A Brief History of the Absolutely Amazing "A"

Most modern alphabets start with the letter “A,” or a near equivalent. It was also first in line in the ancient Greek and Phoenician—from which the Modern English alphabet is ultimately descended—alphabets, too.

Being the gateway to the other letters and to literacy, “A” has rich symbolic value. Grouped with “B” and “C,” or even standing all alone, it can represent the whole alphabet and the learning of it. When that trio is written on a blackboard, there’s no having to guess what the kids are learning. The “A” and its Greek cousin alpha are also shorthand for excellence and achievement. You get an “A” or “A+” for good work in school, an A-1 vessel is an well built boat of the highest class and many social animals, from dogs to humans, follow the lead of the alpha male.

Built Like an Ox

The “A” appears in some of the earliest known transcriptions of the ancient Canaanite or Semitic (no one is sure which came first) alphabet from which most modern alphabets descend, written on limestone tablets in central Egypt around 1800 BC. Like the rest of the letters in this alphabet, “A” is descended from an Egyptian glyph and started out as a picture of an ox’s head. Over time, the ox head was simplified (drawn like a “V” with a crossbar to make a snout, ears and horns) and rotated to get to what we have today, with the horns acting as the letter’s legs.

The Phoenicians ruled a small empire of maritime city-states and colonies around the Mediterranean and were the first people to extensively use the alphabet as it emerged Egypt. In the Phoenician alphabet, the ancient “A”—called the aleph—didn’t represent a vowel. It was, instead, a symbol for one of several “breath sounds” they used, and represented the sound of what linguist call a glottal stop, a catch in the throat from which a following letter pushes off. Sounds like this were common in the ancient Semitic languages, but are rare today. You can still find examples here and there, though, most notably in the way that people with Cockney accents swallow their T’s in glottal stops to turn “bottle” into “bah-owe.”

When the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, it wasn’t very well suited to the sounds of their language. The breathing sounds weren’t needed at all, so the Greeks instead employed those letters to represent their vowel sounds. They changed the shape of the aleph, too. When they borrowed the letter and dubbed it alpha, the ox-like (though rotated, so it also sort of looked like a “K”) Phoenician symbol didn’t have much meaning to them, so they rotated the letter some more. The horns became legs. At one point, one of the legs got lopped off, but was eventually reattached.

Today, the sound of the “A” varies among the different languages that use it, and sometimes even within the same language. In English alone, “A” stands in for twelve separate vowel sounds. The sound it makes in “pa” or “ma”—what linguists call the low, back vowel sound—is thought to have been its pronunciation in ancient Etruscan.

Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.


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