1The story “How the Alphabet Was Made” was published in Just So Stories in 1902. The tales, most of which are about animals (“How the Whale got his Throat”, “How the Camel got his Hump”, “How the Rhinoceros got his Skin”, etc.), are famous for exemplifying humorously their mythical origins set in the “High and Far-Off Times.” Only two stories do not concern animals: they are “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was made.” The former deals with the mythical origins of letter-writing and illustrates the invention of “picture-letters” (pictograms or ideograms). Although the Head Chief of the Tribe of Tegumai declares that Taffy has “hit upon a great invention”1, the story emphasises the shortcomings of ideograms: “’pictures are not always properly understood’” and the Chief prophesies “But a time will come, O Babe of Tegumai, when we shall make letters –all twenty-six of ‘em,– and when we shall be able to read as well as to write, and then we shall say exactly what we mean without any mistakes.” The beginning of “How the Alphabet was made” explicitly refers to “How the First Letter was Written”, setting the action the week after and mentioning the circumstances and consequences of the previous invention. Obviously the two tales are concerned with the semiotics of language. Because they are tales for children – the narrative voice addresses a “Best Beloved”–, their insights are expressed in simple, concrete words and through a narrative. However, underlying the pleasant and humorous surface are abstract concerns which centre on the question of sign systems. “How the First Letter was Written” sets language in the context of communication and it is in the light of the pragmatics of language that Kipling’s conceptions find their illustration. The focus of this paper will be put on “How the Alphabet was Made” because it is clearly presented as the ideal semiotic system of communication by Kipling. The plot implies that the Tribe of Tegumai can speak their language but cannot write it. So the story deals with the invention of an alphabetical code corresponding to sounds (“sound-pictures”, as opposed to the “picture-letters” of the previous story). In other words, it concerns the invention of a system of visual signs corresponding with an already established oral system. The alphabet should naturally interest children as prospective or actual readers. In addition, the cultural and biographical context of the publication certainly contributed to raising a theoretical interest in semiotics. Morse had already invented his alphabet. There was an increased interest in languages (Amerindian, Indian or other). Kipling had probably heard of Charles Peirce – the founder of “semeiotics” in 18672– through Henry James who had made friends with Peirce in Paris in 1875-1876 and later with Kipling in 1889-1891. What insights about the semiotics of language are precisely conveyed through the story? Do they correspond to what linguists and semioticians have identified or debated? Is it possible to define an implicit philosophy of language? These are the main questions I would like to answer, considering first the metalinguistic and didactic orientation of the tale, then what the tale suggests about such issues debated by linguists as the arbitrariness of the sign, its nature, its differential nature or the place of affect. The role of humour and fun as a didactic component will also be examined and finally this paper will study what the tale suggests about the ambivalences of language.
2 “How the Alphabet Was Made” deals with language and its minimal components, the written alphabet, which it places clearly as the focus of the story in the title. Thus fiction is meant to illustrate what language is made of in a didactic fashion. With a diachronic fantasy – the invention follows the linear development of a story which develops according to various stages in the establishment of the code- it illustrates the synchronic alphabetic system –the timeless and present code. As the plot unravels, certain characteristics of language are suggested. A triadic structure of written language is exemplified: a visual sign (the letter) corresponds to a phonetic sign (the sound) according to a conventional choice. This is very close to Charles Peirce’s conception of the sign. For Charles Peirce, the significant aspect of the sign or representamen (whether visual or oral) is related to an object beyond it for which it stands according to an interpretation or interpretant. Kipling uses a similar triadic structure but displaces it: the visual representamen is related to a sound (its object) according to an interpretant or explanation. The invention of the first letter (A) illustrates the triadic nature of language: the shape of the letter (the carp-fish’s mouth) means the sound ‘ah’. The interpretant is “You just look like a carp-fish with its mouth open.” (108) Thus the system of written language is the representamen of the sound system of language (its object) according to conventional interpretants given in the story.
3The tale also illustrates certain characteristics of written language. The first one mentioned is selection. A visual form is chosen to correspond with the sound. It is taken here from the expression on Tegumai’s face (following Peirce’s idea that the choice takes place within a real-world context. It escapes the evanescence of the moment in memory: “When I draw a carp-fish with its mouth open (…) it will remind you of that ah-noise.”(108) Simplification is another characteristic: a sign should not be too difficult to draw: “‘I can’t draw all of a carp-fish, but I can draw something that means a carp-fish’s mouth.’”(108) Practical reasons account for this simplification in the pragmatic context of communication. The visual sign is abstracted from the concrete along conventionally-established lines: “‘Well, here’s a pretence carp-fish (we can play that the rest of him is drawn.)’”(108) The following dialogue between father and daughter exemplifies the discriminative aspect of the sign system: a sign must be clearly understood for what it means and no useless details should be kept. To identify a carp, a feeler is needed as it characterises the carp and differentiates it from other fish: “‘You needn’t draw anything of him except just the opening of the mouth and the feeler across. Then we’ll know he’s a carp-fish, ‘cause the perches and trouts haven’t got feelers.’”(108) The sign should also be used by others for adequate communication and similar effects, the two sides of communication (encoding and decoding) being reversible:
‘Now I’ll copy it,’ said Taffy. Will you understand it when you see it? And she drew this.’
‘Perfectly,’ said her Daddy. ‘And I’ll be quite as s’prised when I see it anywhere, as if you had jumped out from behind a tree and said “Ah!”.’ (109)
4The next sound – Yah! – is identified as a “mixy” noise. The principle of phonetic discrimination allows the participants to identify the yer-noise and the ah-noise and draw the corresponding letters. In a didactic manner, Kipling repeats the same characteristics (the practical, communicative, or abstract dimensions of a letter for instance) when presenting the other letters of the alphabet.
5The associative capacity of letters to form words is an important step in the invention of language, and with it, the functional aspect of written language is underlined. Written language allows distant and time-free communication. The sign Yo --swamp-water-- written by the side of a pool would be a useful warning:
‘Course I wouldn’t drink that water because I’d know you said it was bad.’
‘But I needn’t be near the water at all. I might be miles away, hunting, and still-
‘And still it would be just the same as if you stood there and said ‘G’way, Taffy or you’ll get fever.’ All that in a carp-fish-tail and a round egg!’ (111)
6The associative capacity of letters to form words such as so (food cooked on the fire), sho (drying poles), shi (spear), shu (sky) or compound words such as shuya (sky-water or rain), spaces between words, and sentences such as shu-ya-las, ya maru (Sky-water ending, river come to) is further established as well as the syntagmatic order of written language which follows the oral one. The fanciful story about the origins of the alphabet also serves as an illustration of fundamental issues about the semiotic system of language.
7“How the Alphabet Was Made” leaves no doubt about the conventional nature of the sign – which must be distinguished from its arbitrariness. Indeed the sign is the result of an agreement – even a cooperation in the form of dialogue between Taffy and Tegumai with questions, contributions, imperatives (“let’s…”), correctives, etc. It is their common invention and becomes their common knowledge, their “secret s’prise”, a notion which implies a shared knowledge indeed. The two characters negotiate to decide about an acceptable convention which is discussed and tested both ways. This conventional agreement is based on “pretence” (“’Here’s a pretence carp-fish’”(108); “’Then s’pose we draw a thin roung egg, and pretend it’s a frog that hasn’t eaten anything for years.’”(112)) or “play” (“’Then we can play it was me jumped out of the dark’”(108); “(…) we’ll play that the plain snake only hisses ssss’” (111)). The notion of game (“this game of ours” (114)) --which implies an agreement on rules-- is central to the setting up of the conventions of the code.
8The story also tackles the question of the arbitrariness of language. Saussure argued that “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.”3 Emile Benveniste has challenged Saussure arguing that “the signifier and the signified, the mental representation and the sound image are (…) in reality the two aspects of a single notion.”4 For Kipling is the relation between the written signifier and the phonetic one arbitrary? Is the convention inspired by the world? The form of the letter A is derived from a facial expression (indirectly connected with the phonetic production) which is compared with an object of the world (a carp-fish with its mouth open). The logic that applies to the invention of Y follows the association with the same animal: Y takes the form of the carp-fish’s tail. For O, the two protagonists follow the same logic as for A: “’You make your mouth all round like an egg or a stone.’”(109) Does it mean that a triadic connection links the written signifier with a facial expression (a bodily form producing a phonetic sign) and an element of the world? The invention of S --and the illustration showing S as a snake-- suggests a connection between the sound produced by the snake and the sound imitated by man. H connects the shape of “the horrid, high drying poles”(111) with the alliterative sounds. No human expression or animal production is implied here. What replaces them is an alliterative sound and an object of the world. So far the written symbol has been connected with an object of the world. But U only comes from the alteration of the O sound: “’We’ll open a little hole at the end of the round egg to show how the noise runs out all thin, ooo –oo-oo.’”(112) The convention is also based on the fact that several Os sound like U [u:]in English. M is associated with the word mum --which means quiet-- and the shape of a shut mouth: this time a facial expression and a word (not an object of the world) are implicated. What the various examples boil down to is that the protagonists agree on associations between written signifiers and shapes derived either from facial expressions, elements of the world or words or a combination of these elements. However all references to images or sounds are given up with the letter E, which is a pure convention disconnected from all associations: “They just made a twiddle for E, because it came into the pictures so often.”(116) There appears to be no absolute principle. However what the story could playfully suggest is that if the conventions bringing together visual signifiers, oral signifiers and their objects are arbitrarily chosen, there might be some kind of logic in the system, a secret surprise revealed by imagination and poetry.
9Saussure held that linguistic signs signify because of their differences: we distinguish signs and meanings because they are different from one another. One might think that Kipling’s story suggests that signs refer to the world more than to one another. However what distinguishes Y from A is the arbitrary choice of difference symbolised by the tail and the head of the same animal (a first elementary binary system). One might even see there a secret pun since what matters is “to make head or tail of it.” Leaving the image of the carp as a transitional ground for the identification of difference, the story moves on to identify the difference between O and U (a second elementary binary system) as a phonetic difference which blurs the original image of the egg. What matters is also to be able to distinguish S from Sh, another binary system. Z is also related to S: “They turned the hissy-snake the other way round for the Z-sound, to show it was hissing backwards in a soft and gentle way.”(116) Eventually, the alphabet is based on a variety of principles or conventions: the letters are all different from one another; some are contrasted or related in binary systems; some are related to an image or a sound; others are not. The semiotic system is playfully identified as developed for motivated, arbitrary, funny and pragmatic reasons: in a word it is a game, a pleasant and useful one.
10The story also playfully questions Peirce’s distinctions between the three types of signs: the icon --related to its object with qualitative resemblance--, the index --related through forceful interaction--, and the symbol --related through general rule followed by all its interpretants. What the story tells is the myth of the origins of the symbolic system of letters (the alphabetic code) which playfully shared some qualitative resemblance with the sounds of language --and so were once icons-- and were used for action, warnings or orders –and were then indexes.
11What also appears in the elaboration of the alphabetic code is the place of affect, usually denied in codes for reasons of objectivity. H, the letter derived from drying poles, is dysphorically connoted with an extremely unpleasant chore (hanging hides on them). The alliterations in [h ] set up a network of signifiers which forms the affective background for H: “’Horrid old drying-poles!’ said Taffy. ‘I hate helping to hang heavy, hot hairy hides on them.’”(111). A similar technique applies to the letter N (“it was a nasty, nosy noise”). Affect is not discarded from the code, which might be objectionable because personal affect may not be a sound basis for general understanding. In fact, it does not interfere with the reliability of the sign because, in this case, it is part of a shared knowledge in dialogue. The question remains however whether all these insights into the semiotic system of language should be taken seriously.
12No more --and no less-- than the other stories in the collection. The reader knows very well that the leopard’s spots, the camel’s hump or the whale’s throat did not appear in the way the narrative voice tells the Best Beloved. The humorous tone distances the reader from the narrative. However, if the story proves unreliable if one expects a general, abstract and integrated explanation about the semiotics of language, it is nevertheless enlightening because of the issues, questions and insights it suggests through narrative, myth and humour.
13Humour has a role to play as a corrective in the didactic dimension of the tale. Indeed what the protagonists say or what the narrative voice tells should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is the function of humour to distance the reader from a naive interpretation. Taffy and Tegumai’s invention proves to be private, affective, local. However, humour does not completely discard their experience as unbelievable. The gentle tone encourages the reader to engage in a dialogue with the story using his/her own encyclopaedia (in the sense given by Umberto Eco). In fact, the reader --the young child who cannot read and is told the story is a different matter-- knows the alphabetic code and can use it. He/she may also be familiar with the linguistic debates about the sign and confront what he/she knows with what the tale suggests. Humour plays a part in the shared knowledge it establishes between author and reader in that it is instrumental in the building up of the truth of the text.
14Language is fun. The invention of the alphabetic code is presented like a game. In a playful spirit, father and daughter indulge in a creative activity from which they derive much fun. For them, part of the pleasure of encoding is cognitive: it satisfies the demands of a certain logic. Part of it is imaginative: it allows the creative imagination to build a system. Part of it is affective as we shall later see. The reader vicariously shares the protagonists’ pleasures through processes of identification with them and with their situation. He/she discovers with them what they are inventing. He/she experiences the pleasure of recognition since he/she knows about the alphabetic code, but also the delights of discovery and surprise when faced with the playful associations made by the protagonists. Thus his/her reading turns into a language-game. Free play is given to the imagination in the building of the code. It also takes place in the narrative itself: words like “surprise” and “excited” appear in a distorted way --as “s’prise”, incited, incitement or ‘citement-- which never disturbs communication and contributes to a feeling of complicity in childish companionship. What appeared to be a didactic and metalinguistic story turns out to be fun. Indeed instead of fiction directed towards the codes of language, the story can also be seen as a game with the codes of language for a fictional purpose. In other words, the story carnivalises the semiotic code, injecting fun and play into its system and its origins. The ending of the story escapes utilitarian and didactic demands for after the first conclusion --“(…) the fine old easy, understandable Alphabet –A, B, C, D, E, and the rest of ‘em– got back into its proper shape again for all Best Beloveds to learn when they are old enough.”(117)-- is followed by a coda in which we are told that “one of the first things that Tegumai Bopsulai did after Taffy and he had made the Alphabet was to make a magic Alphabet necklace of all the letters, so that it could be put in the Temple of Tegumai and kept for ever and ever.”(119) The necklace symbolises, among other things, the aesthetic purpose of the alphabet. What follows is a description of the necklace as a precious jewel, which suggests that the value of the Alphabet goes beyond its usefulness:
A is scratched on a tooth- an elk-tush, I think
B is the Sacred Beaver of Tegumai on a bit of old ivory.
C is a pearly oyster-shell – inside front. (…) (119)
15It is a colourful jewel made of precious stones and metals: silver, mother-of-pearl, porphyry, ivory, etc.
16Fun is also placed in a remote past, a mythical past when there was a harmony between audible signs, visible ones and the world. What I explained about the symbol being an index and an icon applies to those bygone days in illo tempore, the times of myth to which Kipling nostalgically returns, and not to the present. The humour of the text prevents us from believing in the validity of a transparent language. Language has lost its magic like the beads of the necklace, as the use of the perfect and the epistemic modality suggest in “they must have been magic because thy look very common.”(121) This would imply a fall from an ideal stage in language, a break-up of the original harmony in a world estranged from myth and magic…unless childhood represents the ideal state of myth, magic and the origins.
17Childhood is certainly considered as a creative age in the two stories “How the First Letter was Written” and “How the Alphabet was Made.” The part played by the child Taffy in the two stories is central. In the first tale, she is the one who decides to use pictures on a birch bark: “’Of course I can’t write, but I can draw pictures if I’ve anything sharp to scratch with.’”(93) In the second one, even though the invention of the alphabet results from a cooperation between father and daughter, it is due to Taffy’s initiative: “‘Daddy, I’ve thinked of a secret surprise. You make a noise – any sort of noise.’”(108) Childhood is an idealised state, an age of creativity and invention, and a rich source of improvements. Adults share in the euphoric values of creativity as far as they share in the spirit of childhood. To a certain extent, Taffy’s father behaves like a child: his spontaneity, his willingness to play, his enthusiasm and his engrossment in the game characterise him as a sort of grown-up child. The two protagonists share the same secret as children would.
18In fact, father and daughter are particularly close to each other. Examining the family structure presented in the tale, one will notice that father and daughter constitute a very close and intimate pair distanced from the mother, a situation which forms an oedipal triangle manifested by action, invention, games and dialogue. The father-daughter relationship is reinforced by the creation of the alphabetic code. Their linguistic community is a secret surprise which first excludes others – even the mother for a while. Their elementary linguistic community is not simply based on a cognitive sharing (the logical interpretant) but also on energetic one (related to action) and an emotional one (related to affect), to use the words of Charles Peirce.5 It implies a sort of gnostic initiation. The temporary estrangement of the mother in “How the Alphabet was Made” confirms her rather negative portrait in “How the First Letter was Written”. Teshumai is indeed characterised by misunderstanding and hysterical violence, traits applied to all the women of the tribe: “As soon as Teshumai saw the picture she screamed like anything and flew at the Stranger-man. The other Neolithic ladies at once knocked him down and sat on him in a long line of six, while Teshumai pulled his hair”.(96) The episode is recalled at the beginning of “How the Alphabet was Made”. In addition the mother is associated with repressive forces opposed to play, adventure, fun and creativity. She tries to impose domestic chores on Taffy who prefers going out to fish: “Her Mummy wanted her to stay at home and help hang up hides to dry on the big drying-poles outside their Neolithic Cave, but Taffy slipped away down to her Daddy quite early, and they fished.”(107) The drying-poles, metonymically associated with the mother, are subsequently introduced into the alphabet as H with a very dysphoric connotation. Father and daughter share the same game, the same fun, in the same location, while Teshumai’s speech tends to reduce her husband to the role of a child in the family structure: “So they went home, and all that evening Tegumai sat on one side of the fire and Taffy on the other, drawing ya’s and yo’s, and shu’s and shi’s in the smoke on the wall and giggling together till her Mummy said, ‘Really, Tegumai, you’re worse than my Taffy.’”(115) The concluding poem – which does not even mention Teshumai– leaves no doubt about Tegumai’s exclusive love for his daughter:
For far – oh, very far behind,
So far she cannot call to him,
Comes Tegumai alone to find
The daughter that was all to him. (123)
19Taffy’s ambivalent attitude toward her mother produces words of endearment but also delays the sharing of the secret until the code is completed, thus excluding her mother from the building of written language: “’Please don’t mind,’ said Taffy. ‘It’s only our secret s’prise, Mummy dear, and we’ll tell you all about it the very minute it’s done; but please don’t ask me what it is now, or else I’ll have to tell.’”(115)
20The role of the father is not limited to the sharing of complicity in the creative process, it is also that of an authority stating the importance of the new invention:
‘And there’s more in this game than you think. Taffy dear, I’ve a notion that your Daddy’s daughter has hit upon the finest thing that there ever was since the Tribe of Tegumai took to using shark’s teeth instead of flints for their spear-heads. I believe we’ve found out the big secret of the world.’(110)
21If Tegumai’s possessive attitude --“’your Daddy’s daughter’”-- cannot be denied, the invention of written language is meant to be spread beyond the circle of the pair to the Tribe and to the world. The Bopsulai family is further inscribed as T in the alphabet: “When they came to T, [a possible pun on “came to tea”, the English family ritual], Taffy said that as her name, and her Daddy’s, and her Mummy’s all began with that sound, they should draw a sort of family group of themselves holding hands.”(115) Beyond the family, the social benefit had already been prophesied in “How the First Letter was Written” by the Head Chief. This reflects an Imperial conception of individual action benefiting the nation and the world based on utilitarianism and liberalism. The magic Alphabet-necklace becomes the revered property of the tribe. It is sacralised and immortalised: “(..) it could be put in the Temple of Tegumai and kept for ever and ever.”(119) All the members of the Tribe contribute to its making in bringing “their most precious beads and beautiful things.”(115) Furthermore, written language is seen as a protection from violence and misunderstanding: the Tewara Stranger-man -an image of the other- would not have been hurt if communication had been transparent thanks to written language.
22This story about the invention of the alphabet also implies ideological tensions and ambivalences. Although it celebrates the fictional and mythical contribution of a primitive tribe to mankind and seems to regret an idealised period of time, its primitivism is marred by an ethnocentric conception of progress. The Western alphabet is presented as an improvement from the ideogram, which is an obviously prejudiced opinion. It is also placed within an evolutionary process and is presented as an improvement from all other semiotic systems:
And after thousands and thousands and thousands of years, and after Hieroglyphics, and Demotics, and Nilotics, and Cryptics, and Cufics, and Runics, and Dorics, and Ionics, and all sorts of other ricks and tricks (because the Woons, and the Neguses, and the Akhoonds, and the Repositories of tradition would never leave a good thing alone when they saw it), the fine old easy, understandable Alphabet – A, B, C, D, E and the rest of ‘em- got back into its proper shape again for all Best Beloveds to learn when they are old enough.(117)
23Other systems are marked with the signs of otherness --the rather derogatory phrase “and all sorts of other ricks and tricks” testifies to it-- whereas the Western alphabet is given the attributes of beauty, good, easiness, familiarity and understanding –an obviously ethnocentric attitude. The statement about the “understandable” nature of this alphabet also contradicts its arbitrariness suggested by the story. Its primitive character --another sign of otherness-- tends to be eroded by time: three stone beads are “very badly worn” and two soft iron-heads have “rust-holes at the edges.”(121) It seems that the magic power of myth traditionally sustained by rites is tainted with the signs of reification. Written language eventually bears the signs of reification as well as transcendence.
24The image of woman the story conveys is marked by negativity and ambivalence. If the little girl is idealised, the mature woman is excluded from the creative process. Her sharing in the common knowledge is delayed as much as possible. Taffy’s mother resembles all the “Neolithic ladies” who behave like shrews. As shown above, women tend to be associated with repressive social forces and limited understanding. Their image is rather negatively inscribed in language. Kipling may not have been aware of the ambivalent nature of language implied in the tale but undeniably, language proves to be neither an innocent system nor a purely objective one. It is fraught with affect, ideological tensions and ambivalences.
25“How the Alphabet was Made” implies a certain philosophy of language due to its metalinguistic and didactic orientation and to the semiotic issues it tackles even though conceptual abstraction is kept to a minimum. Kipling does not propound any semiotic theory of language but the tale shows a sensitivity to signs and their systems, and a sophisticated knowledge of the fundamental issues of semiotics: it addresses --albeit concretely and through narration-- central questions debated by linguists such as the arbitrariness of the sign, its nature, its differential nature or the place of affect. For Kipling, language is fun but humour, which plays a didactic role in knowledge, keeps a sophisticated distance from the involvement in language games. Kipling’s tale reflects a certain awareness of the ambivalences of language while also revealing the author’s ideological bias as regards childhood, family, society, race and gender. All the ABC books societies have produced --from the first horn-books strongly influenced by religion to the most recent ones-- have forcefully or unwilling transmitted a certain conception of language imbibed with religious, social and educational issues. Kipling’s tale makes no exception. Its originality lies in the imaginative power of myth-making and its apparently unsophisticated tone.