How the Alphabet was Made

(notes by Lisa Lewis)


First published in Just So Stories, 1902, illustrated by the author. Followed by the poem “Of all the tribe of Tegumai,” collected in Songs from Books and subsequently as “Merrow Down, part 2.”

The story

Neolithic man Tegumai Bopsulai is out fishing with his daughter Taffy. They talk about the episode in “How the First Letter was written”, when Taffy’s attempt to send a message in a drawing led to complete misunderstanding.

Taffy suggests a way of representing the sounds of the Tegumai language in pictograms. Together she and her father evolve a system using familiar objects and facial expressions, which when simplified become letters of the alphabet.

By scratching or drawing these in prominent places, they can give such information as “this water is undrinkable”, “the rain will be over soon” and “your mother needs more water from the well.”

The system was adopted and improved for thousands of years and now all children should learn the alphabet as soon as they are old enough.


The manuscript of the story is in the volume Just So Stories at the British Library, where it is titled “How Taffy made the Alphabet.” It is the sequel to “How the first Letter was written,” and was perhaps written at the same time (September 1900). The oral version probably also dates from 1898 or 9. As in the previous story, Tegumai and his daughter are fictional versions of Kipling and his elder daughter Josephine (see notes on “How the first Letter was written”).

Kipling’s surviving daughter Elsie would write:

His knowledge of lettering of all ages and his skill in reproducing it was great, and he took infinite pleasure in the drawing of the delicate and fantastic letters for “How the Alphabet was made” in the Just So Stories.
[Memoir in Carrington, p. 516].

It is noticeable that, although Tegumai and Taffy speak English in the story, the words their pictograms stand for are in an invented “Tegumai language,” primitive enough to be conveyed in very few symbols, e.g. “shu-ya” for rainwater. According to ORG, Andrew Lang wrote in an essay “The Origins of the Alphabet” in the Fortnightly Review, October 1904, that the alphabet may have originated in Neolithic times, as is suggested in the story, but ORG added that this was not generally agreed. The essay postdates Just So Stories, but Kipling knew Andrew Lang and could possibly have got the suggestion from him.

The poem is usually read as expressing Kipling’s grief at the death two years earlier of the “Best Beloved” Josephine, so addressed in the earlier Just So stories. He would never quite recover from her loss (see the notes on “How the first Letter was written”).

Alastair Wilson adds:

As recalled in the National Trust Magazinne for Autumn 2022,  Sir Percy Bates (1879-1946), Chairman of the Cunard Steamship Company and  a director of the Morning Post, was a friend of Kipling.  He commissioned  a jeweller to create a necklace based on Kipling’s drawing.  Bates and Kipling had a joke where they pretended Bates had taken the original necklace rom Kipling’s house, Bateman’s, for repair.  Kipling played along, describing the necklace as ‘one of the most beautiful pieces of Neolithic art that has ever been produced’. 

Bates then secretly arranged for a jeweller to create the necklace from Kipling’s illustration.  It’s made from wood, stone, metals and organic materials.  He brought it to Bateman’s in  a special presentation case, in 1928. It can be seen now in the Memorial Room in the house. [A.J.W.]

See also our notes on “I Keep Six Honest Serving-men

Critical Opinions

An anonymous reviewer in the Athenaeum, 4 October 1902, considered that:

several of these stories – for instance those concerning the invention of letter-writing and of the alphabet by the daughter of a cave-dweller … – are perfect, told once for all so that other tellers need not hope to compete.
[Lancelyn Green, ed. The Critical Heritage, p. 272].

For J M S Tompkins:

The great joy was the pictures, with their deeply satisfying detail. I used to work through Taffimai’s necklace, checking the beads off by the list helpfully supplied by the author, though the black snake-like background always puzzled me. [p.56].

Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote:

My own early favourites … were the two tales of Taffy and her father Tegumai, … the second for the sake of that wonderful alphabet, chronicled bead by bead; but also because of the sense of safety and being beloved which enfolds the naughty small heroine, as though her father had spread a cloak over his Little-Girl-Daughter to keep out the cold.
[Three Bodley Head Monographs, London, The Bodley Head, 1968, p. 95].

But to Angus Wilson:

We are in the land of Tegumai and Taffy, of Kipling and his own children, and sentimental whimsicality takes over. [p. 229].


©Lisa Lewis 2006 All rights reserved