Books On Books Collection – Rudyard Kipling and Chloë Cheese

How the Alphabet Was Made (1983)

How the Alphabet Was Made (1983)
Rudyard Kipling and Chloë Cheese (ill.)
Hardback, paper on board. Acquired from Harry Righton, 17 September 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Permission to display from Macmillan Children’s Books.

Origin stories for the alphabet have charmed makers and their audiences for ages. Rudyard Kipling’s tale from his Just So series invents the cave-dwelling girl Taffy and her father Tegumai playfully voicing sounds and words then drawing shapes to remind them of the sounds. Although Kipling as the narrator follows the pictographic principle of the origin of the alphabet, he varies from the usual sources of the letters’ inspiration. Instead of the A’s being associated with the image of an ox’s head from the word “aleph” for ox, it emerges — — expressly as a reminder of the sound “ah” — from the image of a carp’s open mouth with a feeler making the crossbar while it roots upside down in the riverbottom for food. When a mnemonic for the “yer-yer-yer” element at the beginning of the sound “yah” is needed, the tail of the upside down carp that happens to be at hand serves the need with the shape of a Y.

The story carries on from the pictographic principle to the ideographic and logographic (shapes used to represent an idea and those only for the sounds made by a word). Metonymy makes a clever appearance when Taffy’s father tells her not to worry about her drawing abilities and to rely on just a part to represent the whole. The rebus makes an appearance in a reminder to Taffy to do her chores.

At the end, Kipling steps back into the present to describe the “archaeological find” — Taffy’s alphabet necklace, made by her father and missing some letters as might be expected of such an artifact — and to provide a drawing of it as proof for the origin story as told to his eldest daughter Josephine, the “O Best Beloved” addressed in the story. Never one to miss an opportunity for a pun, Kipling’s narrator explains that the missing letters — P and Q — are the source of the saying, “Mind your P’s and Q’s”.

The illustrations provided by Chloë Cheese, presumably at the behest of the publisher, suit a trade book for the 1980s. Although more colorful, they do not precisely reproduce Kipling’s drawings included with his manuscript, which the British Library has placed online.

Just So Stories (1902)
Rudyard Kipling
Manuscript printer’s copy with original illustrations, bequeathed by Mrs Elsie Bambridge (née Kipling, second daughter of Rudyard Kipling), 14 December 1976. Paper; ff. ii+148. 370 x 280mm. Ref. Add MS 59840.
Accessed 17 November 2022.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Lyn Davies“. 7 August 2022. Books On Books Collection. Reference and fine print.

Timothy Donaldson“. 1 February 2023. Books On Books Collection.

Gerald Lange“. March 2023. Books On Books Collection.

James Rumford. 21 November 2022. Books On Books Collection. Illustrated children’s book.

Tommy Thompson“. 21 August 2022. Books On Books Collection. Reference.

Drucker, Johanna. 1999. The alphabetic labyrinth: the letters in history and imagination. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.

Ege, Otto. 1921/1998. The Story of the Alphabet, Its Evolution and Development… Embellished Typographically with Printer’s Flowers Arranged by Richard J. Hoffman. Van Nuys, CA: Richard J. Hoffman. A miniature. The type ornaments chosen by Hoffman are arranged chronologically by designer (Garamond, Granjon, Rogers) and printed in color.

Firmage, Richard A. 2001. The alphabet. London: Bloomsbury.

Fischer, Steven Roger. 2008. A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Jackson, Donald. 1997. The story of writing. Monmouth, England: Calligraphy Centre.

Robb, Don, and Anne Smith. 2010. Ox, house, stick: the history of our alphabet. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. Children’s book.

Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The story of writing. London: Thames and Hudson.

Rosen, Michael. 2014. Alphabetical: how every letter tells a story. London: John Murray.

Sacks, David. 2003. Language visible unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books.

Samoyault, Tiphaine. 1996, 1998 trans. Alphabetical order: how the alphabet began. New York: Viking. Children’s book.