Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.15

ALSO SEEN: David Sacks, Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z.   New York:  Broadway Books, 2003.  Pp. xv, 395.  ISBN 0-7679-1172-5.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, Columbia University (

This is not an academic book. Not only is it of no use to scholars, but it is difficult to imagine how it could be helpful in teaching even a very low-level undergraduate course. But Language Visible does not claim to be either a textbook or a work of scholarship; it is manifestly a popular work intended for an audience of interested laymen and must be judged on the extent to which it is likely to inform and entertain that readership. In this reviewer's opinion, its success in this area may be limited, but the book is not entirely without value.

The core of the work is a series of 26 chapters, one on each letter of the English alphabet, that originally appeared as weekly columns in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada. Each chapter covers the history of the shape, sound, and name of the letter concerned, as well as discussion of the letter's "personality," connotations, and words it can stand for. These chapters are augmented by a general introduction and a series of historical inserts covering the major developments in alphabetic history, in chronological order.

In terms of the quality of the information conveyed, this work is not bad, but it could certainly have been better. Most of the facts presented are correct, but there are occasional outright errors.1 More serious than these mistakes is the distortion caused by selective presentation of information, which makes some questions appear solved when they are still open and creates perplexing mysteries out of other issues that have never really been in doubt. Thus for example the author makes much of the recent finding of some still undeciphered but probably proto-alphabetic writing from perhaps 1800 BC at Wadi el-Hol in Egypt, a discovery that he assumes has definitively settled all questions about the origins of the alphabet; speculative claims about the social and historical conclusions extractable from this discovery are uncritically accepted as proven facts. But another exciting recent discovery, the finding at Gabii in Italy of the earliest known example of alphabetic Greek writing (770 BC), is entirely omitted.2 On the basis of the sources mentioned in the text one can conclude with reasonable certainty that the reason for this discrepancy is that the former discovery was prominently featured in the New York Times and the latter was not, and the insight on the author's research methods produced by this conclusion is not exactly comforting.

The other problem with the book is its readability. Certainly no-one could accuse the author of dryness, but the relentless perkiness of the writing and the constant bouncing from one topic to another rapidly induce acute frustration in those accustomed to reading sustained discussions. The basic format requires that some facts be presented over and over again in successive chapters, as they are relevant to many different letters and also to the parallel historical sections, and the resulting repetition is little short of unbearable if one tries to read the book from cover to cover; this is a work that can only be consulted. And while the reference-free format is presumably designed to appeal to the non-scholarly audience, a reader with enough interest to absorb the abstruse details presented in this book would probably appreciate some hint of where to go for further information on particular points, rather than being shunted to a wide-ranging bibliography at the end.


1.   For example, that the earliest Greek alphabetic inscriptions date between 740 and 700 BC (p. 59), that the early Greek alphabet was divided into three different types (p. 62), that the pronunciation of C as S before E, I, or Y is an "ironclad" spelling rule in English (p. 83), and that the difference between voiced B and voiceless P is the difference between the P in "spin" and the P in "pin" (p. 72; the difference between those Ps is actually the difference between a voiceless unaspirated P (like Greek pi) and a voiceless aspirated P (like Greek phi).
2.   See E. Peruzzi, 'Cultura Greca a Gabii nel Secolo VIII', Parola del Passato, 47 (1992): 459-68.

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