Subtitled: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of
the World, this interesting look at letters through history
contrasts the Mayan pictograms with the writing brought to
the Americas by the Spanish. Cortez could not understand
how a civilization flourished without writing like his own,
calling the pictograms 'painted books'. This watershed
moment, says the author Laurence De Looze, was the
culmination of two different strands of growth in literary
THE LETTER AND THE COSMOS shows how from the development of
the alphabet, learning was passed along through history.
The Asian characters used by Japanese and Chinese people
are drawn from pictograms and the author gives an example
of a Japanese woman who looked at a picture he was showing
a lecture group and did not see the capital letter D formed
by a structure. Some artists have incorporated letters into
paintings or book illustrations, and we are shown many
medieval manuscripts and Biblical texts. Architects have
created buildings with floor plans based on letters.
Cuneiform writing was invented in Mesopotamia in 3200 BC,
and linear writing around 1200 BC by the Phoenicians. We
are most familiar with Linear B from Crete which was used
to tally goods and livestock being traded and taxed. These
systems of writing information on clay tablets, wax slates
or papyrus gave rise to a basic alphabetic script. For the
first time people were able to record histories, myths and
legends such as 'The Epic of Gilgamesh'. Astonishingly
these stories could be shared across lands, cultures and
centuries just by writing them down and passing on the
skill of the alphabet. The Greeks added vowel sounds, which
had not been present, between the twelfth and eighth
centuries BC, and started writing straight away, keen to
build culture such as Homer's 'Odyssey' and 'The Iliad'.
Literacy became hugely desirable. While people had been
studying the stars through prehistory, the Greeks now wrote
about the cosmos.
Roman capital letter inscriptions are, as Laurence De Looze
points out, still easily understood today by modern people
who have never studied Latin. In two thousand years our
improvements to this script consist mainly of adding a U.
From this point he naturally progresses through medieval
and Renaissance manuscripts, noting that sounds changed as
pronounced or unpronounced letters were added to words.
Lower case script was added at the court of Charlemagne.
There were many complicated systems at this period but they
were later standardised. When Europeans met Meso-American
culture, they found that pictograms and not alphabet were
used to oversee and communicate. Sadly this was used as
another excuse to dominate and destroy.
Letters used as symbols are a significant part of this
book, from Christian symbols to brands on skin. I didn't
see cattle branding mentioned. Book printing put the scribe
out of business and made handwriting a more personal
expression than a copying chore. Printed newspapers made
mass communication swift and easy, with various typefaces.
We are also used to company logos shown as initials. The
Rosetta Stone which I've seen at the British Museum is
mentioned, giving the same text in Egyptian hieroglyphs and
two Greek scripts. This proved the key to decipherment.
Today's ciphers however are computer codes, and computers
only use 1 and 0. But they enable us to spread our letters,
and communicate words via satellite.
I've seen modern calligraphy from India used to represent a
portrait, because in some cultures a person's picture
cannot be shown, so the name or capital letter is drawn
instead and richly decorated and coloured to represent how
the artist sees that person. I think this is the one
example that Laurence De Looze misses with his
concentration on Europe. THE LETTER AND THE COSMOS will be
enjoyed by students of linguistics, history, Classical
periods, medieval or renaissance periods, and those folks
who just love picking up trivia about writing.
From our first ABCs to the Book of Revelation’s statement
that Jesus is “the Alpha and Omega,” we see the world
through our letters. More than just a way of writing, the
alphabet is a powerful concept that has shaped Western
civilization and our daily lives. In The Letter and the
Cosmos, Laurence de Looze probes that influence, showing how
the alphabet has served as a lens through which we
conceptualize the world and how the world, and sometimes the
whole cosmos, has been perceived as a kind of alphabet
itself. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, he traces the use
of alphabetic letters and their significance from Plato to
postmodernism, offering a fascinating tour through Western
A sharp and entertaining examination of how languages,
letterforms, orthography, and writing tools have reflected
our hidden obsession with the alphabet, The Letter and the
Cosmos is illustrated with copious examples of the visual
and linguistic phenomena which de Looze describes. Read it,
and you’ll never look at the alphabet the same way again.