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4.2 out of 5 stars
Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story
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89 of 89 people found the following review helpful
I heard the author Michael Rosen talking on the radio about his new book Alphabetical. He told how the capital letter A turned upside down looked like a stylised ox's head with two horns - and low and behold, this letter used to be called aleph, the word in ancient Semitic languages for an ox. I was hooked.

Along the way Rosen brings in so many stories. A lot of this is done by a cunning wheeze in the structure. The book is arranged alphabetically (how else?) and for each letter starts with a short section on the letter itself, its origins and its uses in English, then follows with a longer section that has a theme. So, for instance, D is for disappeared letters and V is for Vikings. We then get a meandering exploration of that theme - sometimes with many little deviations along the way, but always tying back to the alphabet and writing.

It ought to work brilliantly, and in many ways it does, but I was slightly put off by the chunkiness of the book - over 400 pages - and combined with the alphabetic approach, it is difficult not to occasionally have that sense of 'I must plough on to the end' rather than 'I'm enjoying it'. It's that same sense I might get when someone has kindly bought me, say, an encyclopaedia of science fiction and I feel I must my work my way through it whatever. On the whole it does work, but I couldn't help but feel it might have been better if Rosen had let go of the rather obvious strictures of the alphabet for the book's structure. I think there's an interesting comparison with a couple of books I reviewed once about the periodic table. The one that worked best wove the subject matter into a series of stories with no particular table-related structure. The other, more plodding one worked through, period by period.

However, there is lots to enjoy, from Rosen's rant against the obsessive use of the systematic synthetic phonics approach in teaching reading these days to his really interesting observations on the importance of Pitman's shorthand and even his affection for the A to Z (or his knowledge of the absence of the London E19 district). It's a bit like being trapped in a lift with Stephen Fry when he's playing QI host. This is the QI of letters and words.

If you are interested in writing and words - or struggling for a present idea for someone who is - this could be an ideal buy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 February 2015
‘Alphabetical’ written by Michael Rosen is an interesting book for younger and adult readers that gives the history and background of each letter in the alphabet - a seriously researched title hidden behind a design that does not refer to scientific literature.

Michael Rosen, PhD, a known and awarded writer for children who together with Helen Oxenbury co-authored very popular ‘We're Going on a Bear Hunt’ is well respected in the academic world as evidenced by many honors including ‘Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’, an acknowledgment Rosen received by the French government for his work in education field.

Therefore not surprising is his interest in letters and the alphabet, and given his imagination ‘Alphabetical’ is not an usual academic work designed for a narrow circle of readers, but the book for broader audience read with interest all the way to the last page.

Rosen divided his book in chapters that each bears the name of one of the letters, providing history overview and origins modern letters have in writing of old cultures, such as Phoenicians or ancient Semitic languages. Additionally he provides understanding of proper pronunciation discussing influence of Greeks and Romans which in the end lead to the way particular letter is these days pronounced in English. Also, he chooses one word start starts with particular letter related to letters and discuss it in details such as alphabet, ciphers, fonts, qwerty, rhyme, umlauts and similar.

What is the final result of such tremendous effort is an excellent book that on its five hundred pages manages to equally please phoneticians, teachers, historians, and all enthusiasts in love with words and letters, including older school children who will find useful the lessons learned in the book for further education.

Therefore, Michael Rosen’s ‘Alphabetical’ is and intelligent and interesting book that can certainly be recommended to a wider audience, and although is the work of PhD this faction release is not written only for the academic community, but for audiences of all ages and orientations that will enjoy all the useful information that can be found between the covers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 4 January 2014
This book is absolutely fascinating and you can dip into it and read all the stories or just read on from the beginning. Very comprehensive and informative and you can learn about new things on every page if you are interested in language like me.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 30 January 2014
This is particularly interesting if you have young children currently learning to read and write as there is alot of emphasis on phonics. Unlike other reviewers I find the digressing nature of the book really quirky and interesting.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 February 2015
In part this remarkable book is the history of the alphabet in, appropriately, 26 chapters. Each chapter begins with Rosen explaining the evolution of our alphabet as we have it today. Most of them were originally simplified pictograms. So Capital A has its origin in a Phoenician pictogram which looked like an ox with two horns and was called aleph, meaning an ox. The simplified Phoenician pictogram for B looked like a house (can’t see it myself!) and was called beit, meaning a house, etc. The A was originally written upside down (from our point of view), then turned sideways, then turned another 90 degrees to look more or less how it does today. This sort of thing happened to other letters also, many of them being turned back to front when writing changed from right-to-left to left-to-right. Rosen then goes on to show how lower case developed out of upper case letters (and he explains why they are called upper and lower case). It is a pity that the earlier forms of letters are described verbally rather than being illustrated. (Incidentally, the striking designs of the full-page letters which open each chapter are not credited. Are they Rosen’s own?)

But this is just the beginning of each chapter. After that first one, each letter then triggers a word which in turn triggers stream-of-consciousness digressions into Rosen’s huge store of knowledge and occasionally into autobiographical material. Stimulated by his parents, he and his brother have been fascinated by words from their childhood onwards.

So B gets Rosen to talk about Battledores. He shows what a battledore was originally, how the word had evolved, and then how, in one form, battledores were inscribed with letters as an aid to teach children how to read. (Again, an illustration would have helped - I had to go to Google Images to see examples of that kind of battledore.) That is turn leads to some pages of discussion of the various methods that are advocated for teaching young children how to read (and his own views on the matter).

In C we range from cyphers, code-breakers (Bletchley Park, the security agencies today and in Elizabethan times) to crossword puzzles.

D leads to a disquisition on seven letters that were in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet but have since Disappeared. One of these was called Thorn and represented the “th” sound. It is said to looked vaguely similar to the letter Y (again go to Google Images to see how the one changed into the other); hence “Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe”.

E somehow leads to the history of type-setting and the use of capital letters at the beginning of sentences or of lines of poetry. Then, triggered be e.e.cummings, Rosen goes into concrete poetry (again without any pictorial illustration), and from there into monograms.

F is about Fonts, but also about nibs, fountain pens, ball point pens and scripts.

G gets Rosen off, among other things, on how Greek letters are used in mathematics and for marking university essays.

H: to drop or not to drop, that has been the social question for centuries. So has its insertion in speech where it does not belong: even the Roman poet Catullus mocked this back in the 1st century BC.

I, triggering Improvisation, is a veritable jumble of ideas which have nothing to do with the letter I. One of them is how animal noises have been expressed in letters.

J is for Jokey combinations of letters like ICURYY4ME (“I see you are too wise for me”).

In K Rosen describes how the present Korean alphabet did not evolve over centuries, as other alphabets have done, but was created on entirely phonetic lines in the 15th century by a Korean King to replace the Chinese writing then in use. Other alphabets had to be invented in the 19th century for people who had no writing at the time at all.

For L the trigger is LSD, and it begins with a disquisition on acronyms - what LSD and £sd stand for, for example. That in turn leads to initials and to abbreviations. How many people know that scuba, laser, radar are acronyms, let alone of what words?

M is for Mnemonics - I’d need mnemonics to remember them!

N triggers Nonsense. Quite!

In O, Rosen muses on OK.

P is for Pitman, and the chapter is a history of shorthand, dating back to Cicero’s time. But Pitman was also an advocate of spelling reform, and there follows a history of this advocacy also, which in England dates back to Elizabethan times. The reforms that were most successful were actually the 17th century ones that broke away from the way a word was spoken to indicate its Latin or Greek origin - so, for example “doute” becomes “doubt”. Sometimes they wrongly assumed such an origin, as when they inserted the h in “rhyme” (see below). On the other hand, the differences between American and English spelling is due mainly to the Americans deliberately adopting some simplified forms which the English did not. “Vigor” instead of “vigour” have become standard American spelling, though “tho” instead of “though” is only patchily observed. Will txt mssging (see below) do what would-be spelling reformers in the past have failed to do?

Q is for QWERTY and is most illuminating: very few people will know the history of how the typewriter keyboard came to be arranged like that (and, if they do know, will have wondered why it is still used for computer keyboards but not for phone keyboards).

R is for Rhyme (which doesn’t come from Greek rhythm but from Old English, which was rime). Also about meter, blank verse, and rhythmic prose.

S is for Signs. Some of the chapter is about type-faces, whether they are “single-storey” or “double-storey” (again no illustrations!) The Nazis attached ideological importance to the difference. There is a discussion about what # can stand for and what @ could stand for before it was used for internet addresses. We learn the curious story how the ampersand (&) got its name. Other signs are semaphores (apparently incorporated in the CND badge), the Morse Code, Braille, and sign language for the deaf - we learn their history.

T is for TXTSPK - see above.

U: this chapter is about Umlauts, diereses, acute, grave and circumflex accents, cedillas, tildes, the o with a line through it and little circles above the letter a in Scandinavian languages. Also things for which Rosen invents the word Adlaut - meaningless two dots as in Häagen-Dazs.

V is for Vikings and their runic alphabets, with runologists disagreeing about how to interpret runic inscriptions.

W, for Webster, is about various kinds of dictionaries and the principles underlying their compilation. (Do google “Urban Dictionary”!)

X has many uses. Among them it marks the spot, stands for a kiss and also for an error, is the signature for people who can’t write, represents one class of chromosomes, and has x (unknown) numbers of other uses.

I think he waffles rather about the letter Y - I found nothing illuminating in this chapter.

Z is for Zip Codes, “ZIP” being originally an American acronym, coined in 1936 to stand for Zonal Improvement Plan (I ask you!). But simple Postal Codes (for London and originally consisting of only eight compass points and no numbers) were the invention of Rowland Hill eighty years earlier. It is now, at the end, that Rosen tells us that noone knows who laid down the order of the alphabet from A to Z or from Alpha to Omega. The latter was already in use in the organization of a library in the 3rd century BC, the former in a library of the first century BC.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 22 September 2014
This is a largely quite enjoyable book, with the emphasis on quite. With chapters on ciphers and fonts for instance, and a summary of the origin and uses of each letter, it provides quite a lot of information that you probably would not have come across before, and because of the subject matter some which you could probably have done without knowing. A good try at a book, but in the end not as brilliant as you probably thought when you first came across it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2014
A friend told me about this book, it sounded interesting so I bought it. It is amazing. Very, very readable and really makes you think abouut the alphabet in a totally different way. Only compaint about it is that it has so very much information in it that you cannot remember all you want to!!!!!!

Highly recommended
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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?

Ow!
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
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I have enjoyed dipping in an out of this book a chapter – or should I say a letter – at a time since Christmas. The history of, and the stories behind, words, letters, and languages are fascinating and this book is every bit as fascinating.

I never realised that, to take its actual, literal meaning, the alphabet is an ox-house! And there are so many other gems that its hard to single them out. Each chapter concerns the history and story of one letter, and then Michael goes on to use the letter to tell some other story about how language has evolved. He goes back to the earliest cyphers and rune markings right up through letterpress and mass publication to the 21st century texts and tweets of the digital age.

Next time you send a tweet, stop for a moment, and think of it as a telegram of old.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 November 2014
Funnily enough its too wordy! I got a bit bored and couldn't engage with it. will try again though some time. I love listening to Michael Rosen and his opinions on all subjects but maybe not in the written form. What am I like? Don't answer that.
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