The Oxhouse

This blog is called The Oxhouse because it’s a blog about writing, and consequently it’s also an homage to words and the letters that make them. And these words and letters are an oxhouse, literally and figuratively.

There are many fascinating facts about the alphabet, and one of these, as I learned from the wonderful History of English Podcast, is its evolution. This evolution includes the shift from pictograms to the modern, abstract letters we use today, such as the shift from a picture of an ox to the modern letter A, and a picture of a house to the modern letter B. In this way, the alphabet is literally the oxhouse.

But it’s also an oxhouse in other ways. Because I feel oxen have a hard-working, noble, ancient aura about them – these creatures that have been around so long, helping civilization in times recent and many millennia ago. They’re almost mythological and mystical too, in their quietly majestic way, so that it’s as if they occupy the same mysterious ether as unicorns and the phoenix. In short, they are remarkable creatures, and the alphabet shares these noble, ancient, mythical qualities.

It’s certainly impressive – a handful of letters whose creation changed the world, and that continue to change it again and again with every new page and new person they touch. Who would imagine twenty-six letters and their close-knit ancestors and siblings in other cultures could combine in such a rich array of forms and feelings? That they could express and elaborate so many ideas and hopes and fears, turning them into something people can look at and hold and try to understand. Even in civilizations without written script, the words that helped give structure to relationships and commerce and past and future were still made up of these letters and sounds, just as visible despite their invisibility.

And who would imagine that even after millennia of using these letters, people would have barely scratched their surface? Because scratching their surface is all anyone can ever do, since every new idea breeds more ideas, so that language is always expanding and enriching, just like an ox whose work allows a family to feed themself and then others as civilization grows.

Because one day Copernicus can wonder about the structure of the universe, and the next day his collection of letters and words and ideas can be expanded by Galileo and Kepler and Hubble and a thousand others, each adding their own thoughts and each inspiring new thoughts to branch off theirs, until Copernicus’s spark expanded as wide as the heavens, and the letters found another infinite outlet for their elastic elegance.

Or one day Shakespeare can write Hamlet, and the next day the thoughts sewn into that play can inspire countless playwrights and poets and philosophers to write other works, and those works can inspire others still, so that the collection of words in the play expands forever outward too. It’s as if letters and words are the long-sought greater-than-perpetual motion machine. A machine run by fact and fiction instead of one slowed by friction.

And the letters accomplish all these tasks in such a sublime way that they’re impossible to fully grasp and understand. They may not appear this way, with their simple structure of lines and curves and the basic sounds they represent, but this deceiving simplicity only makes them more remarkable. After all, as Hamlet shows, one of the most influential phrases in the language can be made up entirely of simple two and three-letter words.

So letters are sublime, and they’re ancient and they’re noble and they’re so amazing it sometimes seems they must be a myth, just like oxen. And the structures these letters allow to flourish around them – language and writing and reading and all the rest – are the house where the letters live, just as oxen may help construct their own homes, so that house and tenant are almost one and the same.

Letters and oxen give their houses purpose too, since without the noble tenants the house is just an empty and hollow place. And without them, civilization would be a very different place too. It might not even be a place at all.

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