Today, we invent the alphabet -- and we sow seeds of
discord. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The Greek word for alphabet,
says historian Johanna Drucker, is
stoicheia. That's where chemists get
the word stoichiometry, the science of
combining chemical elements. For ancient Greeks,
letters of the alphabet were minimal elements of
speech -- "with all the cosmological implications,"
Alphabets were invented in the Eastern
Mediterranean region between 1400 and 1000 BC. For
2000 years before that, people had written with
pictures. Their hieroglyphs were far from speech.
They were much more closely related to painting
than to talking.
Early Sumerian cuneiform, in use 5000 years ago,
had only around 300 characters. It lacked anything
like the full expressivity of speech. Yet it evoked
things that speech could not.
The invention of an alphabet was begun by the
pre-classical Greeks and finished by the
Phoenicians in the 11th century BC. Alphabets now
transcribed speech directly. All alphabets are
phonetic. They reduce speech to its least divisible
elements -- to its stoicheia -- to its
For 2000 years before the invention of the
alphabet, writing was an art apart from speech. It
was an art that gave us means for storing
knowledge, but it stored knowledge much as an
etching or woodcut might. Now all that changed.
The result was no less than catastrophic.
Psychologist Julian Jaynes has pointed out that it
was just at this time -- just before 1000 BC --
that humans developed analytical consciousness. In
popular terms, our thinking became very left-brain.
What followed was incredible social upheaval.
Without the older and more mystical means of
dealing with human behavior, leaders instituted the
systematic use of cruelty. They took up slavery.
Knowledge was once mystery. Now it became power. We
struck new poses of masculine domination.
Once writing turned into canned speech, we had
means for watching ourselves think. In the long
run, that led to mathematics, philosophy, and
literature. Perhaps the first great literature
produced was the Book of Genesis, which begins by
telling how we'd eaten the fruit of new and
A mid-19th-century philologist, Henry Humphreys,
saw the impact of the shift long before Jaynes did.
In 1853, he wrote,
From the invention of letters the machinations
of the human heart began to operate; falsity and
error increased; litigation and prisons had their
beginnings, as [did] specious and artful language
which causes so much confusion in the world.
Alphabets altered human consciousness in wonderful
and terrible ways. Now that's what computers are
doing -- wonderfully, unpredictably, and with the
same disruption of the human condition.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Drucker, J, The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The
Letters in History and Imagination. London:
Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1995.
Jaynes, J., The Origin of Consciousness in
the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976.
See Episode 1064 for more
on this general theme. I am grateful to Pat
Bozeman, Special Collections, UH Libraries, for
providing me a copy of the Drucker source, and Dr.
J.E. Fadell, UH Libraries, for his additional
counsel on linguistic matters.
For more on the evolution of the alphabet, see the
following website: http://www.wam.umd.edu/~rfradkin/alphapage.html.
Photo by John Lienhard
Native American Petroglyphs near Albuquerque, New
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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