One of those books I stumbled across while looking for something else, I decided to give it a go nonetheless. In Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing, the author, Marc-Alain Ouaknin attempts to trace the development of the modern alphabetic script as known by western writers. In this attempt he forwards several interesting and controversial theories.

Firstly, a distinction. The book is not aimed at non-alphabetical language (Chinese, Cuneiform, etc), although it does address them briefly out of supporting necessity,. That being said there are several jumping off points for those interested in that aspect of written language.

The crux of the book is that the script that we know it today is a direct descendant of the Hebrew refinement of Egyptian hieroglyphs by applying their Babylon experiences. Some of the supporting conclusions in this theory seem a bit forced however, and early in the alphabetical tour, one gets the feeling that Ouaknin is searching for a prima materia of the alphabet. Certainly many of the influences he cites are undeniable and important cornerstones of our alphabet, but frankly the grand unifying theory of a direct descent is not only unlikely but a bit contrived. Thankfully, he stops short of mysticism and attempts to remain grounded in a serious presentation of the theory.

In its defense, it is a gorgeous book, full of insightful illustrations, comparative symbols faithfully reproduced and clearly printed. Fault him as you may, Ouaknin does not deny the reader on supporting material. Its only in the interpretation of said material that the book falls short.

On a personal note, I find many of the traditionally known influences undeniable and well founded, but the amalgamation of cultures that forged the alphabet as we know it is far too broad to be bound in the clean and convenient package presented in Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing. Laudably, many of those important influences are sprinkled throughout the work in an accessible manner, making it a nice subsource of anyone interested in a portion of the larger picture of our alphabet.

Mysteries of the Alphabet: The Origins of Writing is available from Amazon.com.