Lecture given on Thursday Nov 10th 2005

Reader with images that accompanied the lecture I gave at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie (the text of the lecture is over-printed in red afterwards). Read the lecture below.

Sometimes it helps to look at the head and the tail of things to understand what it is that the thing is. Sometimes the whole body is just too big and massive. The Latin alphabet is one of these bodies. So let's look at Alphazed, instead of Alphabet. What are the A and the Z? Why is A the beginning and Z the end?

Organizing the alphabet
When you look at the whole alphabet it seems a strange collection of forms (where do they come from?) in a kind of random order. Where does this order come from? Why is the Alphabet called alphabet (and for instance not Gammaomeg)? There are many other ways to order the letters.

By sound (the Dutch alphabet ordered on rhyme):
a h k
e b c d g j p t v w
f l m n r s
u q

By form:
n m h i l u r (halfrounded/straight forms)
o b p d c e q (rounded forms)
v w x y z (diagonal forms)
There are forms which doesn't fit in this division; exceptions like the a or g. Type designer Gerard Unger says he likes to do the a much better then the z, because it is a letter that is more used, therefore more worth the work.)

By use:
(the frequency of use in English texts. The a can be found among the most used letters, the z is the least used)

The first and last sound
The sound A is in a way the first sound. It is made in a deep part of the throat, with a natural opening of the mouth. It is a sound people make instinctively, for instance when they are amazed or scared. It's also the first sound children learn to make. After that the 'p' comes, which makes 'papa'.

The Z is a much more difficult sound to make. It involves the tongue and the teeth. It's one of the latest sounds children learn to make. In comics 'zzz' is used to indicate that a person is sleeping, although it is not the real sound people make when they are asleep.

Many attempts
There have been many attempts to give the forms of the letters an explanation, a reason. In the 17th century designer Geofry Tory wanted to prove that letters were based on human measurements. He placed a small human figure behind them and claimed the capital A was such a good start because the horizontal bar covered the genitals of the man behind it so decently.

The same kind of doubtful theories can be made around the Z. Z is said to be a sound that pierces the air. Is it coincidentally the form looks a bit like the representation of lightning?

The form A
Of course there are the more serious theories of where the forms of the letters come from. The Latin alphabet is derived from the older Phoenician script. In this script the first letter was called Aleph, (now the A) which meant 'ox' and the sign looked a bit like the head of an ox (you can ask yourself how exactly). In the course of the history the sign got turned till the A. Still this doesn't really explain why the A looks like the A; in other writing systems there are also signs that are based on earlier signs representing an ox, like in the Sumerian wedge script or the Chinese script, but these turned out totally different. It almost seems as if this theory is just as crazy as the explanation from the story 'How the alphabet was made' by Rudyard Kipling, where the A comes from the open mouth (Aa) of a carp fish.

The form Z
When looking at the form Z, it resembles the form 7 (and the Dutch seven, 'zeven' starts with a Z).In the Hebrew alphabet the Z is the seventh letter. Also the numeric value of Z is 7. It turns out that Z wasn't always the last. In the Phoenician and Greek Alphabet it was the 7th letter. But when the Romans took over the alphabet from the Greeks, they didn't have so much use for this letter, since the sound 'z' wasn't so much used in their language they abolished it. Later, when the Romans started to have more contact with foreigners they started to need the letter Z again, so they put it back in the alphabet. But by that time the 7th place was already taken (by the G), so the Z had to close the line and be the last.

There is meaning attached to the A and the Z because they are the first and the last. A is used in Logic as the Universal Affirmative and in mathematics as the first known. Z is used abstractive in logic and stands for the third unknown (after x and y) in mathematics. This doesn't say much about the letters, but much more about how we think of beginnings and endings (a bit far away and unreachable).