Book Review: Language Visible by David Sacks

Language visible : unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z (2003) by David Sacks is a lively history of each letter in our modern alphabet (called the “Roman alphabet” which is explained in the book). For each letter Sacks traces the history of its shape from the ancient Semitic carvings in the Egyptian desert to Phoenician and Hebrew letters to Greek, Etruscan, and Roman alphabets to Old English and medieval Romance languages to minuscule characters of monastic scriptoriums and the first printed letters and finally our alphabet today. Some changes in the alphabet are surprisingly recent. J, V, and W are all relatively young letters. Noah Webster had an inordinate influence in setting apart American letters from European.

For each letter, Sacks also traces the changes in the sound the letter represents. If there’s one thing you learn from this book it’s that while many languages share the same alphabet there’s absolutely no consistency in what sounds the letters stand for and sometimes they’re somewhat arbitrarily assigned. Sacks also writes about the social and cultural significance of each letter which is the most fun aspect of the book. For example, he relates one of my favorite stories about how George Bernard Shaw suggested spelling the word “fish” as ghoti, that is the “gh” of rough, the “o” of women, and the “ti” of station. Ghoti would make a great band name by the way and you wouldn’t even be able to be sued for copyright infringement by a Vermont jam band. Sacks also explains how the Anglo-Saxon letter thorn for the “th” sound was represented by the letter Y. This is why someone 200-years ago would write “Ye Olde Tavern” and pronounce “ye” as “the.”

This is a good read – both fun and educational.

Movie Review: The Saddest Music in the World

Sometimes I really don’t know enough about a movie before I start to watch it (but that’s not always a bad thing). Before watching The Saddest Music in the World (2004), I knew that it was about a legless brewery proprietress in Winnipeg* during the Great Depression who decides to host a contest to see which nation in the world can create the saddest music. What I didn’t know until the credits rolled was that this movie is a creation of Guy Maddin who also made Brand Upon the Brain! Fortunately, this movie was not as much of a mind-f–k as that Brand Upon the Brain!

Kind of the best way to sum up The Saddest Music in the World is to think of a combination of a vaudeville musical with a Louis Brunel surrealistic film crossed with Bob & Doug McKenzie’s Strange Brew. I think what caught me most off guard is that I don’t expect dream-like art films in soft-focus black & white to be so damn funny. The movie is full of great one-liners, many of which make it into the trailer.

Isabella Rosellini as beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntley gets the line the made me bellow out loud: “If you are sad and like beer, I’m your lady.” There’s also a great part where listeners in Prohibition America hear about the victorious musicians sliding into a vat of beer and being jealous. Rosellini is great as is Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame portraying the producer of vulgar Broadway-style music numbers. The music in the movie is pretty good, and surprisingly not all that sad. I particularly like how the songs of competitors from different nations are merged together.

I don’t think this movie is for everyone, but I got a kick out of it.

* Unfortunately, the Weakerthans’ sad song about Winnipeg “One Great City” does not make it into the film, as appropos as that would be.