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.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.
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.