How the first letter was written

« previous post | next post »

Those who are interested in pictographic and ideographic writing systems should take careful note of Rudyard Kipling's 1902 Just So Story "How the first letter was written". It starts like this:

ONCE upon a most early time was a Neolithic man. He was not a Jute or an Angle, or even a Dravidian, which he might well have been, Best Beloved, but never mind why. He was a Primitive, and he lived cavily in a Cave, and he wore very few clothes, and he couldn't read and he couldn't write and he didn't want to, and except when he was hungry he was quite happy. His name was Tegumai Bopsulai, and that means, 'Man-who-does-not-put-his-foot- forward-in-a-hurry'; but we, O Best Beloved, will call him Tegumai, for short. And his wife's name was Teshumai Tewindrow, and that means, 'Lady-who-asks-a-very-many-questions'; but we, O Best Beloved, will call her Teshumai, for short. And his little girl-daughter's name was Taffimai Metallumai, and that means, 'Small-person-without-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked'; but I'm going to call her Taffy. And she was Tegumai Bopsulai's Best Beloved and her own Mummy's Best Beloved, and she was not spanked half as much as was good for her; and they were all three very happy. As soon as Taffy could run about she went everywhere with her Daddy Tegumai, and sometimes they would not come home to the Cave till they were hungry, and then Teshumai Tewindrow would say, 'Where in the world have you two been to, to get so shocking dirty? Really, my Tegumai, you're no better than my Taffy.'

Now attend and listen!

One day Tegumai Bopsulai went down through the beaver-swamp to the Wagai river to spear carp-fish for dinner, and Taffy went too. Tegumai's spear was made of wood with shark's teeth at the end, and before he had caught any fish at all he accidentally broke it clean across by jabbing it down too hard on the bottom of the river. They were miles and miles from home (of course they had their lunch with them in a little bag), and Tegumai had forgotten to bring any extra spears.

'Here's a pretty kettle of fish!' said Tegumai. 'It will take me half the day to mend this.'

'There's your big black spear at home,' said Taffy. 'Let me run back to the Cave and ask Mummy to give it me.'

'It's too far for your little fat legs,' said Tegumai. 'Besides, you might fall into the beaver-swamp and be drowned. We must make the best of a bad job.' He sat down and took out a little leather mendy-bag, full of reindeer-sinews and strips of leather, and lumps of bee's-wax and resin, and began to mend the spear.

Taffy sat down too, with her toes in the water and her chin in her hand, and thought very hard. Then she said–'I say, Daddy, it's an awful nuisance that you and I don't know how to write, isn't it? If we did we could send a message for the new spear.'

'Taffy,' said Tegumai, 'how often have I told you not to use slang? "Awful" isn't a pretty word, but it could be a convenience, now you mention it, if we could write home.'

You should go read the rest, but to make a longish story shorter, Taffy enlists a stranger, who doesn't speak her language, to take a pictographic message back to her mother. On a piece of birch bark, she explains in pictures what the situation is and what she would like others to do about it. The stranger understands it differently:

The Stranger-man (and he was a Tewara) smiled. He thought, 'There must be a big battle going to be fought somewhere, and this extraordinary child, who takes my magic shark's tooth but who does not swell up or burst, is telling me to call all the great Chief's tribe to help him.

He does find his way to Taffy's mother, who understands the message in yet another way:

The Stranger-man–did you know he was a Tewara?–hurried away with the picture and ran for some miles, till quite by accident he found Teshumai Tewindrow at the door of her Cave, talking to some other Neolithic ladies who had come in to a Primitive lunch. Taffy was very like Teshumai, especially about the upper part of the face and the eyes, so the Stranger-man–always a pure Tewara–smiled politely and handed Teshumai the birch-bark. He had run hard, so that he panted, and his legs were scratched with brambles, but he still tried to be polite.

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.

'It's as plain as the nose on this Stranger-man's face,' she said. 'He has stuck my Tegumai all full of spears, and frightened poor Taffy so that her hair stands all on end; and not content with that, he brings me a horrid picture of how it was done. Look!' She showed the picture to all the Neolithic ladies sitting patiently on the Stranger-man. 'Here is my Tegumai with his arm broken; here is a spear sticking into his back; here is a man with a spear ready to throw; here is another man throwing a spear from a Cave, and here are a whole pack of people' (they were Taffy's beavers really, but they did look rather like people) 'coming up behind Tegumai. Isn't it shocking!'

So the Tribe of Tegumai sends out a war party; but it all ends happily, of course, after Taffy explains:

'I wanted the Stranger-man to fetch Daddy's spear, so I drawded it,' said Taffy. 'There wasn't lots of spears. There was only one spear. I drawded it three times to make sure. I couldn't help it looking as if it stuck into Daddy's head–there wasn't room on the birch-bark; and those things that Mummy called bad people are my beavers. I drawded them to show him the way through the swamp; and I drawded Mummy at the mouth of the Cave looking pleased because he is a nice Stranger-man, and I think you are just the stupidest people in the world,' said Taffy. 'He is a very nice man. Why have you filled his hair with mud? Wash him!'


  1. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    In the sequel, of course, Tegumai and Taffy invent the alphabet.

  2. Andy Durdin said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    I read this story and its sequel "How the Alphabet Was Made") as a kid. The story was very entertaining, but what I found fascinating was the illustration that followed the story—because its caption was all written in runes:

    I'd read The Hobbit not long before, and had spent a long time puzzling out the runes (never having heard of the futhorc at the time). Later editions had a key to them in the front, but not this one.

    So I then had loads of fun taking what I'd learnt there, and using that to decipher the caption to this illustration.

    Of course, it was some time later before I discovered that my family's copy of The American Heritage Dictionary had a convenient table of futhorc runes that would have saved me lots of time!

  3. Brett said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    I have to admit, those two were always my least favorite of the Just So Stories, and by a fairly wide margin. I think I didn't like the heavy emphasis on human characters.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    The first crash blossom?

  5. Rubrick said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 7:41 pm

    Highly reminiscent (preminiscent?) of

  6. NW said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    For my whole life one part of that alphabet story has stuck with me: 'Now let's see, what's the word for "snake" in our language?' As a child I knew it was wrong, and it seems a just so story for how some people think about language.

  7. Tim said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    "His name was Tegumai Bopsulai… but we… will call him Tegumai…"
    -oh good!
    "One day Tegumai Bopsulai went down through the beaver-swamp…"

  8. Robert Coren said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    I grew up on the Just So Stories, and I must have read this one many times, and I never realized until now just how hilarious that second sentence is.

  9. Mr Punch said,

    December 7, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

    I loved the stories as a child, but unfortunately some of the racial attitudes (and words) make them unsuitable for today's children.

  10. Ø said,

    December 7, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    @Robert Koren: Why is it hilarious?

RSS feed for comments on this post