Recent press, public talks, etc.

A nice review in Le Devoir

December 8-9, 2007: The Montreal French- language newspaper Le Devoir gave a favorable notice to my alphabet-book French edition, in an unsigned review "En bref". It calls the book "a work of originality, at once informative and amusing, which will seduce lovers of language and words."

A comme dans alphabet

Ce sont 26 petits signes qui peuvent dire à eux seuls l'histoire de l'humanité, 26 lettres que l'on apprend enfant pour ne plus jamais les oublier par la suite. Elles ont du mérite, ces lettres de l'alphabet romain, et David Sacks leur rend hommage en publiant Une histoire de l'alphabet. La vie secrète des lettres de A à Z, qui vient d'être traduit en français aux Éditions de l'Homme. Chaque lettre de l'alphabet y est décortiquée; on y fouille son histoire, sa connotation, l'usage qu'on en fait. Grand premier, et pouvant symboliser toutes les autres lettres, le A marque la supériorité, l'excellence. On dit D comme dans devoir et dévouement. Et pendant la guerre de Sécession, aux États-Unis, l'armée de l'Union marquait au fer rouge un D sur la joue, la hanche ou le postérieur de tout soldat qui tentait de déserter. F comme dans f..., en anglais, a longtemps comporté une connotation osée. Certaines lettres, comme le M primordial de maman, font partie de l'alphabet depuis toujours. D'autres ont été ajoutées au fil des siècles, et la place de chacune a considérablement bougé au fil du temps. On a ici affaire à une traduction de l'anglais, c'est donc une langue qui est abondamment citée dans l'ouvrage, notamment dans les exemples choisis. Mais Une histoire de l'alphabet reste un ouvrage original, à la fois instructif et amusant, qui séduira les amoureux de la langue et des mots.

In the Christian Science Monitor

June 8, 2007: My book Language Visible received an appreciative treatment in the Monitor, in an unsigned editorial, "The Alphabets of Democracy." Here is the link, but followed below by the whole piece:

The Alphabets of Democracy

Verbal Energy column:
Are we ready for the heroes of the alphabet to be an anonymous group of foreign laborers from four millenniums ago?

A book that has been floating around my living room for some time has finally made it to the top of the reading pile—and not a moment too soon. Its owner, who has been in Boston on a three-year assignment, is about to pack up to leave.

The book is "Language Visible" by David Sacks, and it's the engaging story of how the alphabet developed. After beating up on myself for taking so long with it, I calm down with the thought that there are some things we don't get to until we're ready for them.

Here's the story: The Egyptians had developed an elaborate system of sacred carvings. The system was so complex that literacy was largely confined to a specialized class of scribes. In this writing system, pictures communicated the idea behind the word, the consonant sounds of the word, or often both, with multiple pictures.

The hieroglyphic pictures generally represented two or three consonants apiece. But critical to the invention of the true alphabet was a small group of two dozen or so that represented a single sound. These could be conscripted into the service of a very simple idea: one sound per symbol. This was the principle of alphabetic writing.

And who had this very simple idea?

According to Mr. Sacks, whose book was published in paperback under the title "Letter Perfect," archaeological evidence analyzed in 1999 points to a group of foreign workers in Egypt. They were speakers of a Semitic tongue that later gave rise to Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

Just as the oil fiefdoms of today's Middle East are heavily dependent on foreign labor, so, too, was ancient Egypt. These foreigners did much of the heavy lifting of the Middle Kingdom—the mining, the stonecutting. Others were mercenary soldiers, the private security contractors of their day. Many came from points east—Sinai, Canaan, and the Arabian peninsula. The Egyptians disparagingly called them "Amu," or "Asiatics."

Sometime around 2000 BC, one or more of them came up with a list of Semitic consonants that could be rendered with characters adapted from hieroglyphs.

For example, to express the "r" sound, they borrowed a hieroglyph for "head." In their own Semitic tongue, the word for "head" was "resh" – which, obviously, begins with an "r" sound.

This idea of one sound per symbol—along with the letters themselves—was refined over generations and centuries. The concept proved hugely adaptable. "Language Visible" includes a family tree of the world's alphabets, showing almost all as branching from the original in Egypt. Even such exotic flowers as the Khmer script of Cambodia are connected by way of the Aramaic alphabet and its kin. Who knew?

Alphabets are always arranged in a set order to make it easy for even preschoolers to learn, which surely gives children a leg up in their education.

I can't pass judgment on the archaeological research Sacks reports. But whatever the final verdict, I see an interesting subtext here.

Westerners have been fascinated by the high culture of ancient Egypt for centuries. How ready are we to hear that the most important thing to come out of ancient Egypt, the thing that really matters in the daily lives of billions of people around the globe today, had nothing to do with the Sphinx, the Pyramids, or King Tut and his treasures? If Sacks is right, the practical legacy of Egypt is the alphabet.

The alphabet led to literacy and other education on a mass scale, which surely helped foster democracy. Imagine Gutenberg typesetting hieroglyphs – or the Declaration of Independence, signed in pictograms.

But are we ready for the heroes of the alphabet to be an anonymous group of foreign laborers, the security guards and car-park guys of four millenniums past? Yes, maybe so. But a century ago, we might not have been.

Some things you don't get to until you're ready for them.

A rave in the Chicago Tribune

November 17, 2004: The Tribune ran an appreciative review of the book's paperback edition, focusing on the book's explanation of the alphabet as an invention.

Enjoy reading and writing? You have alphabet to thank

By Nathan Bierma
Special to the Tribune

What would you say was the most influential invention in human history? The wheel? The light bulb?

How about the alphabet?

We tend to take it for granted, but the alphabet was a human invention. Without it, we wouldn't read books and newspapers or write shopping lists and e-mails. We would have to rely on recitations and recordings to transmit language. But as vital and visible as the letters of the alphabet are, they usually go unappreciated.

David Sacks changes that in his fascinating overview of the alphabet's history. The book has been released in paperback with a new title, "Letter Perfect" (Broadway, $14.95). The hardcover was called "Language Visible."

Sacks' dissection of the alphabet is thoroughly informative but not snoozingly detailed. Its price makes the 375-page, generously illustrated paperback edition a steal, and an ideal stocking stuffer for any teacher, reader or writer on your Christmas list.

The invention of the alphabet, a system that used symbols to represent individual sounds rather than things or ideas, revolutionized human language. Before the alphabet was invented, only scholars could write as hieroglyphics used hundreds of symbols for words and syllables that took years of training to master.

Today our 26 letters do all the work of representing the approximately 45 phonemes (individual sounds) and 500,000 words of English.

"With the alphabet's invention, the farmer, shopkeeper, the laborer have been able to read and write," Sacks writes.

The roots of the alphabet reach to about 2000 B.C. in ancient Egypt. But the great-grandmother of modern alphabets, according to Sacks, was the 22-letter Phoenician alphabet of about 1000 B.C.

Based in what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians distributed their alphabet to the many nations they traded with, including ancient Greece. The alphabet was adapted for Greek, then for Latin and eventually for English.

Letters began as pictures. "A" was a picture of an ox's head; it was written sideways, with its point as the head and two horns sticking out. "A" signified the first sound of the Phoenician word "aleph" for "ox." "K" stood for "kaph," the word for hand, and K's extremities still look like fingers today. "M" was for "mem," meaning "water," its bumps resembling the waves of the sea. "O" was for "ayin," the word for "eye."

"The system meant that once a Phoenician child had memorized a list of 22 common nouns, he or she had a handle on each letter's sound (the same as the name's opening sound) and on each letter's shape (typically a rough sketch of the object named)," Sacks explains.

Sacks takes the alphabet letter by letter. The longest histories belong to the letters that made the most roundabout journeys to their current jobs.

The letter F originally looked like Y and sounded like W, before the Romans changed it to look like E and sound as it does today.

The letters J and V were latecomers. For centuries, J was considered merely a variant of I, and V was a variant of U. Not until Noah Webster published "An American Dictionary of the English Language" in 1828, and devoted separate sections to J and V, did the two letters gain individual recognition and respect, and only then did we officially have a 26-letter alphabet.

Sacks also tells stories of jealousy and betrayal.

G's place and prominence in the alphabet were stolen by the letter C. The caper started when the Etruscans, who didn't use the hard-G sound in their language, changed the Greek letter gamma (which looks like Y) to the letter C and gave it a "K" sound.

When the Romans adopted the alphabet from the Etruscans, they needed a letter for their hard-G sound, so they designed a "G" and gave it the seventh slot in the alphabet. (The soft-G sound wouldn't enter English for another millennium, when English mingled with French after the Norman Conquest in 1066).

And so children learn their ABC's instead of their ABG's. And G watches C enjoy its former spotlight, even though C contributes no unique English sound except when it combines with H (it steals most of its work from K and S).

Sacks also shows how different letters call for different tricks of the tongue, feats we perform regularly without thinking.

To say "L," you press the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth and let the sound slide around both sides of it. Drop your tongue down, and you have R.

We like our letters so much, we make them words and names unto themselves: a, I, oh, Dubya. We wear T-shirts, make U-turns, go to Plan B and watch "The X-Files."

Centuries after hieroglyphics died out, the alphabet's triumph is clear. "The alphabet," Sacks writes, "was an invention to change the world."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

My talk at UVA Charlotte

Sept. 30, 2004: As part of the speaker series at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, I gave a brief talk and slide show about the origins of the alphabet. The presentation was well received by a full house. I was honored to be part of this prestigious, nonpartisan program.

Interview on The Leonard Lopate Show

Sept. 30, 2003: In a live interview with well informed WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate, I discussed the origins of the alphabet. Click on the link above to hear the segment.

When the interview ended and we went off the air, movie actor Val Kilmer rushed into the studio: He was the next guest and had been listening to the broadcast. Kilmer spoke enthusiastically, apparently sincerely, about how fascinating the information had been.

Interview on radio show And Sometimes Y

March 10, 2007: A taped interview with me, on the interesting histories of some of our letters, was aired on this (excellent) CBC radio show for word lovers.

Click on the blue link above to hear excerpts. Below is the show's website blurb about the episode:

The Alphabet: Part 1
(aired Saturday March 10, repeated Tuesday March 13)

The ABC is an ancient and very useful invention. Other ways of writing, such as hieroglyphics, could only be learned by a small educated elite, and it took them many years. The ABC is easy enough to learn in kindergarten (and comes with a catchy song, to boot).

In the first of two episodes on the alphabet, Russell hears the life stories of letters as told by David Sacks, author of Letter Perfect, The A-Z History of Our Alphabet. Later, Johanna Drucker (who wrote The Alphabetic Labyrinth) explores the ABC's mystical significance.

Interrupting all this, our in-house word nerd Tom Howell presents tidbits from the Phoenician alphabet and Anglo-Saxon runes. And we hear exclusive interviews with the letters X, Y, and a medieval letter called Thorn.

My books

“A fascinating overview of the alphabet's history.”
Chicago Tribune
Nonfiction: reference
An A-to-Z reference book on the ancient Greeks, for students and general readers.