The First Alphabets of Animal Noises: Gobble, Growl, Grunt!

Peter Spier. Gobble, Growl, Grunt. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday and Company, Inc., c1971. Cotsen 85048.

Reading any book of animal noises to the baby, where it is obligatory to squeal like a pig or roar like a lion, is one of the most enjoyable assignments of parenthood.  It can chase away the fog of sleep deprivation, while it stealthily educates baby to connect pictures of creatures with their names and the characteristic sounds they make.  This is “instruction with delight” that twenty-first century sophisticates can believe in after watching the pill go down practically by itself.

Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Second English edition. London: Printed by T. R. [i.e. Thomas Roycroft] for S. Mearne, 1672. Cotsen 127, copy 2, liberally marked up by former owners.

Who was the first to think up such a clever strategy?  The credit should go to Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), one of the greats in the history of Western education. The way he yoked the power of words and pictures in his masterpiece, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Nuremberg: J. Endter, 1658), reveals how seriously he took the earliest and least appreciated stage of education.

Comenius insisted that “whatever is taught and learned be not obscure or confused, but apparent, distinct, and articulate, as the fingers on the hands.”  This could be accomplished by  introducing new ideas through the senses, “the main Guide of Childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself an abstracted contemplation of things.”  Beginning with actual objects children already know will capture their wandering attentions so that  they  “grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned.”

He directed educators to begin at the beginning  and teach the student “the Plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living Creatures know how to make” with a “Symbolical Alphabet,” or what we would call much less grandly, an alphabet of animal noises.   By engaging the eyes and ears of the “young A b c scholar,” the “lively and vocal” alphabet would create mental connections with pictures, words, and letters.  “By looking upon the Creatures, till the imagination being strengthened by use,” the child would be ready to graduate to the next challenge, making sense of  pictures keyed to the descriptions: “And thus the whole Book being gone over by the bare Titles of the Pictures, Reading cannot but be learned; and indeed too, which thing is to be noted, without using any ordinary tedious spelling[ [i.e. recitation of tables of syllables] that most troublesome torture of wits, which may be wholly avoided by this Method.”  Comenius suggested that teachers encourage children to identify things they saw around them or to use the illustrations as models for drawing to reinforce the book lessons.  This “School of Things obvious to the senses,” he declared, would be “an Entrance to the School Intellectual.”

The “Symbolical Alphabet” was not perfect, however, as the translator Charles Hoole, himself a highly regarded schoolmaster, pointed out.  Animals did not speak a universal language, for one thing.  Ducks may say “kha kha” in Latin (or German, which was the second language in the original edition), but in English they have said “quack, quack” at least since 1570, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dogs do growl “Rrrrr,” but  they make other sounds as well.  How many seventeenth-century English children had seen as much as a picture of a hoopoe, a showy bird that ranges across Africa and Asia?  Another problem is the sloppy typesetting–the spacing and placement of the captions for the letters I through M, for example, are noticeably out of alignment.

Comenius’s “Symbolic Alphabet” was retooled by another schoolmaster in the 1690s.   Like any teacher trying to use a colleague’s lesson plan, Joseph Aickin felt it necessary to make modifications.  He simplified the concept by adapting it for instruction in one, not two languages in his English Grammar ( London: Printed for the author by J. Lawrence, 1693). He also tinkered with the presentation.  He rewrote the bilingual picture caption as a question and set it to the left of the picture, which he had moved to the center of the page. To the right of it was the letter representing the animal’s cry and a phonetic transcription in two separate columns.  He also improved  some of the examples:  Comenius had the hare cry “va” for the letter W, while Aickin substituted, “What’s French for yea? wWw Wee” (admittedly the link between that and the cut of a man playing bowls is confusing).  He replaced the letter I symbolized by the mouse chirping “I I I” in Comenius with “What do we see with? i I i  Eye” accompanied by a cut of a beam of light shooting out from an wide open eyeball.

Reproduced from the Thomason copy on Early English Books On Line.

Some people in the mid-eighteenth century may have recalled the “Symbolic Alphabet” with nostalgia.   It was revived with little modifications and illustrated with rather elegant engravings printed in red and black, as “The Sound of the Letters represented by sensible Objects”  in The Pretty Play-thing for Children of all Denominations (Alexandria [i.e. London]: Printed for the Booksellers of Egypt and Palmyra [i.e. John Newbery], ca. 1759).   Here are the pages for the letters A-D and W-Z:

I recognized Comenius’ “Symbolical Alphabet” in its new dress a few weeks ago after dipping into the Orbis Sensualism Pictus for a different reason.   What is most striking is the way the systematic sequence of links in Comenius between thing with picture, the picture with the thing’s sound, the thing’s sound with the letter of the alphabet, and the letter with its pronunciation has been broken and replaced with something much simpler in the Newbery adapatation.  Comenius’s brilliant strategy was perhaps too complicated to prove as “distinct and articulate as the fingers on the hand:”  Newbery’s clever repackaging showed the way for future pictorial alphabets for very young learners.

A New Picture Book Bio of John Newbery, the Man Behind the Medal

Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books  (2017) is an explanation of where children’s books came from for preschoolers.   This is the first collaboration of author Michelle Markel and illustrator Nancy Carpenter, but they are both veteran creators of picture book biographies.  Working with other people,  they have introduced  young readers to modern artists Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau to powerful women Queen Victoria and Hillary Clinton.  They have also tackled more obscure but worthy women subjects, such as Fannie Farmer, founder of the Boston Cooking School and the young Jewish girl who played an important role in the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909 on the East Side. .

Markel and Carpenter are not the first to write a juvenile biography of  John Newbery (1713-1767), the London bookseller widely believed to have “invented” the children’s book as we know it (I discussed their predecessors  in a previous post). For that achievement, Newbery was selected in 1922 as the namesake of the American Library Association’s annual award for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.Can the life of John Newbery be made relevant to a twenty-first century child? And how many will actually find it interesting when so few vivid facts or anecdotes that would make him come alive survive?. The heated controversy about whether he treated his writers like indentured servants obviously won’t do and neither will George Colman’s nasty but hilarious send-up of the proud social climbing papa visiting his son at Oxford.   Tidbits like those would detract from the legend of the philanthropic bookseller who was the friend of the rising generation.  There are no portraits of him, so the imaginary one by Stephen Markel on the cover of Shirley Granaham’s 2014 biography, is all over the Internet for lack of anything else.  How many people assume it was taken from some eighteenth-century original in a museum?

Perhaps the fewer the facts, the better, given the age of the intended audience for Balderbash.  Markel and Carpenter have succeeded in constructing an amusing and uplifting account that only a pedant might take issue with. Carpenter takes the liberty of presenting mid-eighteenth-century society as more literate and diverse than it actually was.  If we can believe illustrations depicting Newbery’s bookshop, the little books were stored not on low ranges of shelves like a modern children’s room, but in drawers.  But why snark at such good-humored illustrations?.  John Newbery would have approved of the way Carpenter incorporated Jack the Giant-Killer and Tom Thumb into the scene above..  I also think the shameless old promoter would have liked even more the scene where Newbery  peeks out of his shop, watching his satisfied little customers begin reading their loot before they are barely out of the door.  Actually the real John Newbery’s usual tactic was to model the desired behavior by showing the grown-ups presenting good children with rewards of his little books.  The goal never deviated from suggesting his books should be gobbled up like plum cakes!Markel’s opening is inspired: “Lucky, lucky reader. Be glad it’s not 1726.”  She goes on to explain that all the wonderful books like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe were for adults and children had nothing of their own except “preachy poems and fables, religious texts that made them fear that death was near, and manuals that told them where to stand, how to sit, not to laugh and scores of other other rules.”  That has more than a grain of truth,  as these two illustrations from children’s books published before 1744 show.What a difference between those two horrifying images and these two from  A Set of Squares, one of Newbery’s earliest works for young people for teaching reading along the principles of John Locke.  It’s not mentioned in Balderdash! (the only surviving copy is in the Cotsen Children’s Library) and in fact there are no facsimile illustrations from actual Newberys (which would have spoiled the concept).Was it all a lark creating those pioneering children’s books?    I doubt that  Newbery dreamed up the concept for the first periodical for children, The Lilliputian Magazine (1751), in the print shop, sitting under drying racks filled with sheets of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book.  Perhaps he should have, but we will probably never know.  It was obviously far beyond the scope of a picture book biography to retell in greater detail the story of  Newbery’s career as a children’s book publisher.  But there is a certain irony that Markel and Carpenter have given the legend of John Newbery (for which he was partly responsible) a charming new form, which will probably guarantee its continued circulation.for another generation.