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.

Martin Engelbrecht’s Kleines Bilder-Cabinet: A Gift from Pamela K. Harer

Cotsen’s relationship with Pamela K. Harer, the noted children’s book collector, dates back to the late 1990s, when she was still practicing law in Southern California.  As a collector, Pamela was attracted to English-language material from the 19th and 20th centuries, but was also intrigued by propaganda produced for the young between the two World Wars and early Soviet picture books as well.

Pamela’s first gift to Cotsen comprised over fifty eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English, American, and French books and it was described in the “New and Notable” in the Autumn 2000 Princeton University Library Chronicle.  When downsizing for a move to Seattle in 2004, Pamela presented Cotsen with a second big stash, this time illustrated pamphlets mostly published by the Dean firm. Just recently Cotsen Rare Book Cataloger Jeff Barton used some of them as the basis for a lecture on the toy book’s early history at the Children’s Books History Society May 2014 study day.

Educational books were not Pamela’s thing per se, but there were some choice hornbooks, a copy of the Mohawk Primer, and two editions of the Orbis Sensualium Pictus in the first sale catalog of her collection sold at PBA Galleries November 6th of this year. Luckily not everything in Pamela’s collection will go to the rooms: she held back the Thomas Malin Rodgers copy of the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen (ca. 1740?) she had acquired at Bonham’s in 2012. This book consists of one hundred leaves of engraved plates, each with nine hand-colored images arranged in three rows of three.   This wonderful surprise was presented to Cotsen this fall. Like Pamela’s previous two gifts, this had also been selected with the collection’s strengths in mind. It was both touching and impressive that she knew about Cotsen’s cache of early modern texts for teaching foreign languages.


Title page, Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen. Gift of Pamela K. Harer


Plate 24, Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen .

The book’s publisher was Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), one of the most important engravers working in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, which was a major center for print production during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately no one took credit for the book’s contents or signed the illustrations. Children’s book collectors associate Engelbrecht with the charming engraved dioramas or miniature theaters,  that are the forerunners of the nineteenth-century toy theater the produced from the 1730s on. The standard reference books on 18th century German-language children’s books don’t offer much evidence that Engelbrecht was a major player in the juvenile book market, so this is a wonderful addition to Cotsen’s Engelbrecht collection, which consists of this illustrated polyglot school book, a small section of the fancy prints, and over twenty examples of the dioramas.

Engelbrecht’s Kleines Bilder-Cabinet is a genuinely rare book, as is so often the case with school books. A quick search revealed that it survives in a copy of the forty-seven-leaf 1708 edition in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek and an undated one with ninety leaves in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague. Cotsen has an uncolored, undated copy of the one hundred leaves of plates in a somewhat later binding. Someone else is welcome to solve the little mystery I uncovered about it: another important Augsburg engraver, Johann Andreas Pfeffer, issued a book under the same title in 1734 and 1735 with what look like the same plates, but it has only ninety-six. There are copies at the University of Groningen, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the Staats- und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg, and the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles.


The plate on the left is reproduced from the Pfeffer edition of the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet reproduced on p.58 of the exhibition catalog Deutsche Kinderbücher des 18. Jahrhunderts, (Cotsen Reference Z1035.3 .D52). It faces the same plate in the uncolored copy of Engelbrecht edition (Cotsen 21019).

Given the interest in educational reform during the early modern period, I was curious how the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet would compare to others from the period, so I lined up some more polyglot school books on my desk.  The Kleines Bilder-Cabinet has been described as a picture dictionary, but that turns out to be something of a misnomer.  Here’s a contemporary example of a picture dictionary, Primitiva Latinae linguae, which was published by Peter Conrad Monath in Nurnberg in the 1730s.  It is quite easy to see that one book is an apple, and the other an orange.


Title page, Primitiva latinae linguae, (Cotsen 1088)


Page 1 and plate 1, Primitiva latinae linguae.

In the Primitiva Latinae linguae, the vocabulary is arranged alphabetically by the Latin word, followed by its German and French equivalents. The words are numbered sequentially, so that it is easy to find the corresponding pictures on the plate opposite.   But there are more words on the page than there are illustrations on the plate.  Quite logically, the words that are unillustrated like “acerbus” and “adulter” are also unnumbered, so the student knows not to go hunting for a picture.   One of the students who owned the book made neat additions to text pages in the right hand and lower margins throughout the book.   So the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet really can’t be considered a pictionary, if only because the content isn’t arranged in alphabetical order. Only the name of the thing is provided, I suppose, because the picture makes a verbal description unnecessary.

And it’s not a direct descendant of Johann Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus,  where the author gave considerable thought as to how to best visualize a thing, a category, a process, a concept, etc. and then provided a pithy description of the illustration in order to give the reader a clear idea of it. Comenius’ inspired pedagogy is nicely reflected in the section on the bedroom, where he succeeds in demonstrating how the objects’ interrelated functions are determined by their location in a particular space.


Title page, (London : J. Kirton, 1659.) Orbis sensualium pictus, reproduced from Cotsen Ref LT101.C6 1659a.


Pages 148-9, Orbis sensualium pictus

And the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet isn’t a hybrid text like J. G. Seybold’s Teutsch-Lateinisches Worterbuchlein (Nurnberg: J. F. Rudiger, 1733), which is part dictionary, part encyclopedia.   Seybold classified some 6000 words into categories and each one is illustrated with a block about the size of a man’s thumbnail.  The page is laid out in six columns, three of images, and three of words, so a lot of information can be packed into a small page.  Even though it can be difficult to make out the thumbnails or read the words,  the page looks legible overall rather than cluttered because of all the white space.


Title page, Teutsch=Lateinisches Wörterbüchlein zum Nutz und Ergötzung der Schul=Jugend… (Cotsen 90784)


Pages 116-7, Teutsch=Lateinisches Wörterbüchlein .

Where Comenius described the ship in a double-page spread illustrated with one block, Seybold offered the reader five pages covered with dozens of blocks showing all the ship’s parts.  The student who used Seybold would certainly acquire a much more extensive nautical vocabulary than he would from the Orbis Pictus, but it would come at the expense of a basic understanding of the interconnection of parts.

The Kleines Bilder-Cabinet represents yet another approach to impressing foreign-language vocabulary on school-boy brains. The model for the book may be a mid-seventeenth-century French work for teaching Latin, with which Engelbrecht might have been familiar: Louis Couvay’s set of plates based on the work of fifteenth century Belgian grammarian Johannes de Spater, Method nouvelle et tres-exacte pour enseigner et apprendre la premiere partie de Despautaire (1649).  Couvay was related to the engraver Jean Couvay, who executed the handsome plates. The volume was subsequently issued under the more pithy and accurate title, Le Despautaire en tables. It seems to have been in circulation until the 1700s, although it has to be said that the surviving copies are not easy to date with much precision.

The family resemblance between the two books isn’t hard to see. Each plate in Couvay is devoted to the particular Latin declension identified in the heading. The picture plane is divided into a grid and each box contains a small picture with a caption. Note that the size and number of the boxes varies considerably from leaf to leaf, as does the quantity and placement of explanatory text.


Plate 14, Methodus nova et accurata docendi ac ediscendi Primam Despauterii (Cotsen 133).


Plate 17, Methodus nova.


Plate 49, Methodus nova.

Engelbrecht did not copy Couvay religiously, however, designing a regular grid of nine boxes all the same size. The plate has a heading for the Latin declension it illustrates, but no text beyond the captions.  Inside each box, the Latin word ought to come first, but perhaps because the book was produced in Germany, the German translation precedes it in large type, and after the Latin comes the French and Italian translations.  It’s hard to know if the change in order was confused or helped students, but it could have been dictated more by marketing than pedagogy.   Books or toys produced in Germany with polyglot texts — the content usually radically simplified to so that captions in three or four languages can be squeezed into a small space — I tend to regard as evidence for plans to distribute in German and abroad on the Continent.


Plates 29 and 30, Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernüng Vier Sprachen. Gift of Pamela K. Harer.

Engelbrecht was not the only engraver who preferred a simpler layout: Nurnberg engraver Christoph Weigel stripped it down even more radically in the Neuer Lust-Weg.  Here the grids have just six boxes and they are large enough to allow for a clear and legible layout of the Latin, German, French, Italian captions within (the German words at the bottom of the boxes are written in Sutterlin script).  All attempt to integrate grammar and visuals has been abandoned and the pictures are arranged on the plates in random order.  While it makes for an undeniably attractive presentation, it is harder to imagine how the teacher used the book during lessons.


Title page, Neuer Lust-Weg zum ziel nützlicher Künste und Wissenschaften (Cotsen 86).


Plates 60-1 Neuer Lust-Weg.

It struck me that the engraved grids in the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet, Couvay, and the Neuer Lust-Weg  resemble wall charts that have been  part of school room décor since the early nineteenth century. Or at least that is what histories of education that cover the subject tell us.  And I couldn’t help but notice that the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet and the Primitiva latinae linguae  both have frontispieces showing classrooms decorated with floor-to-ceiling grids of pictures. Could illustrations like these be one of the few sources we have for this alternative to wall charts?Somewhere has a school room wall decorated in this manner survived miraculously?


On the left is the frontispiece for the Kleines Bilder-Cabinet zu Erlernung der Vier Sprachen and on the right is the frontispiece to the Primitiva latinae linguae.

Should the these books I’ve been comparing in this post be thought of  as  collections of miniature charts that students could have at hand where ever they happened to be working on their lessons?  Of course such books have to have been expensive, but even so, would they have been accessible to more students than those fortunate enough to live where there were dedicated school rooms with painted walls, or walls hung with tables painted on fabric or glazed prints?

This attempt to learn more about Pamela’s gift turned out to be a fascinating exercise:  the descriptions in the Princeton on-line catalogue suggested that they all might be different attempts to further the pedagogy of visible language pioneered by Comenius, but it turns out that there was no consensus as to the best way to integrate the pictures with the text.  Different books offered different solutions to the very real problem of how to impress the thing, the word, and its representation on the student’s memory.

Pamela will not see this post. I’m sorry to have to close this with the sad news that the small world of American collectors of early children’s books was reduced and diminished by her death at age eighty-one in September 2014. Pamela was one of a kind and her sharp mind, engaging curiosity, and high energy will be missed.

Special thanks go to Pamela’s daughter Cynthia Gibbs and Pamela’s beloved husband of sixty-one years, W. Benson Harer MD, a distinguished collector in the field of Egyptology, for donating this splendid book to Cotsen as a final remembrance of Pam.

 Benjamin and Pamela K. Harer

Benson and Pamela Harer