Author Thierry de Mortain of France has taken me up on my offer to review indie published e-books. His efforts are titled, respectively, "L'alphabet grec" and "L'alphabet latin."
Mr. de Mortain's books are, as you might think from where he lives, in French, and they include a fair amount of ancient Greek and Latin words, so if you can't easily read those languages (especially French), then you might be wise to wait for de Mortain's promised English translations ("in the next few weeks," according to our electronic conversation).
One thing Mr. de Mortain has going for him, however, is his liberal use of illustrations, which almost make the case for his argument without the use of words. He suggests, through these slim reads (each less than 10,000 words), that the Greek and Roman alphabets acquired their characteristic shapes because they resemble words in their languages with that same shape.
For example, the letter iota in Greek (represented by a straight up-and-down stroke, as our letter I) has the same shape as a spear and the mast of a ship, both of which begin with iota in ancient Greek (ia means spear, istos mast). In Latin, similarly, the letter "L" looks like the hoe, ligo in Latin.
Mr. de Mortain proceeds to use this idea throughout both alphabets, while helpfully pointing out that the shapes of the Greek alphabet often differ from the shapes of the Phoenician alphabet, which the Greeks adapted for their own use. The letter pi is a case in point. In Phoenician, the "p" sound is represented by a letter that looks like a backwards letter "c," and apparently represented a mouth. The pi in Greek, as many know, looks like a door, with two horizontal strokes surmounted by a vertical. de Mortain points out that the word "pulē" in Greek means "gate," and starts with the letter pi.
The Romans, in their turn, would have modified the alphabet they got ultimately from the Greeks (with Etruscan intermediaries) to suit the shapes of the target words that started with that sound.
This type of fun, charming argumentation reminded me of H.A. Rey's "The Stars," an astronomy book that redraws the traditional lines of constellations to make them look more like their names. Rey really does succeed in making Taurus ("The Bull") look like a bull, or Ophiucius ("The Serpent Holder") look like a man holding a long snake out in front of him. After this book, you never look at the stars the same way again.
I don't know that de Mortain's method of argumentation has anything to do with history. Ideally, you would like to have some ancient testimonials about this, or some other independent evidence. It is too easy just to assume by one's own personal observation that because a couple of words with the right shape start with that letter, that the Greeks actually decided to make the letter that shape.
But de Mortain, an enthusiastic layperson who was inspired by his discovery of Kanji, the Japanese, originally pictographic writing system, is not trying to convince scholars. It's clear he has a passion for the alphabet and wanted to share it.
So regardless of historical accuracy, the book is a fun, quick and inexpensive read, and it will inform you about something that you use every day but maybe don't think about at all.
You can read my review of two other books about the alphabet here. Scroll down to page 6 to find it.
Image of Rey's "The Stars" found here.