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Most people are probably unaware that Benjamin Franklin once wrote a letter beginning with the cryptic phrase: “Diir Sir, yi hav transkryb’d iur alfabet.” But this very letter from this founding father, innovator and advocate of spelling reform is on display this month in the Houghton Library’s “Alphabetics,” an exhibition of book arts involving unusual and creative thought about letters.
Located on the second floor of Houghton Library, the small exhibit features a number of curious volumes, which provide a survey of languages, time periods and alphabetic topics. Items on display range from 13th century Latin tomes to 20th century Turkish children’s books.
A notable theme of many of the displayed books is the extent to which a particular alphabet or language is rooted in nature or natural phenomena. For example, a 1776 French treatise on alphabets argues that letters come from drawings of objects in which their sound plays a prominent role. The author shows the French word ‘matre,’ then a picture of a mother figure. That picture is stylized until it is transformed into the Chinese character for “mother”—a process that demonstrates how the capital letter ‘A’ is actually derived from the iconographic representation of “mother.”
Another book published in 1529, employs bizarre diagrams, including one of a man stretched out into an O-shape. The diagram attempts to show that the letters of the Roman alphabet correspond to the shapes of the human body.
Yet another dating from 1667, asserts that Hebrew is the “natural language” by pointing out features of the language such as the shape that the mouth assumes when pronouncing the names of the letters.
The exhibit contains more conventional, though equally engaging, religious works as well, such as the requisite medieval illustrated Bible. In this ornate Bible, the “I” from “In principio...” spans the entire height of the page and contains illustrations of each day of creation within it. This page also includes a calligraphic horse whose body forms and contains an Arabic quotation from the Qu’ran.
This artistic technique served the additional function of allowing the artist to evade the Islamic prohibition against the artistic representation of humans and animals. Also on display is an early translation of the Qu’ran into Latin.
Other featured books include the first Russian alphabet book, published in 1717, and a 1920’s Turkish publication for children promoting En Güzel Alfabe “The most beautiful alphabet,” or the Roman alphabet imported by Kemal Atatürk.
As part of his campaign to westernize Turkey and raise literacy rates, Atatürk lanched a massive government and publicity campaign to replace the complicated Arabic script the country had used for hundreds of years. The work bears a colorful frontispiece showing a boy and girl riding a stork, which delivers a bundle of letters to the cheerful homes below, as though the alphabet were a new baby.
This depiction of the alphabet as cultural symbol is also evident in Thomas More’s Utopia, for which Peter Giles created a simple and rational alphabet befitting of More’s rational kingdom.
—Alphabetics will be on display at Houghton Library until April 30.
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