26 Letters, Infinite Possibilities

Godfrey Sykes alphabet
Godfrey Sykes alphabet

By Joyce Audy Zarins

Writing is an amazing abstract art. By arranging a small set of symbols in unique ways, writers convey ideas to the reader’s mind. The range of stories these symbols can be formed into is infinite, and even the number of ways those tales can be organized while being revised seems endless. Every library and bookstore is filled with thousands of narratives, each entirely different from the rest. Yet all of these combined works by writers everywhere are comprised of an astonishingly small number of learned symbols organized to create specific effects in the reader. What we can do with only twenty-six letters is stunning.

The Jumble word game in our newspaper recently included “recwuf.” Six letters, out of our alphabet’s twenty-six, in this arrangement do not spell a word. Or do they? Could that be the name of some alien guy in a new sci-fi novel? Recwuf spun to face his androform antagonist…. Thus, writers are not necessarily restricted by the enormous variety of recognized words. Lewis Carroll’s jabberwocky would not exist otherwise. Arranged differently, these same six letters spell the established word “curfew,” a nifty word with interesting connotations. And it is only one of over 171,000 in the English language, a vast set of components waiting to be transformed into complex ideas as if by magic.

So, how did this alchemy originate? Look back through time to 3,000 B.C. when the Sumerians of Mesopotamia developed cuneiform writing. It was a logographic system of marks – signs that stood for words. The concepts of writing in rows and reading in a consistent direction were also Sumerian. Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan glyphs are also logographic.

Syllabaries are a second type of writing system where the learned signs represent syllables. Examples are the Mycenaen Greek system and more recently Sequoyah’s 19th century writing paradigm for his Cherokee people’s previously unwritten language. Imagine the sense of power that must have come with developing his own writing system.

The third basic type is the alphabet, wherein signs stand for individual sounds. There are many alphabets around the world with different numbers of characters, our own English alphabet being one of the more concise ones with only twenty six letters. Each letter is a sign that must be learned which represents a sound. There is a certain amount of interplay with the other two systems, which adds to the range of what is possible in English.

Signs, which we call letters, are comprised of marks arranged in a certain way, not to create a picture as in a drawing or pictogram, but to symbolize a sound determined by a group of humans speaking a particular language. When we are very young we memorize these letters. Next we are taught to combine them. Readers and writers use the magic of encoding and deciphering with the formula always available.

Earth-Sea-Syzygy Joyce Audy Zarins
Joyce Audy Zarins

Letters congregate into words, some improbable like syzygy, which I used in titling one of my paintings. Others are evocative, book title-worthy words like Speak, Dune, Forever, Leviathan, and Icefall. Writing is about how a story is told as much as what it is about. Wise word choices can make a story sparkle, simmer, or erupt. With hundreds of thousands (2610 or so if all combinations were grammatically possible) of letter-into-word combinations to choose from, there’s no excuse for lifeless vocabulary.

When concocting a story, there is a basic recipe to follow – a beginning, middle, and end are needed for it to rise – but beyond that is a universe of possible flavors and sensations to convey. The challenge is to get all ingredients to add power to the spell. During editing too, there are variables. I will not live my life confined to this place can become I will not be tied to this place, and finally I will not be tethered. The right word is the key.

As in the witches’ brew from Macbeth: Eye of newt and toe of frog / Wool of bat and tongue of dog, a book is a clever and potentially effective stew beginning with the simplest of  ingredients. Our twenty-six letters have the power to enchant. You only need to develop the formula.


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