The Letter Hidden in the Alphabet
by Daniel Ausema
You're skeptical, I can tell. But the hidden letter is there. Every time a child recites her letters. But your ear skips over it. Every time you glance at your keyboard, but your eyes miss it, your fingers only inadvertently striking it as you type. It's in each book that's been printed in Roman letters throughout history, from the heights of Borges and the Brontës and Shakespeare to the depths of Edgar Guest and Julia Moore. The conscious part of your mind may ignore it, but it remains, tucked into the folds of every text. Already it has flashed by in the sentences you've read to reach this point.
Think of it as the way the vowels were hidden letters millennia ago, before the alphabet passed from the Phoenicians to the Greeks. It's not that the Phoenician language didn't have vowels, they just didn't need to write them down. It's like that except, well, this hidden letter really exists. It isn't simply a sound for which we have no symbol, not an absence like the lack of vowels, but a hidden presence. It lies there in wait.
All right, for full honesty I shouldn't say "it". I am the one hiding. I am the hidden letter, often tucking myself between m and n — I always found something disturbing about them being so close together, something incestuous. But I'll wander to other parts of the alphabet. The view from the top of the alphabet is often good, so I'll hide beside f or g. And on certain types of paper, there always seems to be a ghostly panorama visible only from behind the t's.
But you understand being hidden, don't you? Understand being the one whom eyes pass over?
I'm afraid that even as I tell my story I will seem, at times, still hidden, for it is the story of my siblings as much as my own. I can only ask you to trust me, that within every scene, behind the words of each piece of the story, I am there.
• • •
Having no /g/ sound, the Etruscans gave the Phoenician letter gimel (by way of the Greeks) the sound of /k/, and this letter eventually evolved into the Roman letter C. Latin, however, did have a /g/ sound with, now, no form to match it, and so the Romans added a flourish to C, creating the new letter, G.
• • •
A new letter! You can imagine this was not well received by the rest of us. Why did we need a new letter? K already gave us one sound, and C could be restored to its earlier use. In fact, it would have been a relief to go back to the old ways. There were times when we longed for those days. But here instead was an interloper.
Sure, there have been other invented letters. Even at the same time, upsilon was split into both Y and V, and in the Middle Ages, we gained U and W, both from that still recent V, as well as J from I. But there was something about G that rubbed us wrong.
Here we were in the decadent courts of Rome, drinking rich wines and enjoying the pleasures of an empire. And why should we share that with a newcomer? Build a fence, we thought. Keep him out, away from the spoils of our hard work. We don't need any new letters to take our work.
And G did work hard — fortunately or unfortunately, I couldn't decide. Good, because it would have been insulting to be replaced by someone who was lazy, but bad because it made it more likely he would stay. He came to know the people of the city better than we had, moved among them, worshipped their gods, most of which we remembered by other names from our time in Greek lands. He joined their mystery religions — drank bitter wine with Christians and wrestled bulls with the Mithraists.
I suppose it was to prove ourselves just as strong that we began mixing with those on the streets as well. We couldn't let this invented letter show us up. We stepped out from the idle luxuries of the palaces and met the rest of the empire. In some ways it reminded me of earlier epochs. We certainly hadn't always restricted ourselves to those at the top of society. At the same time, though, I could feel that there really was something different here, that we were entering a new era, that our future had become something different. It was as yet unknowable, but it now lay before us, as if the wheels of our chariot had settled into distinct tracks with a particular destination already ordained.
And of course that future included G, as he became a part of us. I sometimes have to remind myself of how much younger he really is than most of the letters. He belongs now, and that's no longer even a cause of chagrin for us older letters.
• • •
(I should, perhaps, warn you that even as I tell this I'm being pulled. Someone, or something, a stranger and interloper like no new letter of the past, is trying to force me into the open. I feel it as a pain in my ascender, a stretching that is hard to resist.
It may be naïve to believe that simply telling of myself in this way will reveal the mystery to me, but that is my hope. Through the patterns of my words, I will uncover the secret, or at least reveal enough to resist the summons.)
• • •
Not much is known about the ancient Phoenicians, the merchants of the Mediterranean, but what is known is that wherever they went they carried their 22-letter alphabet.
• • •
Those were days of high adventure! I can still taste the salt of the sea spray, can still hear the rapid bargaining in a hundred different languages that no longer exist. Some of the places we saw remain secrets we will not share with those who use us. Others are places we have proclaimed many times as wonders of the world.
What people today tend to underestimate about our masters is just how accomplished they were as sailors. They braved waters no one else would, sailed weather that should have killed them off.
Did they have magic that kept them safe? If so, it was uncertain. Many did not survive the storms, the long voyages. But sometimes we suspected that we were the magic. Why else, after all, did they take their letters with them? They were not a people to use us for crafting great lays nor to record their mighty history.
It's tempting to believe, though, isn't it? To think that there is a power in lines drawn on paper, pressed into clay, or carved in rock. We'd like to believe that the modern confluence in English of "spelling" with letters and of casting a magic "spell" is more than coincidence. Or if coincidence, then a serendipitous one, surprisingly apt.
In those wildest winds when the taste of salt became the flavor of fear, did we, perhaps, flash with some secret power, cast a spell of protection over the vessel and sailors? If I remember one way or another, then it's something I'm bound not to tell.
We sailed. That I can share. We explored a world that only seemed to grow bigger the farther we went. Maybe it's still growing.
• • •
(I picture strange rites beneath the stars, hooded figures who wish to expose me. I feel naked, even in hiding. Strange forces yank at my lines. What magic do these unknown people command? It is not connected to us, it is not a spell that draws on the powers of writing — I've never felt anything like this in all our long history.)
• • •
Cursive writing is under increasing attack from those who urge educators to stop. It is a waste of time, these opponents argue, teaching an archaic form no longer of any value in today's world.
• • •
It isn't the first time we've lost a way of expression. Who can read blackletter these days? It's difficult to describe that feeling. It isn't like losing someone to death, at least not as I can understand death. Not like the wrenching feeling when we realized that teth — or theta, as she was later called — was no longer among us. She lives on, in mathematics and other alphabets, but she's no longer a part of us.
But this is different. This isn't the loss of someone else, it's the loss of a part of ourselves, of one form of expression. That graceful slide as a pen draws out the extensions and loops, connecting us each to each other — gone. Or soon to be.
Maybe that's why it feels strange to be losing cursive. As awkward as it could be, and as tortured in the pens of children, it was our chance to connect to each other. Blackletter had us jammed one against the next, so that was a connection of sorts, but it's lost. Cursive, though...there was something graceful about cursive when done right. A dancer's smooth steps across the stage. And it was something we did together, more a dance troupe than a single star. Printing, it's utilitarian, common, individual.
I look no different printed alone than I do in a word surrounded by others. We never touch, a chaste and monotonous existence. I am no dancer myself — at least I don't consider myself one — and I can be somewhat of a loner (as can you, I know), but there are nights when I long to dance, days when I want that subtle touch to remind me that there are others beside me, enduring the same things I endure, and celebrating my small triumphs.
• • •
(The incantations of these hidden people also pull me away from my companions. They draw me out, not simply for my own sake, not so that I can achieve actualization or fulfill my potential or any other wispy promise of nothing, but for their own purposes. Those goals form a looming shadow behind their efforts, a towering thundercloud of plans that stamps a stronger impression on my mind than the summoners themselves.)
• • •
The evolution of each letter from Phoenician to the Euboean Greek forms to Latin — and thus the modern European alphabet — is well documented, and for the most part clear in table form even to those who haven't studied paleography. But the difference between the extremes — the Phoenician letterforms on one hand and today's Roman letters on the other — can be quite shocking.
• • •
Don't we know it. We've been rotated, twisted, mirror-flipped. We've had lines added and taken away. What effect can such changes have on a letter that started out looking like Y and sounding like /w/ to find itself now as the letter F? Can you imagine the effect on body image such a change can cause?
I'm not saying we're obsessed with appearances. We don't have chronically thin models to compare ourselves to; we aren't bombarded with images that tear us down. In today's myriad fonts, there is beauty in thin letters and thick letters, beauty symmetrical and beauty asymmetrical. Aesthetics can be kinder to us than people are to themselves.
Yet we do worry about our appearance. What else do we have?
We have our exercises to keep our forms strong. Not exercises like those you people do. Don't imagine us running laps or performing push-ups. Don't picture a capital L doing chin-ups or a lower-case b attempting sit-ups. That's not what I mean. But maybe that is the best way to picture it, since you probably couldn't make sense of what we do even if I explain it to you.
So imagine us working out, keeping each line strong, each curve flexible. We must avoid strains and broken characters — if one bit of a letter doesn't take, it could be mistaken for another letter or for gibberish. Imagine us watching our diet, eating only the foods that will make us understandable. In this way, our own bodies take on even more importance. It is more than just a matter of self-esteem. Our bodies, the shape we are in, form the difference between understanding and incomprehension.
The difference between barbarism and civilization.
• • •
(If these forces succeed, if I come into the open, visible to all, what will that make of my shape? I find myself exercising more and tell myself it's to make me stronger, so I can resist their summons. But I wonder, is it really so that when I do succumb, at least I'll look good in the public eye? The question makes me berate myself. I won't succumb, I think, and I exercise even harder.)
• • •
If one had to pick a single event in the history of writing since its beginning, the one event that had the greatest implications, it would have to be the printing press. Other developments, though, seem nearly as striking when seen from the distance of modern time but were gradual changes in their day, their effect far less dramatic.
• • •
Sometimes with the younger letters, we like to joke and reminisce about the days of scrolls. "Remember those times," we'll drawl, "the long rolls of papyrus, the way the curls of the paper affected our forms?" We'll speak as if the ancient times were idyllic simply to annoy those who weren't there. But of course, those times were no better or worse than any other for us letters.
The change can be a strain, though. In some ways our glory days were the illuminated manuscripts. Can you imagine the thrill of being one of those elaborate capitals, painted by hand, outlined in ink made from real gold? We danced amid beautiful colors. Animals real and imaginary played among the flourishes of our embellished forms. We were baroque even before there was such a word.
And then, along came Gutenberg with his movable type. So different, so shocking. We suddenly moved in new places. We appeared in greater numbers across Europe. We seemed, in some ways, to be flying.
Excitement, no doubt, but stress too.
And of course the changes continue. Today's Gutenberg, today's printing press and moveable type is the Internet. It puts us in many new places, gives us many shapes and fonts to play with. We're becoming increasingly useful, ubiquitous, though there's always a question at the backs of our minds — will it last? Is this one glorious last fling before the world abandons our forms for spoken word recordings and ideograms?
I've known people too who worry about their own irrelevance. Maybe in a generation or two — hardly any time to us — I'll be an old, bitter letter watching the world from a remove, locking myself in an attic apartment while society moves on without me.
• • •
(Or will I change in other ways? The summons fills my mind with power. I rule the other letters, I rule the people who read me. Promises of command erode my resistance. What could I tell, and how might I inspire if the stories written with me visible had even a kernel of that power they promise?)
• • •
While it's uncertain, most scholars agree that the origin of writing lies in ancient business, as a form of tallying goods and currency.
• • •
We don't like to talk about that. I mean, wouldn't it be so much better to trace our existence to ancient gods or wandering poets? A child who heard Homer recite his poetry and knew that these words mustn't be lost to the future, knew that human memory was too unreliable for such poetry. Or a survivor of the flood of Gilgamesh who wanted to preserve her knowledge in a way that even water couldn't destroy. Or a slave trying to remember his own origins while in a foreign land, carving symbols in a wall.
Any of these might be true. Or even more basic myths, of writing as a gift from a god or stolen from them along with fire. A divine hand reaching down to carve out the letters. An inspired artisan painting the forms on precious silk. We like to tell such tales ourselves, when we gather together. We're like those humans who tell exotic stories of their own background as if to make themselves more interesting.
What could be more dull than an origin as tools for tallying?
We are for art, for higher purposes than business. Let not money sully our pure forms.
But that's silly, of course. We are as we are, our origins what they may be. To deny the past is to delude ourselves about the present as well. We are capable of art, are useful for great things, a part of the higher strands of civilization. But we are also simply useful, and that's a good thing. As we change, as society changes, it will continue to be important to remember that, to not deceive ourselves.
So tell your stories, how your maternal grandmother was from some nearly vanished culture, how your great-grandparents survived a tragic event and hid their origins to protect you, how you descend from a great conqueror or hero or member of royalty. They might be true. But accept the other parts of your origin as well, the more prosaic, the common, shopkeepers and sharecroppers and itinerants. They form who you are also and affect how you will respond to the future.
• • •
(I grow ever more curious of the origin of my summoning. Who would wish to draw me out? Who would even know of my existence? Has my telling here caused this? I wonder about backward causality, about time travel, about magic spells that reveal what is hidden.)
• • •
We use more than just letters to communicate. Other typographic symbols, from punctuation to the ampersand and the @ sign, affect how we interpret the written word. It is a fallacy to consider our texts as strictly a phonetic system.
• • •
There are barbarians at the gate. Others. The not-us. This is how epics start, is it not? There is us, the group we identify with, the letters. And then there are those outside the group, trying to break in, trying to change who we are by what they are.
Or that's how it seems, anyway.
We are letters, an alphabet, a phonetic system. What are these others? This @, this &, this #. How do you pronounce them? No phonetic rules guide you. They are outside the system. They are the others.
It's not new, I suppose. The earliest phonetic systems were mixed, with some symbols meaning a word and some symbols meaning a sound. Or rather, any given symbol could mean either a word or a sound, depending on the context. And for years, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the English alphabet simply because of the childhood rhyme then current. But it was never a phonetic sign.
Still, there they are, and it's hard not to feel threatened. They aren't us, after all. How do we respond to them, interact with them? What does their presence mean for our future?
And how does the epic proceed? We need a chosen one, perhaps, one who will preserve us. Or one who will be our ambassador among them. We are each called to be ambassadors of a sort, I think. And each called to protect ourselves for the future. But protection doesn't mean isolation. We will remain what we are. The other symbols don't mean us harm. If they are barbarians at the gate, then it is because they dislike the gate, not because they long to wreak havoc within.
So now I go to cross that gate, (is this decision my summoning, or my choice in defiance of those forces?) to mingle with the others, to drive our alphabet and the rest of our writing system into the future. Who better than the one letter people ignore? (If I can remain ignored as I go.) I will weave my way among the alphabet, among every text, stand beside quotation marks, learn from dollar signs and pound signs, move in the background of ideograms and foreign writing systems. (Perhaps those very signs draw me out, the promises of power no more than something added by my subconscious.) Without fear. (Yes, without fear.)
One day, perhaps, I will no longer be hidden. People will see my lines, and their lips and tongues will form my sound. (This my choice, and for this I'm chosen.) And the alphabet will continue to evolve.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Ausema