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I have come across this sentence, "Modi understands only one alphabet, and that is the capital I", in the renowned Indian writer Dr. Shashi Tharoor's recently published book "The Paradoxical Prime Minister".

When I looked the word 'alphabet' up in dictionaries, I get the definition as 'a set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language, especially the set of letters from A to Z'. (Oxford Living Dictionaries)

So, is it correct to call a letter an alphabet?

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In standard US and UK usage, an alphabet is a system or collection of letters, a letter being

A written symbol or character representing a speech sound and being a component of an alphabet. [AHD]

In Indian English, however, the word alphabet is sometimes used synonymously with letter, which is all that has happened here. A web search turns up innumerable examples, including sources one might expect to have a good level of English proficiency:

Of these students, only 22% managed to read their Hindi textbook while only 43% could read a paragraph, 14% could read a word, 13% could read only the alphabets and 8% could not even identify an alphabet. (The Wire)

Please enter the alphabets and numbers in the exact way as they are displayed without any space. (CAPTCHA for the Government of Nagaland)

Earlier in the month, the company had posted a beautiful time-lapse photo of a traffic junction, which is in the form of an alphabet 'X'… (International Business Times, India edition)

I had taken it on myself to teach them the English alphabets.… Every day after my farming chores were completed around 11 am, the children would sit on a “charpoy” … [t]hen for a couple of hours I taught them the alphabets from A to Z. (Column in the Free Press Journal)

India of course has many languages and several different alphabets, so the use of alphabet to mean letter may have arisen out of a lexical gap for distinguishing corresponding characters of different case:

Do not rush her into picking up all the alphabets by the end of the first week. Remember it is 26 new alphabets and 52 letters (both upper and lower case included), and that’s a lot for her little brain. (Magic Crate blog)

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    So, a letter being called alphabet is an example of Indianism? – mahmud koya Nov 15 '18 at 19:31
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    @mahmudkoya Yes, I believe this usage originates from and is mostly used in South Asia, like good name or timepass; it seems like it is an ordinary usage there, but it would not be commonly understood or accepted, for example, in the Five Eyes countries. – choster Nov 15 '18 at 19:36
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    @DanBron In fairness, this question seems to have come up before, though it was asked less ably and as a consequence oerklens was stuck with guessing. – choster Nov 15 '18 at 19:45
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    @Kris I might accept that interpretation if the line were something like Modi's alphabet has only one letter, and that is the capital I, or Modi understands only an alphabet of the capital I, but that is not in fact the case. – choster Nov 16 '18 at 14:32
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    @Kris no one uses "alphabet" to address a single letter outside of the South Asian subcontinent – phuclv Nov 16 '18 at 16:54
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Technically, one letter could be an alphabet. By the definition you provided, an alphabet is a set of symbols or letters. This set could theoretically contain any number of letters.

  • The Latin alphabet is a single set of 26 letters.
  • The Greek alphabet is a single set of 24 letters.
  • The Arabic alphabet (technically abjad) is a single set of 28 letters.
  • The hypothetical alphabet in the sentence is a single set of 1 letter.

So while in the sentence it is used as a hyperbole to mean that the individual thinks only of himself, it's possible that the letter I could also be an alphabet in which it is the only letter.

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    +1 Good interpretation and it makes sense. Thanks! – mahmud koya Nov 15 '18 at 18:53
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    This sounds nice in theory but I think the answer is rather more prosaic. – choster Nov 15 '18 at 19:20
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    To be pedantic, Arabic script (and some Asian writing systems also) are not strictly speaking "alphabets" because they do not have symbols for every sound in the spoken language. For example written Arabic has no "letters" representing vowels - they are either omitted, or represented by marks over or under the consonant that precedes them. The technical term for this type of script is an abjad, not an alphabet. – alephzero Nov 15 '18 at 23:20
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    Well, the letter I is not the same as the set of letters containing exactly the letter I. Consider an analogy: a wallet containing only one coin is not the same thing as the coin alone without the wallet. I find the explanation that the text contains an Indianism (the word alphabet meaning letter) more convincing. – Giorgio Nov 16 '18 at 21:58
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    @Giorgio right. Technically, I ≠ {I}. – leftaroundabout Nov 17 '18 at 16:15
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Sometimes, the alphabet is called in English the ABC. Alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, are the origin of the word alphabet, of course. Perhaps the writer should written "Modi understands only one letter of alphabet, and that is the capital I". Perhaps the writer is saying that Modi is selfish and appreciates or thinks only of matters relating to himself.He is a narcissist. I have heard and read that such a person has "I trouble" or loves the "vertical pronoun. An alphabet constitutes all the letters used in a particular written language. You are correct in thinking that.

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"Modi understands only one alphabet, and that is the capital I" is an example of a metaphor in which Modi's understanding of a well known concept (the English alphabet) is being compared to an imaginary "alphabet" that only contains the letter "I". Even the lower case "i" is excluded from the imaginary alphabet to emphasise some selfish characteristic about Modi that Dr. Shashi Tharoor wants to emphasise, because "i/I" is only used alone in its capital form.

Thus, Dr. Shashi Tharoor is saying that Modi's utterances are restricted to: I, I, I, ...

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A "letter" does not provide as much context as an "alphabet" e.g. "e is the 5th letter" vs "e is the 5th alphabet". The author could draw out on his views regarding Modi by stating - Modi ONLY understands the alphabet I (of all the alphabets).

So it is correct and in fact warranted in this case to convey the meaning.

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    Just so you know, outside India, English speakers don’t and can’t use “alphabet” when they want to convey “letter”. It doesn’t have that meaning. And “e” is the 5th letter does mean, to most English speakers, what you phrasing as “the 5th alphabet”. The first is completely unambiguous and clear; the second would just confuse most people (like the original poster here was confused). Clarifying this difference between Indian English and the more common English is why the first answer has so many votes: the phrase was confusing and mysterious to most, and the answer solves the mystery. – Dan Bron Nov 16 '18 at 14:37
  • Now that I look at it with a fresh set of eyes, it does make sense to use the word letter. Good to know @Dan Bron – kSiddharth Nov 16 '18 at 17:31

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