Writen by David Sacks
Arrow (Paperback) / Hutchinson
A review by Anna Dangoor
It is an invention as important and as far-reaching as
the wheel, but until I picked up this book, it had never
before struck me that the alphabet itself even was an
The alphabet is something we take so much for granted
that it seems such a simple and accessible way of writing
must always have been there, but this is of course not
the case. As David Sacks explains in his book, the earliest
writing systems used pictures to communicate words, making
it necessary for hundreds, if not thousands of these pictograms
to exist, in order to express the range of ones vocabulary.
This of course meant that only those with considerable
time on their hands, usually the wealthy and powerful
sections of society, were able to afford the time to learn.
This all changed however with the invention of an alphabetic
system, using symbols to represent the sounds that make
up words, rather than whole words or whole syllables.
This allowed all language to be distilled into around
22 characters, which have the power and flexibility to
express the full range and breadth of human speech.
What is so magnificent about the alphabet’s invention
as Sachs points out, is that it is likely to have occurred
once and only once, in one particular place at one particular
time. This first ancient alphabet was to breed all subsequent
alphabetic systems, from the Hebrew letters of the Torah,
the Roman script I am using right now, to the Brahmi script
The miraculous journey that each letter has made from
this early alphabet to the letters we all know, love and
use exhaustively today, are expertly described by Sachs,
a chapter of the book being dedicated to each letter in
turn. Sachs pieces together the archaeology and life-story
of each of the letters, and intricately explores its origins,
as well as detailing characteristics and symbolism that
each has taken on, and for what reasons.
With 26 letters to cover however, I did begin to lose
interest towards the end, and perhaps this makes the book
the kind that one would want to dip into rather than read
cover to cover in one stretch. My favourite part in fact
came right at the beginning, in the first Chapter where
Sachs deals with the mystery of where this first ancient
alphabet may have come from.
My grandfather, and Editor of The Scribe, Naim Dangoor
has often mentioned to me a theory of his that it was
Avraham Avinu who invented the alphabet. Perhaps this
could explain the profound effect our forefather had,
giving birth to two of the world’s major religions.
Sachs discusses the work of John Darnell an Egyptologist
of Yale University who discovered some ancient inscriptions
on a rock face in the desert in Egypt at a place called
Wadi el-Hol, Valley of Terror. Most of these were hieroglyphical
carvings, but two inscriptions in particular caught Darnell’s
eye and were eventually identified as being the world’s
oldest alphabetical writing yet discovered, putting the
alphabets invention around 2000 BCE give or take a century.
Darnell ascribes the writing perhaps to Semitic mercenaries
travelling through the desert with the Egyptian army,
inspired by the Egyptians around them to invent their
own form of writing. But certainly this was also the time
that Avraham took his trip across to Egypt, so could it
be that these travelling Semites had learnt this earliest
script from him?
Naim Dangoor adds: The alphabet was a breakthrough in
human civilisation. It was a democratic invention whereas
the hieroglyphic system was purposely confined to the
priesthood who intended to keep the commoners in ignorance.
The current Arabic alphabet came into being not long
ago and is completely different from the original Hebrew
alphabet. However, in books and documents the original
Hebrew sequence is still used and in schools this has
been taught to be memorised as follows: ABGAD, HAWAZ,
HATTAY, KALMAN, SA’DFAS, QARSHAT.
The absence of ‘G’ as in ‘George’
in the original alphabet is an indication of its Hebrew
origin and its development in an Egyptian milieu in both
of which that sound is absent.
When Mustafa Kamal adopted in Turkey the Latin alphabet
over the old Arabic script, he cleverly restored to the
third letter its original sound of ‘G’ but
this time not as ‘G’ as in ‘good’
as in ‘Egypt’ and ‘Israel’, but
‘G’ as in ‘George’ as used elsewhere.
It is universally agreed that all the alphabets ever
developed originate from one alphabet. The Hebrew identity
of that invention is confirmed by the meaning of the various
letters of the alphabet:
B as Bet (a house)
D as in Delet (a door)
H as Het (a wall)
Caf (a hand)
Ayin (an eye)
Shin (tooth) etc., etc.
At the time of the Exodus from Egypt some 3,300 years
ago, the Hebrews were still the only people in the world
using an alphabet. There is no doubt that the Ten Commandments
were inscribed on the two tablets in a form of alphabet,
known as ancient Hebrew reformed to the current square
script by Ezra the Scribe in Babylon in the fifth century