Guest Blogger Merrill Wasser on The Alphabet: A Mundane Topic?

photo of Merrill Wasser

Today’s guest blogger is a cousin of mine, Merrill Rose Wasser. She lived in Kunming for about a year while on a Fulbright Scholarship, researching ethnic minority handicrafts and their commercialization in relation to tourism (often Chinese government-sponsored tourism). She spent most of her research time in Western Yunnan, along the Myanmar border. Yunnan province, in southwest China, has over 25 officially recognized minority groups, and was therefore a fitting location for this type of anthropological study.

You will want to check out her travel blog which intelligently (and hilariously) depicts all the amazing experiences she’s collected from August 2009 until June 2010. She did it all: from losing her Passport to getting scratched by monkeys. From getting crazy sick on a wild bus ride to visiting a Little People colony.

Merrill currently lives in Hong Kong and works in digital advertising.

• • •

We eat alphabet soup. We sing the alphabet song. Little children learn to scrawl the letters out on lined paper in kindergarten class, and go home to their ecstatic parents who tape up the ugly, uneven lines on the refrigerator and coo over the achievement. I personally remember practicing my letters at home (somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8 years old), and even recall a serious spelling altercation at age 6, when I vehemently stood by my claim that the word “from” was spelled f-o-r-m.

But when we sit down and think of it, isn’t learning to spell an exciting, and even intriguing activity? Even more fascinating is the way people spell in different countries.

Google Images

Take China, for example.

There’s no alphabet in Chinese.

Just characters.

Each character is made up of a collection of symbols with recurring themes and meanings.

One character is one word.

And to those of us who are born and raised in the west, learning to read and write a native language without an alphabet is a seriously intimidating and amazing feat.

So the next time you think about the alphabet, remind yourself of just how powerful the human brain is. To us in the West, it’s just the alphabet – prevalent everywhere, even in our soup. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one part of the world’s way of expressing communication in writing and passing it down through generations.

Do you have a favorite letter of the alphabet above? Which character do you love? Tell me why!

10 responses to “Guest Blogger Merrill Wasser on The Alphabet: A Mundane Topic?

  1. When I was in middle school, I loved lower case “i’s and “j”‘s and I would take extra care to be sure to put a little heart atop each little stem. You know, so they looked like little heart-shaped flowers.

    Yeah, my teachers pretty much hated that.

    Anyway, I like the last letter in the most right column. It looks like a headless person doing a split.😉

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  2. Very interesting post, Merrill. Funny the things I take for granted. I still can’t recite the letters of the English alphabet without singing the song.

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  3. blackwatertown

    Interesting and esoteric post. I don’t have a particular letter, but characters interest me. Off the top of my head I’ll suggest the little curvy upright trident that, in teeline shorthand (or at least my version) stands for Europe. I can’t type it here – you’ll just have to imagine or speculate.

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  4. I teach a course on reading medieval manuscripts, and we cover a ton of different forms of our own alphabet. I think my favorite letters are those which have disappeared: yogh (basically, a flat-topped “3”), thorn (þ), edth (ð), and wynn (it looks a lot like a pointy “p”). Of the letters above, I like the one beside “k” — which looks a lot like the flat-topped “g” used by Anglo-Saxon scribes (c. 8000–1100). I am constantly amazed by the variety we allow our alphabet, too — think about different fonts, along with upper and lower cases and print/cursive differences. It’s amazing that we’re able to discern patterns and read one letter in so many forms!

    PS– Renée, it was a pleasure making your acquaintance (again) yesterday at the department meeting! I’m sorry we did not talk during the luncheon, but I’ll be sure to say hi if we pass in the halls!

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  5. Oh King… or should I say Rabbit?:

    This is such a lovely post. It is true, we have so many different font types, it is rather amazing that we can discern patterns and figure out what it is that we are reading. I suspect the generations coming up will have more difficulty with this, as they have become so wedded to the computer and have been allowed (for the most part) to skip cursive writing completely. I know my son is never expected to write in cursive anymore. And he is only 11 years old. We all know what happens to a skill not practiced; it evaporates.

    I also enjoyed sitting with you (albeit briefly) at the Department meeting. So many good people working to rethink things all the time. I am proud to be associated with our community college.

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    • Evaporates, perhaps, but it never really disappears. There’s one script I always show my students, written in France in the 700’s, called Merovingian chancery script. It’s been described as “the ramblings of a drunken spider” because the letters are very long and really wavy. Because the Merovingian scribes used shorthand in the chancery (think 8th-century IRS), it’s really tough to make out what they wrote. But there are people who can, indeed, read it. So yes, while lots of kids today would likely have trouble reading the original Federalist Papers, and that is truly a shame, we scholars will always know what we’re looking at.

      (Or, at least, some of us will, even if they’re just the specialists among us!)

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