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Book of the week

ALPHA BETA: how our alphabet shaped the Western world. By John Man. Headline pound;14.99

Sue Palmer traces the possible beginning of writing back 4,000 years to a site in the Egyptian desert

"Set your heart to writings!

Observe how it rescues from labour!...

I shall make you love writing more than your mother.

I shall make its beauties known to you."

No, not the latest exhortation to British youth from the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, but the words of an Egyptian master scribe, Khety, borne to us across the millennia, courtesy of the world's greatest communicative tool: the alphabet.

John Man's book is full of such snippets. Here's a Sumerian schoolboy in 2000 bc commenting on his master's technique, which seems to have much in common with the methodology of Ofsted: "My teacher said, 'Your handwriting is not at all good!' and beat me... My teacher, reading my tablet, said, 'There's something missing!' and beat me... So I began to hate the scribal art and neglect the scribal art. My teacher took no delight in me."

Here's Plato, around 400 bc, bemoaning the new fashion for writing everything down. Written words, he says, "seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything... they go on telling you just the same thing forever." His contention that for true wisdom you need human interaction - dialogue - is not a derogation of literacy but a celebration of the importance of teachers.

But my favourite of the writers quoted in Man's book is a Korean monarch, Sejong, who in the 15th century ad locked himself away and invented an alphabet so that all his people might learn to read, write and express themselves: "A wise man may acquaint himself with (the letters) before the morning is over. An ignorant man can learn them in the space of ten days... There is no usage not provided for, no direction in which they do not extend. Even the sound of the winds, the cry of the crane, the cackle of the fowl and the barking of dogs - all may be written." What a gem. A one-man national literacy strategy - who obviously loved his phonics.

As indeed does John Man. This book comes at the perfect moment in British educational history - as we rediscover the importance in early reading of "cracking the alphabetic code". The story of how that code came into being is a fascinating one, and Man is the ideal writer to tell it. His scholarship seems boundless: a historian and travel writer, he's as much at home with the non-literate and ferocious Waorani tribe of Ecuador (among whom, when Man visited them, 40 per cent of all deaths were dueto revenge spearings) as browsing through the literatures of Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Constantinople and numerous other ancient realms. He also has a journalist's ear for a story, beguiling us with innumerable asides (like the identity of George Bernard Shaw's inspiration for Henry Higgins in Pygmalion), curiosities (like the difference between Chinese and English palindromes) and the odd mystery (what happened to archaeologist William Flinders Petrie's disembodied head?).

Best of all, though, is the story that inspired the book: the discovery, in the early 1990s, of some signs cut into a rockface beyond Egypt's Valley of the Kings. It is straight out of Indiana Jones. American John Darnell, senior epigrapher in Thebes, and his wife, Deborah, also an Egyptologist, decide one day to explore a rough track across the Western Desert called the Alabaster Road. In a place named Wadi el-Hol - the Valley of Terror - John finds some carved symbols that he comes to believe are the earliest examples of alphabetic writing. The couple realise they have a race on their hands to record this site of incalculable historical significance before desert robbers can tear it away. And indeed, when they return on their first official visit, bringing the inspector of antiquities to view their discovery, there in the sand are fresh tyre tracks.

If John Darnell is right, and the signs at Wadi el-Hol are the roots of our alphabet, their discovery opens vast potential for speculation about how that alphabet came to be created. Man's own theory - which takes up one chapter of the book - is a tour de force, linking the creation of the alphabet to the emergence in Sinai of that other Alpha and Omega - the God of Abraham and Moses, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Alpha Beta is worth reading for the story of John Darnell's discovery alone. But Man then traces the development of our alphabet to today. The book is an opportunity to rediscover those 26 letters that you have scarcely noticed as you decode this review, and to marvel at a system of communication that for 4,000 years, if Darnell is correct, has allowed readers freedom of access across time and space. It's the history of a sequence of squiggles starting with a crude representation of an oxhead (alep or alpha) and a house (bayit or beta) that has been the driving force behind Western civilisation, education and democracy.

Sue Palmer is a writer and literacy consultant. Her series of articles on the alphabet which first appeared in The TES has been published as A Little Alphabet Book (Oxford University Press pound;4.99)

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