Download Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World by John Man PDF

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Extra resources for Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World

Example text

Oh, my lord, look at all these sheep, the temple has so many sheep, he could use one of these, until I repay. How is this to be remembered? The answer is to hand – a tub of damp river clay, such as builders use for making bricks. The official does what all temple officials do, in dozens of cities up and down Mesopotamia. He grabs a handful of clay, smacks it smooth, takes a reed and uses it to indent a mark and the rough shape of a sheep. This is your mark, he says to the nervous shepherd, this is your sheep.

However it happened, by about 1400 BC, China had a script from which modern Chinese arose. The same principles govern both: some 1500 characters from the Shang dynasty (from the seventeenth century BC to about 1025 BC) are still recognizable. The script was then used for inscriptions on bronze and for writing on bamboo, wood, silk and, finally, around AD 200, on paper. The invention of block printing in about AD 600 and then of movable-type printing – five centuries before Gutenberg independently invented it in Europe – led to an explosion of publications.

Take just one ‘rule’ about never ending sentences with a preposition, and then listen to this bed-time complaint by a six-year-old: What did you bring that book I don’t want to be read out of from up for? What a wonderful nesting of thoughts, all bracketed by the opening ‘what’ and the final ‘for’. We string words together to make new concepts, a technique which German is notoriously good at, both in real speech and in fun. I once received a car-tax reminder headed ‘Kraftfahrzeugsteuerbescheidverfahren’ (Power-travelling-tool-tax-information-proceeding), which almost matches the nonce-word for the assassin of the aunt of a Hottentot chief: Hottentotten-potentaten-tanten-totenattentäter.

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