Tuesday, June 22, 2010


A pangram is a sentence that uses all of the letters of the alphabet. The most famous English one being “the quickbrown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. For pangrammatists the ultimate quest is to find a sentence that contains each letter only once. This is known as a perfect pangram. There are a few in English but they make very little sense to anyone but the most absurdly well-dictionary-read lexophile. Here are two examples of perfect English pangrams, with explanations of the meanings in brackets below:

· Cwm fjord bank glyphs vext quiz.

(Carved symbols in a mountain hollow on the bank of an inlet irritated an eccentric person.)

· Squdgy fez, blank jimp crwth vox!

(A short brimless felt hat barely blocks out the sound of a Celtic violin.)

These perfect pangrams may strike most people as ridiculous and pointless achievements but as they become slightly longer, letting in some repeated letters, the hunt for pangrams produce some wonderfully odd sentences that we might never otherwise have the pleasure of considering. Take for example this Bulgarian pangram:

За миг бях в чужд плюшен скърцащ фотьойл.

(For a moment I was in someone else's plush squeaking armchair)

Or this French one:

Voix ambiguë d'un cœur qui au zéphyr préfère les jattes de kiwis.

(Ambiguous voice of a heart which prefers dishes of kiwis in the breeze.)

It seems to me, though I am very likely indulging myself in a ridiculous thought, that if they contain every letter in the alphabet then they must be saying something universal. If they are built of every type of particle in the known communicative landscape, surely they will be a kind of unifying patchwork quilt of representation that speaks of and for all the letters, for the language, for that culture’s communication itself. If you look deep enough into the pangram you will see an entire culture. Its reverberations will ricochet out of it from every letter like a thousand balls bouncing madly out of a swirling arrangement of ink. The typography of an alphabet itself, which will be necessary for it viewing (though even Braille has a design!) already gives away loudly whispered secrets of the culture. Look again at your language in its most reduced form, a single letter. Look at the tincture of a word, the letter a. Look at its handsome form, and how the ink curls about it lovingly. This is the ink’s favourite pastime, indeed, its passion. Ink loves nothing more than to form letters on the page. When we form a word in our mouths and on our faces the explosive complexity is of course to be celebrated. But ink lives for text. ‘Words dazzle and deceive because they are mimed by the face. But black words on a white page are the soul laid bare’ Guy de Maupassant.

Our words dip their bare feet in ink buckets and walk the papers of our diaries. Our thoughts leave inken footprints. And where there is no ink, our thoughts must leave some marks somehow. Just as Ahab’s peg leg leaves dents in the deck, his thoughts of Moby Dick bechisel his forehead:

‘Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze upon that ribbed and dented brow; you would see still stranger footprints – the footprints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.’

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

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