Our fascinating alphabet

Lots of things fascinate me about the way we communicate with the written word. I’ve recently stumbled across a few alphabet-related facts that might interest you too.

Browsing in a local bookshop, I was delighted to find the Diccionario del origen de las palabras (‘Dictionary of the origin of words’)*. I’ve been looking for an English equivalent for some time, but without success.

Anyway, under abecedario, I found out that our Latin ‘alphabet’ takes its name from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. In contrast, abecedario refers to abcd (a, be, ce, de), the first four letters of the Latin system.

So, abecedario is the actual name for the collection of Latin letters that we use. Here in Spain, it is often used interchangeably with alfabeto when referring to the alphabet. (I can’t find a different English translation of abecedario – is there one? Or did it get lost on the way to the UK?)

I then spotted a post on the origins of abc …

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The sad decline of languages in UK schools

I mean the decline of taught, modern foreign languages, not sweary bad language (I’m sure that’s probably still learnt and applied with enthusiasm).

This article in the Guardian, Who still wants to learn languages?, raises a few key points from recent studies, as well as interesting observations. In summary:

Funding for languages has been cut and departments are closing across the education spectrum, from schools to universities. Since language learning was made optional after the age of 14 in 2004,  numbers have been dropping. (Just in state schools? The article’s not clear.) There’s a sharp distinction between provision at state schools and at independents (“38 per cent of 14-year-olds in the state sector were studying one modern language and 1.9 per cent were studying two; 99 per cent of 14-year-olds at independents studied at least one language”). As a result, “the experience of other cultures is now confined to an elite”. Languages are losing out in the (short-term) education market because they are a long-term choice in terms of …

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Language learning: a great leveller

Learning a new language is one of those great activities that reduces the differences between people. It doesn’t matter what job you do, where you’re from or how much you earn; once you’re thrown together to grasp a new language, everyone’s in the same boat.

This occurred to me while reading one of a series of blog posts in The Guardian by writer Will Self. There’s something reassuring in reading about how a distinguished wordsmith experiences the same challenges in mastering another language (in his case, French) as everyone else.

I can definitely relate to this comment:

I’ve noticed how acutely geared to my general wellbeing my ability to speak French has become: on days when I’m rested and in good spirits, I feel like a saucy Maurice Chevalier in the making, but on down days I’m Antonin Artaud, brokenly raging in a straitjacket of received English locutions.

Some days, I feel as though I could talk forever and my Spanish friends seem to understand me. Other days, …

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