There’s a radical tradition in Jewish mysticism that thinks we are missing a letter of the alphabet. In our current cosmic cycle, the letter is either invisible, or present to our eyes in a faulty, corrupted form. This is why the Torah contains negative logic structures — when every letter appears as it should, there will be no need for apophatic theology. In Genesis, God fragments the single language shared by all humans, scattering their humpty-dumpty tongues abroad, but in Kabbalistic thought, the Lord looks more like Raymond Queneau and his fellow Oulipo, writing a lipogram that uses every letter but one. Both cases place a profound power in putting the pieces back together again, reassembling the total in its original form. A related Jewish tradition claims the psalms are out of order to keep humans from assuming divine power: “if [the psalms] were arranged in their proper order, and any man so read them, he would be able to resurrect the dead”, says the Midrash. When the Talmudic scholar Joshua ben Levi began to number these hymns differently, a booming voice from heaven intervened: “Do not rouse that which slumbers!”

In 1799, the same year that the Rosetta Stone was unearthed in Egypt, the type-founder Edmund Fry published Pantographia, his attempt to gather back together every known alphabet on earth. Containing 405 alphabet specimens from 164 languages, the book is a treasure chest for the epigraphical imagination. There are the expected alphabets that influenced the shape of Latin — Greek, Semitic, Phoenician, Etruscan — and mysterious and magical alphabets, such as the twenty variations of Chaldean, an occult writing system that has no extant original sources. (Fry reports that it may have been transmitted directly to Adam; others believe it stems from a medieval cipher, whose creators couched the shapes in antique lore.) Indigenous languages without alphabets such as “Virginian” and “Esquimaux” are given phonetic approximations in Roman characters. And Domesday, Ethiopic, Poconchi, Sclavonian, Tartaric, Walloon, and dozens of other alphabets have been arranged to spell out the Lord’s Prayer. As your eyes trace the thousands of distinct kinds of line that have made meaning for humans across the world, script can indeed feel like a kind of scripture — the rudiments of spelling become an incantation, a spell. Yet there is also something mournful about Pantographia, especially for a modern reader. We might learn to intone and live in a few of the linguistic landscapes encrypted in these writing systems, but the rest will always remain empty runes before our eyes, from which a vital force has fled. And as languages continue to be lost each year to mute extinction, Fry’s book begins to look more like a mausoleum than agora.

Genesis framed our fallen state as a problem of space: people can no longer unite to build towers unto heaven because they have to shout incomprehensibly across continents. Yet Fry hints in his introduction that imperial alphabets might offset this punishment. “By this happy mode of communication, distance is, as it were, annihilated, and the merchant, scholar, and statesman, become present to every purpose of utility, in the most remote regions.” And like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who sets up a phone call to Eden by dialing the alphabet — “Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one” — Fry believes the study of alphabets might also solve the problem of time. Namely, questions concerning the origins of language. In a bizarre argument, he claims that alphabets must have divine origins because certain civilizations have failed to develop these phonemic systems. Written Chinese grows “more intricate and voluminous every day”, but will never “terminate in so clear, so comparatively simple, an expedient, as that of alphabetical characters”. But Fry also declines Pliny’s “conjectures and fables” about letters being eternal, the notions of “cabalistic doctors”, who believed alphabetic writing was created during the sabbath, and anyone who dare suggest that letters were breathed down to the Egyptians by their god Teuth. Instead, it all goes back to Babel, when one tongue — and presumably one alphabet, although here Fry seems unsure — shattered into uncountable quantities.

Aside from theological claims made by Fry in his introduction, there is also a kind of secular miracle present in this work. The sublimity of craftsmanship. To get these letters into print, Fry carved each one onto a steel punch, which could be pressed into a copper matrix for printing. It took him sixteen years, four thousand punches, and an estimated ten thousand hours of labor. According to alphabet historian Johanna Drucker, Fry’s Pantographia “provides an overview of the state of linguistic knowledge in the British Empire” and is the key transitional work between two modes of knowledge production: eclectic, antiquarian compendia and specialized, professional research. In Fry’s own estimation of the project, Pantographia is a meeting ground, an incomplete but working commons for all those in need of a “centre of communication”.

Read More