The Letters We take For Granted

I’m not typing this on my normal laptop. The one I normally take on the road with me didn’t die – but it might as well have!

The problem’s so simple you’d think you can just work around it. The letter “e” on the keyboard stopped working…

As key failures go, it couldn’t have been any worse. Cryptographers and code-breakers have known for a very long time that E is the most-used letter in the English language – and I presume for just about any of the Latin-based languages, too. So its #1 in the Frequency Table of letters you try when cracking simple substitution codes.

Yes, there’s a workaround. The spell-checker in Word, for instance, will automatically turn “kyboard” into “keyboard” – but it doesn’t catch anything like all of the missing letters automatically, and selecting suggestions manually is a pain when every second or third word has a red squiggle under it.

Of course, if you’re really stuck, you can always find an “e” somewhere, copy it into your clipboard and paste it in with Ctrl-V instead of typing it. But try doing that for even a short email and see how wearing it gets.

We take the alphabet so much for granted. It has been described as the biggest breakthrough humans have ever made.

The alphabet marks the major divergence between two sets of languages – alphabetic and pictographic.

With an alphabet, making up new words is easy. You just pick from the library of 26 or 28 letters, there are standard prefixes and suffixes, and – hey presto! – a new word. Because it’s made up of standard components, it’s fairly easy for anyone to figure out what it means.

To a certain extent the same is true in Chinese, Japanese or Korean. There are re-usable components. But it gets very complicated, and you end up with, say 20,000 or more Kanji characters and it’s about impossible for anyone to learn them all.

The Latin-based languages used to be pictographic, too. The letter A, for instance, started life the other way up -as a picture of an ox. When it travelled from the Middle East to Greece in the writing of the Phoenicians, it was rotated 90 degrees to become the letter alpha, eventually making the full 180-degree rotation into the A as we know it today.

For a fascinating book on this subject – which is also great for getting children interested – read Oscar’s Ogg’s The 26 Letters. I see there’s actually a copy for sale on Amazon for the princely sum of 92 cents…

Another interesting fact about an alphabet. It gives words a directionality. You can read the word “ate” just fine, but can you make sense of “eta”?

One of the early forms of Greek writing (~700BC) used left-to-right and right-to-left writing on alternate lines. This form of writing was called boustrephon, which means “as the ox plows the field”. In other words, writing was an unbroken trail of meaning.

However, as alphabets became widely used, it was seen that this form of writing no longer worked if words had a “direction”. So instead we adopted a convention of reading from left-to-right only (for Latin languages), and making a rapid right-to-left eye movement to the beginning of the next line. This innovation worked, and that’s how we read today.


One thought on “The Letters We take For Granted

  1. Quisquilia

    Oscar Ogg's book makes indeed for a fascinating read. I stumbled across a 1962 edition by chance and was intrigued at first by the careful lettering and illustrations, but the way Ogg tells about the intricacies of writing and how the Latin alphabet evolved, how early printing developed and in which way we still today are influenced by the early victory of antiqua over blackletter in most parts of Europe (except us in Germany), is most entertaining and illuminating. I enjoyed the book. As far as broken keyboards are concerned, I hope it won't happen. I need my (relatively) new laptop for work, and particularly the 'e', which is also the most common letter in German.


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