Letters, pray. Is the alphabet the central intellectual advance in human history? Robert Winder takes a look at a new study of the 26 components of our vocabulary and their rich resonances

The Alphabet

Richard A Firmage <em>Bloomsbury, 308pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0747547572

I long ago vowed never to read a book that began with a nugget of folksy wisdom lifted from Alice in Wonderland. It has become one of the more wearisome cliches of popular science, and never fails to seem both twee and patronising, suggesting a pompous supposition that readers need to be coaxed in gently ("Maths Made Easy!", "Science for Simpletons!") along with a nerdish idea of fun. So my heart sank when I opened Richard Firmage's extremely handsome history of the alphabet to find the usual itsy-bitsy repartee between Alice and the White Queen, as if the history of letters were only an excuse for exercises in dotty logic.

I needn't have worried. The author soon shakes off his squeamishness about the arcane nature of his subject, and begins to delight in it. The alphabet, he declares, is "the greatest of all human accomplishments" - and one of the most mysterious. It is as natural to us as breathing, yet we give as little thought to its artistic history as we do to the composition of air. Firmage narrates a brief history of our 26 letters, then guides us through the Roman alphabet from A-Z, pondering its origins and the associations that have clustered around each letter. It is not quite a story, and not quite an argument; instead, it is attractively open-ended, a neat anthology of suggestive observations. It is illustrated with delicious illuminations and snips of calligraphy, and by the end it successfully impregnates letters - those arbitrary-seeming squiggles we deploy to represent sounds - with a busy twang of cultural significance. Not since Monty Python built their ham-and-eggs sketch out of single-letter dialogue ("F-U-N-E-X?"; "S, V-F-X; F-U-M-N-X?", etc) have the building blocks of our vocabulary been so enthusiastically dusted off and examined.

The first attempts to create images of sounds were pictorial: a little drawing of a cloud signified a cloud, and so on. Schematised, these became hieroglyphs in ancient China and Egypt. (Indeed, our own punctuation marks are hieroglyphs, and very eloquent they are, too!) The great breakthrough was the development of phonetic alphabets, and these eventually settled into the compact but supple sequence of letters we use to this day. Our alphabet is a Romanised version of Greek. When it travelled east, Greek was taken up by a Russian philosopher and saint called Cyril, who adapted it to accommodate Slavic tongues and invented the Cyrillic alphabet. This is one of very few eureka moments in the history of letters; for the most part, the origins are utterly obscure. There are plenty of significant artists in later times - such as Garamond, Baskerville, Bodoni and Caslon - but these are merely design twists. There is no creation story, only a set of creation myths. The letter A might have begun as a pictogram of an ox's head (the Phoenician word for ox was aleph), which has since been stood on its neck for design reasons; the letter C may have started life as a depiction of a camel's hump, which has toppled on to its back. But nobody knows for sure. In the pre-alphabet days, nobody took notes.

The Romans designed and fixed our present alphabet - indeed this is, in Firmage's account, by far their greatest artistic achievement. They moulded upright stems into classical columns, added graceful Romanesque curves to the angular Greek outlines, and created, through their bold serif outlines, that imperious but smooth stride of words across the page (this itself was a novelty: the Phoenicians read and wrote right to left, and the Greeks went alternately left-right-left-right - "as an ox plows the field" - until they grew dizzy and settled on a left-to-right orthodoxy). The Roman alphabet was almost lost to us during the Dark Ages. The Middle Ages developed its own inky gothic script, full of knightly diagonals (each letter seeming to wear a plumed helm), and it wasn't until the Renaissance that the classical idea was recovered and redeployed.

Firmage is right to emphasise the rich resonances that pass ignored most of the time. To a musician, the letters from A to G vibrate with symphonic allusions. To a nutritionist, they have vitamin-inspired resonances. And to a teacher, they represent an unbudgeable hierarchy of excellence. C is never going to seem anything other than pretty average to someone who marks exams for a living, though to a physicist it will tremble with other associations: c is the abbreviation for both light (as in e=mc=) and heat (as in centigrade). There are more everyday chimes. Partly because of the F-word, we can hardly help finding a trace of dirt (as in foul, filthy, fetid) in the letter - even though it also gives us fair, fine and fresh. Sometimes, letters are so crowded with associations that they seem to have souls: no Kafka fan can walk past a K without feeling a frisson; and the letter L does seem irresistibly soft and lulling - mellow, willowy, mellifluous, lazy, loose, lush, just lovely.

The alphabet emerges as an uncanny invention - possibly the central intellectual advance in human history. It is not perfect: English has many more vowel sounds than vowels (consider hay, had, and hah), so context is everything. Stephen Pinker has demonstrated, by replacing all vowels with the letter x, that it is nxt xt xll dxffxcxlt tx rxxd wxthxxt thxm. Shorthand drps thm cmpltly, fr rsns f spd. But all of this contributes to the elastic sense of language as somehow occult, a form of magic. Letters shift and slide, taking on fresh disguises in different words. Even on a numerical level, the alphabet is a resource whose surface we barely scratch. Most dictionaries list only a couple of hundred thousand words, but the alphabet could supply us with millions. Firmage does not do the calculation, but after wrestling with a calculator I can reveal that the 26-letter alphabet could generate six-and-a-half billion billion billion words. Some would be silly (a word containing 26 Ps, for instance); but still, our language is running on a very low throttle, and uses only a fraction of the words in its tank.

Firmage has put elegant threads round this sometimes vertiginous subject and has laid out the results with elan. He calls his book "the distillation of voluminous notes", and it is true that his scholarly recital of apt quotations and allusions is sometimes a little aimless. But, by the end, he has imbued every letter of the alphabet with added interest. The words in our mouths seem thicker, somehow tastier, as a result.