it easier to be precise in this language, while making the language easier to learn?
Make your point clearly!
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on 21 April 2012
This is a hard read but I was warned before purchasing so will persevere! There is good content but it is sometimes difficult to chew through the pages! To be fair the author also warns you that he's good at getting side-tracked and you get used to it!
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on 7 February 2001
'Alpha Beta' is one of the best books I have read this year. It is very readable and well-researched, tracing the story of how the alphabet developed from its earliest origins as an element of the Egyptian hieroglyphic system of writing through Proto-Sinaitic to our own alphabet. The author clearly explains all the ideas and concepts, as well as including new development in archaology to support this evolution. I have a special interest in writing systems, and this is one of the best introductions to the subject that I have come across. It will appeal to the interested layman as well as to people who already know what 'Proto-Sinaitic' is.
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on 8 December 2015
A fascinating account of the development of alphabets, various. I can't check it's accuracy but it is easy reading and covers more ground than I had expected.
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