instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

What's new

Introductory essay for Black Dog's Alphabets

September-October 2010: In October the British house Black Dog published a lively picture book on the alphabet, Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters, with a 7,600-word introduction by me. The intro is meant to be a factual, content-rich history and explanation of our Roman alphabet, starting with its first origins (in the Semitic-language alphabetic that emerged in Bronze Age Egypt) and ending with our 26 letters' finalization in the print-and-dictionary world of the 19th century—that is, roughly from 2000 B.C. to 1850 A.D. Historically, the intro covers much the same ground as does my 2003 book, Language Visible (or in paperback: Letter Perfect), but in a more concise and focused way.

Unfortunately, some of Black Dog's early publicity material described me as the book's author (!). The facts are that I had nearly nothing to do with the book's choices of images or the writing of captions. Before publication, I had not even seen the images or captions. Also, my contract with Black Dog was not an author's agreement but a one-time-fee agreement.

Readers are thus urged to understand that this is NOT my next book. Although Black Dog has been pleasant to work with, I can regret its cavalier use of my name in early publicity.

May 2011: The above-mentioned essay is now posted, in a slightly expanded version, on this site, on the "The alphabet" page. (See the blue band at top of this page.)

My hope is that the essay will provide a clear, easy entree to the alphabet's history, answering most of the basic questions that general readers might have.

Lunch with the Canadian Supreme Court

June 2009: Some people need to commit a felony in order to get in front of a Supreme Court. But on June 8, 2009, I had the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of lunching with the full Canadian court, nine judges, in their private dining room in the Supreme Court building in Ottawa. The purpose of lunch was for the judges and me to discuss some of the points in my book about the alphabet, Language Visible.

The invitation had come from the court's dynamic chief justice, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. As I understand it, the Chief Justice tries to invite one outsider per month to have lunch with the court and speak on some non-law topic--the purpose being to stimulate fresh thought and discussion among the judges. Previously, in February, Ms. McLachlin had heard a talk I'd given about the alphabet, and she afterward contacted me through her office.

Lunch with the court was as remarkable a two hours as I've ever spent. As requested, I spoke for under ten minutes, mainly explaining the alphabet as a mechanical invention for showing the sounds of language (which is my book's main point) and pointing out some of the nascent modern letter shapes that can be glimpsed in the letter shapes of the earliest known alphabetic inscription, from 1800 B.C., at Wadi el-Hol in central Egypt. Aside from Chief Justice McLachlin, the judges had not yet read my book, but I tried to provide a quick overview. After that, the general topic was opened up for table talk.

What followed was largely Q and A aimed pleasantly at me, with the Chief Justice occasionally prompting with new questions. But toward the end, the judges began to take up the topic themselves, and I contentedly became more a listener.

All discussion was in English; but of course several of the judges are francophone, and there was some learned chat about the French use of W, which was the last letter to enter the French alphabet, in the latter 19th century, and which shows up unsystematically in certain French words like wagon-lit (train sleeper car). Also, there were approving comments about the court's famous outdoor statue of personified Justice, whose inscribed Latin label, IVSTITIA, accurately shows a classical-Latin consonantal letter I (rather than a J) and an epigraphic V-shaped U. Justice Louis LeBel, among other of the judges, seems quite at home with Latin; and at least two of the judges know Hebrew.

All nine judges treated me with great cordiality; all seemed to enjoy the discussion; a few of the longer-tenured judges struck me as slightly more relaxed and jovial in the situation. I got the interesting sense of some very different personalities around the table, but all linked by a powerful group intellect. It was extremely pleasant, as well as an honor, for me to be part of such a group for a while.

Alphabet book: French-language edition

October 30, 2007: This was the official pub date of my book Language Visible in a French translation, titled Une histoire de l’alphabet: La vie secrète des lettres de A à Z ("A history of the alphabet: The letters' secret life from A to Z").

The publisher was the Montreal house Les Éditions de l'Homme, part of the Sogides group. They published he book as part of their prestigious "Le Bon Mot" line of language-topic titles. Insofar as they bought the French world rights, this edition was sold in France, Belgium, and elsewhere, as well as in Canada.

Book description from Les Éditions de l'Homme catalog:

Dans Une histoire de l’alphabet, David Sacks explique que les lettres sont des symboles reproduisant les sons précis de la parole. Il commence par une description des plus anciennes inscriptions alphabétiques connues (vers 1800 av. J.-C.) et retrace l’histoire de notre alphabet depuis les Phéniciens jusqu’à notre époque. Ce sont les biographies fascinantes des lettres, de A à Z, qui sont au cœur de cet ouvrage. L’auteur explique la signification particulière des lettres, analysant l’évolution de chacune d’elles depuis ses formes les plus anciennes, puis il met en relief leur rôle dans la littérature et dans d’autres médias. Combinant des faits à la fois bizarres et essentiels, Une histoire de l’alphabet est de l’histoire culturelle sous sa forme la plus accessible et la plus agréable.