Scripts illuminated; BOOKS

THE ALPHABETIC LABYRINTH:The Letters in History and Imagination by Johanna Drucker Thames & Hudson £29.95

Early writing, dating from 3000 BC, included cuneiform in Sumer, Hittite and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Cretan Minoan pictographic script. In contrast, the earliest glyphs of pre-Columbian America date back to 300 AD. Of all these, only Chinese characters have survived into contemporary usage. The Alphabetic Labyrinth is a fascinating compendium of alphabet lore.

The Western alphabet was probably invented between 1700 and 1500 BC by a Semitic-speaking people. All alphabetic writing - Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Tibetan or Bengali - derives from this common source in the Sinai in the second millennium BC. With the exception of Chinese, the phonetic alphabet provides the forms in which all living languages are written.

There are fewer than a dozen recorded examples of the invention of writing. Herodotus in the 5th century BC described the Phoenicians' introduction of writing to the Greeks. Alternatively, Plato linked Phoenician letters to an earlier Egyptian source and noted the worry of an early recipient of the written word - that it would undermine the power of human memory.

In some Jewish accounts, forms of the letters were said to have been given by God to Adam in the Garden; others had them bestowed upon Moses on Mount Sinai. Islamic tradition also thought it a gift to Adam, although denied to the angels. Indian legend records the elephant god Ganesh inventing writing by breaking off a tusk for use as a pen. Sometimes the written word was believed to contain its own powers, such as healing or cursing. In Greece, Hellenistic Egypt and throughout the Roman Empire, spells linked to writing were associated with love, wealth, power, or military or athletic victories. Medical practice often involved amulets comprised of scrolls or inscriptions - one of which read, "Flee Gout, Perseus is chasing you!"

Individual letters also acquired distinctive associations: the "E" was significant for the Oracle at Delphi; the letter "A" (for absolve) was used in Roman senate votes to cast a lot in favour of acquittal, and "C" on its own sometimes meant circus, sometimes Caesar. Even Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD was inspired by a vision which included the letters alpha and omega shining in the sky overhead.

As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the West, monasteries became the repositories of writing until the 12th century when it became a secular activity associated with the universities. Between 400 and 900 AD distinct writing forms developed in particular monastic scriptoria in Ireland and spread to England, eventually creating Roman lettering of an aesthetic sophistication unsurpassed in medieval writing. By the Romanesque and Gothic periods things had become so ornate that the letters were lost in a maze of interlocking patterns. The Cistercian St Bernard attacked decorated letters as frivolous and a waste of the scribe's time.

The invention of printing in the mid-15th century brought about standardisation. Renaissance theorists reconceptualised letter forms, by establishing a set of proportions based upon the human figure, mapping the body of a man onto a grid.

Alphabetic theorists of the 18th century were less preoccupied with divine order. Although Daniel Defoe stoutly maintained that the alphabet had first been engraved by God upon stone tablets, writing came to be seen as the distinguishing characteristic of civilisation; the alphabet itself was judged to play an important role in maintaining rational and social order. The question then was whether human society had in fact improved or deteriorated since its original state.

In the 19th century, investigations of writing continued the debate in terms of creationist versus evolutionary models. Challenging the scriptural authority for language was a radical departure which paralleled Darwinian theories. And Irish nationalists advanced their claims in part by arguing the Celtic origin of the English language.

Even before Wapping, the mechanisation of printing with the invention of high speed presses enabled The Times to leap from 250 sheets per hour to several thousand. And with industrialisation came advertising, firing the imagination of designers who deployed more and more fantastically decorated typefaces. Old forms were revived. Victor Hugo attempted a "hieroglyphic" reading of the letters of the alphabet, with "Y" the branching of two roads, "A" an arch, "B" a humpback, "C" a crescent moon. Mallarm's imaginative reading of letters included "F" as a projectile striking space and "K" as the image of knottiness.

The author carries her discussion into 20th century electronic media and data processing, citing Marshall McLuhan's prediction that audio-visual media would result in the elimination of print. Drucker provides so many escritory parallels to history, it appears particularly ironic that the book's illustrations are often poorly reproduced and its pages badly designed. Nevertheless, the London A to Z will never seem the same again.

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