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My alphabet book:
Language Visible…Letter Perfect…The Alphabet

Originally published as Language Visible: Broadway Books, 2003, ISBN 0-7679-1172-5, 416 pages, $24.95.

Paperback title Letter Perfect: Broadway Books, 2004, $14.95.

Published also by Knopf Canada (hardcover) as Language Visible and by Vintage Canada (paperback) as Letter Perfect.

Published in the U.K. by Hutchinson (hardcover) and by Arrow (paperback) under the title The Alphabet.

The tedious question of titles

Yes, I've written just the one book on the alphabet, but by now it has three different English-language titles. (Don't ask: I took some bad advice.) The U.S. and Canadian hardcover title is Language Visible while the paperback is Letter Perfect. The U.K. title is The Alphabet for both hardcover and paperback. All editions have the same text, except for a few small factual corrections in the paperback.

The book has been published in four translations so far:

1) a hardcover French-language edition 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"), sold in Canada and France;

2) a paperback Serbo-Croatian edition, in Roman letters, titled Savrsena Slova ("Letter Perfect"), sold out of Belgrade.

3) a paperback Mandarin edition, from Flower City Publishing House in Guangzhou.

4) a paperback Korean edition, from Shinasa Publishing in Seoul.


Worldwide sales stand at slightly above 46,000 copies, of which nearly half have been U.K. sales.

The book-selling links at left will lead you to the U.S., U.K., and English Canadian editions. (The French-language edition has now unfortunately gone out of print.)

At a glance

Aimed at general readers with no prior knowledge of the subject, the book explains the history and workings of the alphabet—the word “alphabet” here meaning primarily our 26 modern Roman letters, but including their prior stages of development in ancient Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, etc. The book has two main elements:

(a) an introductory chapter and subsequent sidebars that trace the alphabet’s history from the invention of the first Near Eastern alphabet, around 2000 B.C., to the finalization of our 26 English-language letters, around 1850 A.D.

(b) 26 chapters, each devoted to the story and “personality” of a single letter, A to Z.

There are about 90 black-and-white illustrations and 45 charts. The charts trace the letters’ evolving shapes through history. The illustrations include Winston Churchill giving his famous World War II “V for Victory” sign; painted portraits of lexicographers Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster; historical artwork of scenes of writing, printing, etc.; medieval manuscript pages showing various handwriting styles; and maps relevant to the alphabet story.

Effort has been made to keep the text clear and lively. This is a book that a motivated 16-year-old would be able to understand and enjoy.

The book makes one solid contribution to the subject (I believe) in that it explains the alphabet as being an invention like the wheel, an invention for showing sounds of words. Just as the wheel is a mechanical tool that can work for whoever possesses it, so is alphabetic writing a mechanical tool that can work for whoever possesses it. Almost without exception, any human language could be written in alphabetic form. And in our modern world, the vast majority of languages are.

This basic but counterintuitive idea—the alphabet as a mechanical device that can be fitted to almost any language—is something that most general readers might reasonably need introducing to. The book tries to provide this in a simple, accessible, inspiring way.

Praise for Language Visible

“As fun to read as it is enlightening…Sacks's obsession with language is contagious, and I can imagine few readers whose lives would not be enriched by what he calls his ‘voyage of discovery.’” —Julie Walton Shaver New York Times Book Review

“A handsome and sprightly abecedary that tells the story of O, finds the spot marked by X, and explains why Samuel Johnson (or Iohnson?) skipped J in his landmark Dictionary…Put it on your A-list. —Jan Freeman Boston Globe

“A delightful journey into the history of our alphabet…In this rich history, Sacks offers answers to all of the mysteries of the alphabet, and a long-overdue examination of the origins of our ABCs.” —Molly Knight Baltimore Sun

“A wonderfully interesting book, readable yet unafraid of complexity.” —John Mullan The Guardian (U.K.)

—Named by author Melvyn Bragg as one of the best books of 2003, in The Guardian Sunday Observer magazine, Nov. 30, '03.  

“A fine book that is instructive and amusing for those who enjoy language as an abstract, and who want to know more about the 4,000-year history of the alphabet.” —John A. C. Greppin Times Literary Supplement (U.K.)

“Sacks…is erudite without being tedious; he writes clearly, with a sense of fun. The message of this book is that the long and fascinating history behind our alphabet is definitely worth exploring, and has long been overlooked.” —David R. Richards Indianapolis Star

“Unfolds the romance and magic of the English alphabet. Although Sacks writes for nonspecialists, he distills an impressive range of scholarship into his examination of the alphabet's complex cultural history…Delightfully entertaining and engrossing.” —Bryce Christensen Booklist

“Distinguished by its remarkably long and broad view of the topic and its omnivorous sense of fun…Sacks makes the history of the alphabet a joy to read. Recommended for most libraries.” —Paul D'Alessandro Library Journal

“Sacks's erudition straddles history, language, culture and semiotics, and is nicely masked by touches of humour and an immensely readable style.” —Ruth Wajnryb Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

“Provides an alphabet soup of information…A wonderful book.” —Karenn Krangle Vancouver Sun (Canada)

“A delightful exploration of the roots, stalks and branches of [our] letter forms.” —Doug Swanson Edmonton Journal (Canada)

“Sacks does an excellent job tracing each letter’s history…Well researched and very readable.” —Steven Manners Quill & Quire (Canada) 

“A brilliant, entertaining and amusing history.” —Henry Fraser Barbados Daily Nation

“A thoroughly delightful and delightfully thorough look at the history of the Roman alphabet.” —Nancy Pearl KUOW radio, Seattle

“At a time when it has become more important than ever to read clearly and intelligently in order to dismantle the daily traps of propaganda, this delightful book lays bare for us, with wit and wisdom, the very building-blocks of our culture: the mysterious letters of the alphabet that rule our language and thought.” —Alberto Manguel author of A History of Reading

“Reading David Sacks's wonderful Language Visible is like sitting rapt before the coolest teacher in school. Sacks's excursion through the alphabet is witty and smart. I was reluctant to finally leave the classroom.” —Mark Dunn author of Ella Minnow Pea

On the paperback edition

“A fascinating overview of the alphabet's history… Informative but not snoozingly detailed. Its price [$14.95] 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.” —Nathan Bierma, Chicago Tribune

“Each letter receives its own 'biography' in this fascinating work.” —H.J. Kirchhoff, Toronto Globe and Mail

From the website of U.S. poet Lewis Turco

It is exceedingly hard to find a book that is so good to read you hate the thought of its ever ending. But one such, at least for me, is David Sacks’ Language Visible. It is such a good read that I have been limiting myself to digesting one chapter at a time, and there are only twenty-six, one for each letter of the alphabet. Sacks traces the evolution of each written letter from its earliest beginnings in Egypt around 2000 B.C. through its transmutations and adoptions by other languages throughout the ages, to its final resting place on the page in front of us. If this idea seems to be entirely too scholarly and boring, believe me when I say it is not! Sacks is as lively and entertaining a writer as he is a profound intellectual. A terrific book, on my honor!

—Lewis Turco website "Poetics and Ruminations"

Preface of Language Visible

This book attempts a voyage of discovery among the letters of the alphabet. Like islands of an archipelago, the 26 letters will be visited and explored, one at a time. Each island’s geography and local lore will be examined briefly, also its relationship to other islands in the navigational stream. Some islands may prove more lush or lofty than others. But any one will yield substantial mental nourishment to visitors, along with glorious vistas onto language, literature, and history of the past 4,000 years.

Where do our letters come from? How did they get their shapes, their assigned sounds, their sequence, immortalized in our “Alphabet Song”? Why do we use “Roman” letters for English—also for Spanish, Czech, Turkish, Swahili, Vietnamese, and many others—while some languages (Russian, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, etc.) use different types of letters? What is a letter, exactly? What’s an alphabet? These are among questions to be answered with authority and zest.

And smaller questions, maybe more intriguing. Why is X the unknown? What is The Story of O? Where did Irish rock band U2 get its name? Why does “mother” start with M? What’s Q’s source of pride? Which two letters came last to the alphabet? (Answer: J and V.) Why is Z called “zee” in the United States but “zed” in Britain and other Commonwealth countries? Which animal did A originally symbolize? (An ox: the A’s legs were horns, pointing upward, 3,000 years ago.)

Every letter has its own chapter here. Typically, the chapter explains briefly the letter’s origin in ancient Near Eastern alphabets, including the Phoenician alphabet of 1000 B.C. (In this aspect, the book has benefited from a spectacular archaeological discovery made public in A.D. 1999, placing the alphabet’s invention in Egypt, sometime around 2000 B.C.) Each chapter traces its letter’s history through ancient Greece and Rome, medieval England, and subsequent stages, and discusses the letter’s noteworthy roles in literature, traditional iconography, modern marketing and pop culture, and other categories.

The chapter tries, where possible, to find the letter’s single chief significance for modern readers, its “personality,” as expressed through speech or visual media. For instance, letter A means quality. B is forever second best. C is inconsistent in sound: Its troubles with commitment stem from an unstable childhood. O’s shape can be highly inviting. S is the letter of the serpent, whether for evil or for nature. N needs your nose for pronunciation. And H, phonetically, barely qualifies as a letter at all.

As its title suggests, the book is partly about languages: English first of all, but also Latin, Greek, ancient Semitic tongues (of which Hebrew is the closest modern equivalent), medieval and modern French and other Romance tongues, and German, all relevant to the story of our 26 letters. While I don’t speak every one of those languages, I have background in a few and have strived for accuracy in research.

The book uses language topics as the key to explaining the alphabet. Letters are images of language: They were invented, around 2000 B.C., to show tiny sounds of speech. Letters, when combined correctly, re-create the sounds of words (whether in English, ancient Greek, Arabic, Russian, etc.). If you take the spoken tongue as your starting point—any language outside of a test-tube was spoken long before it began to be written—and you picture an alphabet being fitted to the language, like clothing, amid adjustments, then the history and meaning of the letters become suddenly clearer.

Some books on the alphabet have viewed the letters primarily as items of visual design. Visual, indeed handsome, they surely are. But that approach makes it tough to explain how a letter got its sound(s), especially regarding irregularities. Why does C go soft in pronunciation before E, I, or Y? Why does J mean the sound “j” in English but “h” in Spanish and “y” in German? Such questions are easier to answer if you begin with the language sounds, not the written symbols.

Yet this is no textbook. It does not deal exhaustively with the subject and I hope it is never boring. Facts are pursued with an eye toward what is enlightening, surprising, fun. The aim is to inform and entertain. I hope to convey how fascinating these 26 little shapes can be, how they contain within themselves thousands of years of culture and history.


From the Preface of Language Visible

The basis for this book was a 26-part weekly series that I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper (Ottawa, Ontario) about the letters of the alphabet. The series covered one letter per week, from January to July 2000.

But the first inspiration dates to 1993, when I was at work on my one previous book, titled Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World (Facts On File, 1995). Facing a huge assignment beyond my rudimentary knowledge, I was anxiously researching the ancient Greeks.

One topic was the Greek alphabet, including its origin, sometime around 800 B.C. l had learned in college that the Greeks, with no writing of their own at the time, acquired their alphabet by copying it from the Phoenicians (a Semitic people famed as seafarers, based in what is now Lebanon). I could have written those words on an exam—“the Greeks took their alphabet from the Phoenicians”—without understanding what that meant. I had always imagined some imitation by analogy: that the Greeks, impressed by the Phoenician letters, had gone off and invented two dozen letters of their own, to be Greek letters.

Yet my studies of 1993 taught me differently. The Greeks had copied more literally than that. (Pardon the pun.) The Greeks didn’t copy just the idea of the Phoenician alphabet; they actually copied the Phoenician letters and started using them to write Greek.

Does it sound trivial? At the time, the realization stunned me. The ancient languages of Greek and Phoenician were as different as English and Arabic. Greek was (and is) a language of the Indo-European family; its modern relatives include English, German, Spanish, Russian. The Phoenician tongue, now vanished, belonged to a separate language group, Semitic, whose major modern representative is Arabic, although Phoenician itself was probably closer to Hebrew. Semitic and Indo-European languages do not sound at all alike; their vocabularies are unrelated. And yet…

The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters; the earliest working Greek alphabet, probably 26. The first 22 letters of the Greek list were nearly identical to the Phoenician in sequence, shapes, names, and, usually, sounds (although here with the important exception of five Greek vowel letters, which the Greeks invented by reassigning certain Phoenician letters to symbolize vowel sounds). In later centuries the Greeks would adjust their alphabet away from the Phoenician model. But for 800 B.C. it seems the Greeks picked up Phoenician letters, made some changes and additions, and began writing.

What if a bunch of illiterate Anglo-Saxons in A.D. 600 had gotten their hands on the Arabic alphabet and started using it to write Old English? Could they have been done so, I wondered. Wasn’t that basically what the Greeks did?

There must, I thought, back in 1993, be more to these letters than I understood. How could Phoenician letters be so adaptable? Logically, wouldn’t most of them be unusable for Greek, since the two languages were so different?

Eventually in the 1990s, I moved on from the ancient Greece book, got a day job, and turned to a new mental interest: the history of the alphabet. I had never studied it before, but felt compelled to do so now. There seemed something fundamental here that I had missed in my education.

What I found was that alphabets have routinely jumped from language to language, across all sorts of language barriers, down through history. Our Roman alphabet in English is the product of four such leaps: After being copied from Phoenician letters, the letters of the Greek letters were copied, in turn, by a different people, the Etruscans of Italy (around 700 B.C.). Etruscan was a tongue as different from Greek as Greek was from Phoenician, yet the letters adapted easily: They now became Etruscan letters, for showing Etruscan speech. Then the Etruscan letters were copied by other Italian peoples, including the Romans, whose language, Latin, was totally unlike Etruscan. Again, the letters had made the jump. As Rome conquered Italy and lands beyond, the Roman alphabet became the writing of Roman Europe. Surviving the empire’s collapse (around A.D. 500), Roman letters were fitted to newer tongues, including primitive English (around A.D. 600). Today those letters have grown up to become our own.

English is by no means the only example. Roman letters today convey the sounds of languages that Cicero never heard of: Polish, Zulu, Azerbaijani, Indonesian, Navajo—and about 100 other major tongues. The Cyrillic alphabet works equally well for Serbian and Bulgarian as for Russian. Arabic letters, devised originally to show the Arabic language, provide writing in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and other places where people don’t speak Arabic. Behind such facts lies the letters’ ability to leap across languages.

The more I dug into this, the more important it seemed. I was finally getting the idea that the letters have a kind of genius—a genius for showing the sounds of speech. Because they denote the smallest particles of sound (“t,” “p,” “m,” “u”), letters in quantity are beautifully flexible and precise. They can be arranged in endless combinations as necessary, to capture sounds of words. This allows the letters to be fitted from one language to another: You could easily write English phonetically, in the letters of Hebrew or Cyrillic. (Bored office workers at computers do it idly.)

“People don’t understand this concept,” I recall thinking. “This isn’t being taught at school.”

I had learned a new respect for the alphabet, and from this point—for it was just a beginning—I proceeded to dip into other aspects of the story: typography, phonetics, the individual letters’ use in brand names and design, the whole psychological message of letters in certain presentations. What I uncovered was a trove of wisdom and lore worth celebrating. And worth sharing.

From Chapter 1 of Language Visible

Ask people to name the most consequential inventions of world history, and you’ll hear a list probably including the wheel, the telephone, the atomic bomb, the first computing machine. (Comedian Mel Brooks, in his 1960s audio skit “The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man,” claimed the greatest invention was Saran Wrap.) What might be missing from the answers, overlooked, is the family of little shapes that your eyes are scanning right now: the letters of the alphabet. For the alphabet was an invention, a spectacularly successful one. Judged on longevity and extent of modern daily use, it compares with the wheel.

The alphabet was invented in the Near East around 2000 B.C. as a writing method to show sounds of words. Without doubt, its earliest readers read aloud, their lips forming the words displayed. (Reading aloud continued to be standard practice throughout ancient and medieval times.) The alphabet was not the earliest writing: Mesopotamia, Egypt, and probably China already had nonalphabetic systems. But the alphabet was the most efficient writing system ever found, before or since. Like the wheel, it changed the ancient world and, like the wheel, it is still with us and has never been superseded.

Today about 4.8 billion people, over three-quarters of humanity, live in countries that use an alphabet or a writing system modified from an alphabet. About 26 major alphabetic scripts are in place worldwide. The International Three are the Roman, Arabic, and Cyrillic alphabets, each serving multiple nations and languages.

Our own familiar alphabet is the Roman, bequeathed to Western Europe by the Roman Empire and today the most popular script on Earth—weighing in at about 100 principal languages, 120 countries, and nearly 2 billion users worldwide. The Roman alphabet owes its statistical dominance partly to its use by Spanish (330 million native speakers worldwide), by Portuguese (160 million native speakers), and by the languages of Central and Southern Africa (270 million speakers), as well as by English (350 million native speakers). There are variations of Roman alphabet: For example, English employs 26 letters; Finnish, 21; Croatian, 30. But at the core are the 23 letters of ancient Rome. (The Romans lacked J, V, and W.)

Amazingly, with the sole exception of Korea’s Hangul script (invented in isolation in the mid-1400s A.D.), all of today’s major alphabetic scripts have a common origin. All can be traced back through history to one source: the first Near Eastern alphabet of 2000 B.C. The family ties are direct and actual. Our Roman alphabet is a third cousin to the Arabic alphabet, a second cousin to the Cyrillic alphabet, and a grandchild of the Greek alphabet. True, different alphabets don’t usually look alike (although nearly half of our capital letters strongly resemble their Greek “grandparents”). But alphabets reveal their kinship in general principles and in their sequences of letter sounds. References to “the alphabet,” in this chapter particularly, are meant to include any working alphabet, present or past, such as the Phoenician and Aramaic, as well as our own.

The remaining one-quarter of Earth’s population, 1.4 billion people, use nonalphabetic writing. Basically this means China, including Taiwan, and Japan. The Japanese system comes from an adaption of the Chinese that dates back to the 600s A.D.

What’s the big difference? Why doesn’t Chinese writing qualify as an alphabet? In Chinese script, each symbol denotes a whole word of the Mandarin Chinese language. We call such symbols “logograms” (from two Greek roots meaning “word letter”). A Chinese symbol conveys a word, an idea. But an alphabetic symbol (a “letter”) conveys just a tiny sound of speech.

If we English-speakers normally wrote the word “dog” by using an agreed-on symbol like Ǿ, that would be a logogram. If we wrote “dog” by using a sketch of a dog, that would be a pictograph. But we do neither of those things. We write “dog” with three symbols, not one, which together re-create the sound of the word. Each of the symbols (letters) denotes a tiny bit of speech, part of the word’s sound. We know the symbol-to-sound code because we had to memorize it in kindergarten, or thereabouts, as the doorway to literacy: “A is for ‘apple,’ B is for ‘ball’…”

The letter’s sound is the smallest amount possible to isolate, what linguists call a phoneme. A phoneme is an “atom” of language, almost always smaller than a syllable. (At most, a phoneme is a syllable, as in the long I of “icy” or the English word “a” or certain other vowel-uses.) Our word “pencil” has two syllables but six phonemes, each neatly displayed by a different letter.

An alphabet is a writing system based on letters, which by definition symbolize phonemes only. The letters combine to show words of a particular language, shared between writer and reader. The alphabet must adequately represent the language by having enough letters with the right sounds—that is, most of the sounds essential to the language as spoken. Yet the number of letters you need is surprisingly small: fewer than 30 for most languages. Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters; Iran’s Farsi-language version of the Arabic alphabet, 32. While India’s Devanagari script hits 48, it and related Indian scripts are not strictly alphabetic but straddle also the category of a syllabary (defined below).

Alphabets exploit the fact that human languages tend to use not many phonemes—only around 20 to 40 per language, typically. No matter how many tens of thousands of words in a given tongue, the words, once analyzed, yield only a few dozen basic sounds. These are not, of course, the self-same 40 from language to language: Arabic and English share many sounds, yet Arabic requires certain throat-clicks that English speakers cannot make, never having learned them in the cradle. (By the same token, for a cruel diversion sometime, you should ask a Parisian to say the English word “law.” He’ll struggle to come out with something like “loe.”) English has a rather high number of phonemes, between about 44 and 48, depending on regional accent. This abundance is is due partly to English’s rich heritage, combining Germanic and Franco-Latin influences, from two different language families. Nearly half our phonemes are shadings of vowel sounds, such as the A in “law” that gives Parisians such trouble.

We don’t need 44 letters for 44 phonemes, because letters can do double duty. English spelling assigns several sounds to all vowel letters (go, got, ton, etc.) and finds extra sounds in letter pairings like oi, ch, and th.

An alphabet enjoys one huge advantage over any other writing system: It needs fewer symbols. No other system can get away with so few. This makes an alphabet easier to learn. The student need only memorize two dozen or so letters to begin building toward literacy, which takes about another five years of instruction.

Because the memorization step is simple enough for five- and six-year-olds, the whole process, with an alphabet, can be completed before the working age. The learning need not interfere with earning a living. This crucial fact has made the alphabet historically the vehicle of mass literacy. With an alphabet, the farmer, the shopkeeper, the laborer have been able to read and write-—unlike the situation in prealphabetic societies. The very first alphabet was invented, scholars today believe, for humble people who were being excluded from the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

Compare with our 26 letters the Chinese system, involving at least 2,000 symbols for educated daily reading and writing, out of an inventory of about 60,000 possible. Mass literacy became possible in China only with the communist state of 1949. Today, Chinese schoolchildren normally take three years longer than Western children to learn to read and write, most of that extra time devoted to mastering the symbols.

The need to accumulate symbols has hampered most nonalphabetic systems down through history. In the ancient Near East, two major writing forms preceded the alphabet. Both were elaborate, expressive, and confined to specialists. Egyptian hieroglyphics consisted of pictographs, logograms, and phonetic signs: about 700 picture symbols, written usually in combinations. Mesopotamian cuneiform, as typified by the Babylonian version, was mainly a phonetic script of about 600 symbols, half of them used regularly.

Being phonetic, cuneiform reproduced the sounds of words, like an alphabet. However, cuneiform was a syllabary system-—a category worth glancing at, so as to better appreciate the flexibility of our letters.

In a syllabary, the symbols denote whole syllables. The word “pencil” would be two symbols, something like ▲╛, with ▲ meaning the sound “pen” and ╛ meaning “sil.” Simple and reasonable so far—-but, depending on the sounds of your particular language, how useful generally would ▲ and ╛ be? In English, not very. Your ▲ could help spell “pig pen,” and ╛ could go into “silver,” but ▲ and ╛ would spend much of their time out of use. Meanwhile, other symbols would be needed. As you would be continually inventing new ones, the list would grow into the hundreds.

Some modern tongues do fine with scripts that overlap between an alphabet and syllabary: Hindi or Korean, for example. But for English, a syllabary would be chaos. How many lame symbols like ▲ and ╛ would we need—two hundred? With our letters, two symbols like A and B represent nearly 8 percent of our alphabet. We get much better use from A and B than we would from any two syllabary signs.

Because letters work at the phoneme level and are unencumbered by extra baggage of sound, they achieve maximum efficiency. Our six letters of “pencil” can easily be broken-out and rearranged within countless other words-—“lien,” “Nile,” “stipend,” “clip”—-which sound nothing like “pencil.” Letters are the original snap-on tools: They build on each other as necessary, so you actually need fewer items in your toolkit. With 26, we capture reasonably well the approximately one million words of English. In fact, we could theoretically drop one or two letters--Q, for instance, and spell "queen" as "cween" or "kween."

The genius of the letters is the way they combine simplicity with precision. Although few in number, they are wonderfully flexible and versatile as a group. They can arrange themselves in endless variations to capture details of sound. Letters fairly cling to the sounds of words, showing the textures: “fill” versus “film,” “ascetic” versus “esthetic,” “serendipity,” “pterodactyl,” “Mooselookmeguntic.” Organs of speech could hardly be more exact or delicate in their sounds than letters in their showing. At least for most languages.

The letters’ precision isn’t just a topic for rhapsody. It opens onto the most important fact about the alphabet, the key to understanding the alphabet’s history and much of world cultural history, besides-—namely, that letters can jump from language to language. Letters are so clever at showing speech that they need not be confined to any particular tongue, but can often be fitted from one right to another.

Even if the two languages are totally unlike, letters often can make the transition. Because their core selection of sounds (inherited from the alphabet’s earliest stages) is close to being universal, letters usually can be adapted to a different tongue through only a few changes: three or four letters revalued to new sounds, a letter or two invented, unneeded letters discarded. That is why various modern languages have different numbers of letters for the same general alphabet.

Letters have leapt from language to language throughout history. Originally, that was how the alphabet spread across the ancient world, blossoming among people previously illiterate: the Jews, Aramaeans, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, and others. Each group spoke a different language. Each acquired its alphabet by copying someone else’s and then adapting the letters to the new tongue. When Julius Caesar as a Roman general entered Gaul in 59 B.C., he found the inhabitants writing their Celtic language with the Greek alphabet, learned during a prior century from Greek traders at the seaport now Marseille.

Since the initial spread of literacy, alphabets of the world have kept jumping around, propelled by conquest, missionary religion, or cultural politics. In the early 1990s, three former provinces of the Soviet Union announced they would dump their Cyrillic alphabet (imposed by Stalin in 1940) and switch to the Roman. The newly independent countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have not altered their spoken languages, which are Turkic tongues, related to Turkish. But the governments have moved to replace Cyrillic street signs, textbooks, tax forms, etc., with new ones printed in a modified, 29-letter Roman alphabet. Elementary schools now teach Roman letters. The massive, disruptive changeover—-inspired by westward trade ambitions and hatred of the Soviet memory—-was declared officially complete in Azerbaijan, at least, in 2001. The new alphabet is modeled on that of modern Turkey, which switched from Arabic to Roman letters in 1928, under the westernizing regime of Kemal Atatürk.

In the centuries before 1940, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan used the Arabic alphabet, until the early Soviets imposed the Roman one in the 1920s. Thus the three regions have seen all three major alphabets in the last 80 years: Arabic, Cyrillic, and (twice) Roman. Although the three regions' languages are unrelated to Arabic, Russian, or Latin, each alphabet has taken hold in turn.

Other examples abound. In around 1860, Romania switched from Cyrillic to Roman, turning westward from Czarist Russia’s sphere. Vietnam had Roman letters imposed by French colonialism in 1910; the change displaced a traditional Chinese-derived script. Today in Ho Chi Min City, shop signs and newspapers are in Roman letters and Vietnamese language. Meanwhile, in neighboring Cambodia, a kindred language is written in an entirely different way, based on an ancient script of India.

We think of the Arabic alphabet as the written form of the Arabic tongue. Yet Arabic letters have belonged to other languages, too. Carried outward from Arabia by armies and seafarers after the mid-600s A.D., the Arabic alphabet now serves about nine major tongues linguistically unrelated to Arabic: Berber in Morocco, Nubian in Sudan, Farsi and Kurdish in Iran, Urdu and Sindhi in Pakistan, Pashto in Afghanistan, Uighur in China, and Malay in Malaysia. Malay has traditionally been written in either of two alphabets, Arabic or Roman. Roman predominates today, yet in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, you can still buy a Malay-language newspaper printed in Arabic letters, as well as others in Roman ones.

Malay isn’t the only switch hitter. The African common-tongue Swahili may be written in Arabic letters or the usual Roman. The language known as Serbo-Croatian—-shared, with dialectical differences, between Serbia and Croatia—-is written in Cyrillic by Serbs, in Roman by Croats. (The split, a legacy of rival medieval missionary churches, has surely contributed to calamitous distrust between those peoples.) Likewise India's Hindi and Pakistan's Urdu are fundamentally the same, tongue, only using Devanagari script in India, Arabic letters in Pakistan. And Yiddish, while not exactly German, is closely akin to it. Yet Yiddish is written in Hebrew letters, and German in Roman ones.

The “spreadability” of an alphabet means that the future of our Roman letters looks very bright indeed. In Russia’s Volga Valley, about 440 miles east of Moscow, the semiautonomous, Turkic-speaking republic of Tatarstan has announced its intent to follow Azerbaijan’s example and go Roman. Struggling nations elsewhere, particularly in Central and Southeast Asia, may be expected in coming decades to do likewise, switch to Roman letters for native tongues, as a bid to tie into global trade and communication and to better prepare their people to learn English. Tragically, much that is venerable and spiritually sustaining will be lost. Yet that seems inevitable in the 21st century we are shaping. And it is sobering to reflect that our 26 letters wield such power.