Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1065:
ALPHABET

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1065.

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," Drucker adds.

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 atoms.

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 forbidden knowledge.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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 Mexico


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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