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A-Z

"Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man."

Henry Adams

This is a kind of postscript to my recent post on language as part of a food-based curriculum. I may have mentioned the alphabet but I didn't make much of it I think, and at some point in my everyday brain's ramblings I thought of a few things to say, which, to be honest, I am now not sure of. But here goes anyway, and in the process I shall dispose of a recently purchased book as well. Well partly.


There are two basic aspects to the alphabet. The first is the sound that the letters make, and that assemble those sounds into words. Phonetics. It's one way of learning how to read and how to spell. Although it is not a foolproof method, as I learnt when I began teaching in a primary school. You quickly learn how unphonetic the English language is. You do need to recognise whole words as well.


Not every language has the same letters and some do not have letters at all. It wasn't just ancient cultures who began with mini pictures - pictograms - some languages still have them. Chinese of course is the prime example - as shown here - one meaning, two characters, which for all I know are two separate words. It can be transliterated into our alphabet, but even then there are two different systems - pin yin as shown here and Wade-Giles is another. However, I am pretty sure, that the Chinese themselves do not use them to teach their children how to write or spell. Indeed is spell in that sense, even a concept in Chinese? And even if you have an actual alphabet, not all alphabets are the same - think Russian, Greek, Arabic and so many more and there are also some languages that, in fact, do not have a written form - most Aboriginal languages for a start. Even a western style alphabet does not necessarily have the same letters. Italian for example does not have J, K, W, X or Y although you can make some of those sounds with a combination of other letters 'ia' for Y for example.


Do you need to learn to recite the alphabet? Well possibly not when it comes to learning to read or write, as those letters are assembled in a haphazard order into words.


“The problem with the alphabet is that it bears no relation to anything at all, and when words are arranged alphabetically they are uselessly separated. In the OED, for example, aardvarks are 19 volumes away from the zoo, yachts are 18 volumes from the beach, and wine is 17 volumes from the nearest corkscrew.” Mark Forsyth, The Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language


You don't need to know that a comes before b to be able to read or write. You just need to know what sound the letter makes and what it looks like - and even that is only partially helpful. With respect to food - well I'm sure a linguist could write a thesis on the letter 'a' with respect to food, or why there are more spices beginning with 'c' (in English) than any other, but it's a bit of a stretch. So other than a fun exercise for children learning alphabet sounds - not that relevant perhaps.


However, when it comes to the aspect of order you can perhaps make more links. I spent a large part of my working life as a cataloguer - a profession which is a bit arcane, but immensely helpful if you are trying to find something. If you are looking for something in particular in a large collection of things, then you need some sort of system to help you find it. And the alphabet is one of those systems. There are many more.


When it comes to food, there are a few instances in which the alphabet becomes useful.


If you are looking for a particular book - a book about food - if you are looking for the actual physical item in a bookshop, or a library - you can find it using the alphabet if you know the name of the author, because in such places the books tend to be arranged in alphabetical order by the surname of the author. Today, if you are searching digitally, then, you don't need the alphabet - you can search in a number of different ways - which actually takes you into another field of study altogether - programming and all associated skills. Nevertheless the alphabet would have been one of the first systems of ordering things. I have no idea what the Chinese and other languages using pictograms do.


There are lots of books about food, whether cookbooks, or studies of a particular aspect of food - an encyclopedia, a travel book, ingredients ... which are organised in alphabetical order. And here I digress momentarily to say a few words about my latest purchase - this book, by a current favourite Rachel Roddy. A favourite because of her writing, rather than her recipes. Which is not to say that her recipes are not worth trying - most of them are. And this book has all the classics and others as well. If I'm totally honest, I was possibly a little disappointed with the book. Yes it was a book to read when you wanted to relax, and yes, I have lots of little post it stickers pointing to things I might either make or write about some time, but overall it will not be one of those books which I go to frequently in order to search for something new to cook. If you see it in an op shop, buy it, otherwise perhaps save your money.


But back to the topic in hand. Books which are in themselves arranged in alphabetical order. I have a few - The Larousse, Gastronomique, River Cottage A-Z which is a book arranged alphabetically by ingredients, Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion, Jane Grigson's Fruit and Vegetable Books. But there are many more. In some ways I suppose they are a gimmick, but they are also very useful if you have an ingredient that you are not familiar with, or a glut of a particular ingredient. Or if you are me, a place to look for a suitable quote about a particular ingredient. Not that it need be ingredients of course. The Larousse, is an encyclopedia and therefore covers all aspects of food. You could do an a-z organised by cuisine, by cook, by method ... And you could certainly fit it into the part of a language curriculum that focusses on types of writing with a homework exercise of creating an a-z of something.


The index - I did a whole post on the index once. They are important and some of them are dreadful. It's definitely a kind of writing - these days a kind of programming - a very particular skill like cataloguing and there are probably rules, bearing in mind that progress comes through rules being broken. Cookbooks need indexes, and so yes, the index can easily be incorporated into a food related language curriculum.


Mrs. Beeton apparently said "there should be a place for everything, and everything in its place" and I can imagine a particularly, dare I say, anal person, arranging their kitchen alphabetically although it's a bit of a stretch. The only possible things I could distantly imagine myself arranging alphabetically are spices and herbs - there are so many of them - but I don't. Supermarkets do though. You could however, touch on philosophy through studying the alphabet in the sense of the opposing concepts of order and chaos. We need both don't we? We need things like indexes, and catalogues, maps, laws, regulations and instructions, but we also need the freedom to experiment and wander, invent and wonder.

I think I have run out of things to say, so here is just one more thought provoking quote, which is sort of associated with what I have been trying to say:


“You've never seen that? Tiny little pieces of pasta in the shape of letters of the alphabet. The letters are mixed together, they float in the broth as if it were a three-dimensional book. When you eat them, you feel like you're gobbling words, sentences, entire conversations, entire chapters of novels. Kids love it. It's like the opposite of speaking: rather than syllables coming out of your mouth, letters go in your mouth and are swallowed.”

Brice Matthieussent, Vengeance du traducteur


One final thought on how the world is changing before our eyes, and which probably needs a whole post to itself, although the recent post on that old photograph has some bearing on it. If you have a language that has no alphabet then maybe you are there already. What is old is new.


"The illiterate of the future will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph." Walter Benjamin

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