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The Letter Q, in Abecedarium by Peter Lamborn Wilson


There's a blank key on my typewriter, which I'm calling the ghost key. Manually flicking it against the platen I discovered that the striker carries the letter Q, but note that this key is in the position on the keyboard where the numeral 1 appears in the QWERTY keyboard configuration. I've noticed that some typewriters, perhaps especially the portable models, have a blank key in this position -- a key that doesn't strike. But other typewriter keyboards – I think the standard models in particular -- feature a key in this position marked with the numeral 1, and interestingly, the exclamation mark occupies the upper case position. My typewriter lacks a key bearing the exclamation mark; instead, I strike upper case 8 to type the apostrophe, then backspace one space to type a period beneath that mark. For readers, it can be difficult to distinguish this laboriously produced exclamation mark from a colon! (Keeping in mind, however, that the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style advises that this mark "should be used sparingly to be effective"). But why was my keyboard set up that way? The key is physically present on my typewriter, is blank, doesn't strike, and harbors a ghostly form, the letter Q! It occurs to me that irrespective of whether I can make a good argument for or against the ghost key convention, I've been provided an opportunity to engage in some doodling.


In "What is a letter?", the opening essay of her book, What Is: Nine Epistemological Essays, Joanna Drucker writes,


When the letters became familiars of the nursery and schoolroom, their capacity to carry lessons within their forms was exploited. Pictorial images and small vignettes elaborated the precepts of good behavior. Moral tales and instruments of training, as well as the inculcation into that symbolic order which is language and law (ideological training of the young) letters served multiple purposes as they were introduced to the lisping tongues and clumsy fingers of the young.


Okay, perhaps this would make a nice riposte of a sort, to illustrate the demystification of letterforms in service to the education of the young. But there is the other view, with individual letters assigned a cosmological value. Drucker notes that,


Sacred origins and occult traditions have long posited the alphabet as a set of cosmic elements, comprising the full sum of the components of the universe.


And further:


…when we posit the form of letters in terms of their origin, we are prone to imagine their shapes as an index of those bird tracks, constellations, or arrangements of natural elements from which they were supposed to be derived. Iconographic theories of origin suggest pictorial analogy, so that the 'A','B','C' of our Roman letters are somehow to be reconciled with the elements of Semitic tribal camps from which Hebrew letters took their visual form. Such contorted sets of association and formal comparison include all manner of anachronistic or improbable histories, but the mythic strength of such assertions keeps a tenacious hold on popular imagination. To this day the notion that the 'A' contains vestiges of the ox-head, a horned aleph, persists. Once fixed in mind, such associations seem so natural that displacing them with mere historical argument and archaeological information is difficult indeed.


Yes indeed! And not entirely desirable to dissociate them, I would add. The ghostly (or redundant) letter Q on my typewriter keyboard may have been an arbitrary decision on the part of some uber-compositor – I suspect that it had been, until otherwise enlightened – but I've had to wonder why it's there at all. Regarding that particular letter, however, Peter Lamborn Wilson suggests -- in Abecedarium, his engaging account of letters and their associations -- that in the Ancient Egyptian system of pictorial writing, the hieroglyph for the letter Q was symbolized by the figure of an ape. As it turns out, this is suggestive (and productive). As Wilson notes:


The dog-faced ape cynocephalus…endemic to Egyptian temples, was believed to keep time…Keeping time not only resembles writing but requires it, hence the baboon embodies Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus the inventor of writing. The cynocephalus is a scribe. Writing is monkey business – a million typewriters.


It's especially gratifying in this context that Wilson imbricates typewriters and writing. According to Philippe Derchain, writing in Yves Bonnefoy's monumental encyclopedia of world religions,


Thoth is the object of a specific offering, a writing case… Thoth is the model bureaucrat: he knows how to write and perform calculations, is invested with the highest functions in governing the world beside the sovereign Sun, and is conscious of his duties of justice and precision. Thus he regulates the course of the moon, checks the balance of the scale at the court of judgment of the dead, inscribes the name of the Pharoah on the fruits of the tree of history in the temple of Heliopolis, and surveys the precinct of projected temples, except in those cases in which he assigns those functions to one of his companions. For all of this, he must know how to write, like any scribe; and the palette, which holds the ink holders and the brushes and is also used for quick notes, is the instrument of his function.  


(By the way, who are Thoth's "companions"? Might they be each and all descended poets down through history to our time -- and beyond? I like to think so.)


Moving on from Ancient Egypt, this ghost letter of mine appears in the Archaic Greek alphabet, in a different but still unmistakable form, then is carried over into Etruscan and thence onward to the Romans -- and Latin. But having lasted so long the letter Q did not translate into Anglo-Saxon. According to Amalia E. Gnanadesikan in her book, The Writing Revolution,


…Old English or Anglo-Saxon had a different set of phonemes than Latin. (They themselves called their language Englisc, pronounced almost exactly as it is today, except that the first vowel was pronounced as spelled… They dropped and added letters as needed. Z was not considered necessary, as the [z] sound occurred only as a variant of [s] between voiced sounds. The redundancy of C, K, and Q was reduced to just C.


[Note: Englisc is not a typo – the [sc] sound in Anglo-Saxon was pronounced [sh] – as in scip!]


As Gnanadesikan explains,


Vernacular writing had begun sometime before, but it had not yet settled into standardized forms. As the Roman alphabet came to be used for its daughter languages, the letters had to do different work than they had done in Latin. Where Latin had originally pronounced C as [k], the descendant languages used [s], as in French cinque before the front vowels [e] and [i]. Latin [kw], however, had become [k], reintroducing that sound before front vowels. To spell it, the letter k was retrieved from the dustbin, passed on to the Germanic languages (hence English king, kid, and kitten), and then replaced in the Romance languages with QU under the conservative influence of the humanists (and hence French and Spanish qui, "who").


And what of Modern English? According to the OED,


In ordinary mod. Eng. words Q is employed only in the combination qu, whether this is initial…medial…or forming a final consonant…There is, however, a growing tendency among scholars to use Q by itself to transliterate the Semitic kōph, writing, e.g. Qaballa… 


With that I imagine that we may now turn -- by a commodious vicus of recirculation, as it were -- back to Wilson...









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