The thick alphabet book goes (much) further than the ABC

Frank Landsbergen’s Thick Alphabet Book

Did you know that the Gothic script was not invented by the Goths? That Japanese uses no fewer than three writing systems interchangeably? And that Southeast Asian alphabets look so round and graceful because they used to be written on palm leaves and straight lines are difficult to make? You will come across such interesting facts on every page in The Fat Alphabet Book by Frank Landsbergen. And yet the book is much more than a science book.

From cuneiform to smoke signals

Frank Landsbergen works as a computer linguist at the Institute for the Dutch Language and also makes illustrations and animations as a freelancer, including for NEMO Kennislink. He cleverly combines these two careers in this self-illustrated children’s book – suitable for children up to the age of twelve, according to publisher Lannoo, but this man in his thirties also enjoyed reading it and learned quite a bit from it. The drawings clarify or illuminate exactly where necessary.

Author Frank Landsbergen has provided every page in Het Dikke Alfabetboek with clear, appealing illustrations.

The Thick Alphabet Book consists of five parts. The first part describes how cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia (roughly present-day Iraq) evolved into the alphabet you read today, including spaces and punctuation marks. In part two, Landsbergen seeks more linguistic depth (without losing sight of its target group) and dives into the relationship between sounds and letters. How can languages ​​that sound different be written with the same alphabet? And why does our alphabet – at least at the moment – ​​have 26 letters, while Dutch has about forty sounds? In the answers to these questions, the reader immediately learns about language change and language families.

In 1962, the Russians sent the word “peace” in Morse code to planet Venus. We never heard back on it.

Parts three and four provide an overview of other writing and communication systems: from Korean and Fidäl from Ethiopia to alphabets that have since disappeared or have not yet been deciphered. But also from smoke signals, Morse code and pictograms to ways to communicate with aliens. Finally, in part five, Landsbergen considers ways of writing down all those different writing systems: from quill pen to keyboard and from clay tablet to paper.

Scripture, language and culture

Linguistics sometimes look down on writing and spelling – after all, that’s just a convention, a set of rules that we have agreed to in order to be able to record our language in writing. But Landsbergen shows in his book in a cheerful and accessible way that language and spelling are closely linked. The culture and living environment of a people influence both the language and the way in which that language is written. With straight lines or round shapes, with signs for sounds or for whole words.

Our language and culture are still changing rapidly, so it’s very likely that our writing system is not set in stone either. In Finland, for example, children no longer learn to write to each other; it is more important that they learn to type well and quickly. And maybe one day a 27th letter will be added to our alphabet or letters will be dropped. Wouldn’t we be fine without the q and the x?

All in all, Het Dikke Alfabetboek is an infectiously cheerful and at the same time educational book that makes you realize how special the alphabet really is. Every school library should have this on their shelf.

Source: Kennislink by

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