The Alphabet


I love typography. I love the shapes, the swashes, the jots and tittles. I love the history that is behind every letter.

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Just this week I had a discussion of the first edition of the King James Bible, 1611. This person was saying that they had a facsimile copy. For some it’s the only reliable Bible and they are completely attached to the phrasing and literal word for word translation. I like it too. Then I asked did they notice there wasn’t a letter ‘J’ in the entire book. They looked at me as if I was crazy. Of course there is a ‘J’, it’s the King James Bible. Well, in the actual version it’s the King Iames Bible, and in the New Testament it’s Iesus, not Jesus.

As it happens, the letter J was in use, it had been invented about a 150 years earlier, but the printer wasn’t sure that he should use it in this first edition because it was too faddish. Better to present the Bible as a classic, before the letter J was invented.

Kind of a bizarre story, but true.

The quick sketch at the top shows the story of the evolution of the letter A. I often ask my design student “What is the name of the letter A”. It usually takes some teeth pulling but eventually someone ventures “Alpha”, which is technically correct. Then I ask, “What does it mean?” With a great deal of confidence many people respond with “first” or “prime” or “beginning”. All of which are wrong, but commonly used, so maybe half wrong. Alpha is Greek but they borrowed the sound that went with the letter shape that they also borrowed. The Phoenicians called it Aleph, or Alef and their letter shape is a simplified drawing of what the letter actually means, it is “Ox”.

Well, that’s surprising. What’s even better is that there is a story just like that behind every letter. The word “AlphaBeta” which was the name of a grocery chain a few years ago, actually could be construed as “Food House”. And for many years I just thought it was a stupid name based on the alphabet, and it was, it just wasn’t stupid. Oh yeah, the letter “B” is beta in Greek, but in Phoenician it is “Beth” which means house. You already knew that, Bethel is ” house of God”, Bethlehem is “house of bread”. Makes sense.

So I thought, why not blog about the history of letterforms and why the knowledge is important. It might seem trivial, but only if you treat it as trivia. The struggle to unify some sort of written understanding is probably the most important thing humans have ever done, and we are quick to take it for granted.

Every once in awhile, I will present a letter and give a short history, it’s like Sesame Street.

One Response to The Alphabet

  1. thanks for posting these…. I too love typography!! See you in Oakland, neighbor! – Best, Gabe

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