History Writing

The Power of the Alphabet

This post is a reflection on a recent book by Judith Flanders, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order

The most successful inventions are the ones that look like they’ve always been there. The age-graded classroom was invented in the mid nineteenth century, but it has come to be seen that the natural way to organized schooling. How else could it be done?  That is certainly the case for alphabets.  Could else could we write down words?  

But the alphabet is a relatively late invention in human history, arising from Semitic languages  around 2000 BCE. According to Flanders,

We think that it was born in the Western Desert of Upper Egypt, somewhere between the cities of Thebes and Abydos, along a route that was heavily used by both traders and soldiers, especially mercenaries from across the Middle East. These people shared no mother tongue, nor were they from an educated, literate elite. Of necessity, therefore, they communicated in a creole, a hybrid of their many native languages. And yet these rude, uneducated, disregarded people most likely invented what became the ancestor of all the world’s alphabets. For while it is possible that writing was invented fewer than half a dozen times, the very idea of an alphabet was so completely novel in its level of abstraction that it is thought that in all of human history it was invented only once: at this time, in this place. As far as we know, every alphabetic script derives from this single source.

It’s hard for us to perceive what a peculiar abstraction the alphabet is.

The central innovation of alphabetic writing is that it reduces every word to smaller units by representing each individual sound, without any connection to a word’s meaning. This novelty has been compared to the creation of money, which dates from about the sixth century BCE, in Lydia. Both alphabet and money are abstractions: money is a symbol of value, not something of value itself; letters are symbols of sounds, not the sounds themselves. It is difficult for us today to understand how the alphabet changed everything through its extreme abstraction.

However radical the alphabet might be understood to be in retrospect, its ease of use in practice – memorizing twenty or thirty symbols instead of thousands – meant that this new system spread rapidly among the desert travellers.

The current standard, the Roman alphabet, evolved from the Semitic in stages during the first millennium BCE.

Early Greek retained the Semitic outlines of the alphabet: it was arranged in mostly the same order, apart from some letters that had been added to accommodate the different sounds of the Greek language; the letters were almost the same; and initially the reading direction was the same. After 800 BCE the Etruscans then adopted, and adapted, the Greek alphabet, making their own changes to suit their language and pronunciation; and from there came the Latin alphabet, as the Etruscans were assimilated into the early Roman republic sometime after the fourth century BCE The Latin alphabet appropriated twenty-one of the Greek letters, dropping zeta as unnecessary and adding ‘g’, then later reincorporating ‘z’ as well as ‘y’, in order to be able to transliterate Greek names.

The alphabet invests words with a fixed quality that is missing in oral expression.

Spoken words have an ephemeral, fleeting order as they are uttered, and until words are written down they are not fixed one after the other. But once they are written down in an alphabetic writing system, words do have an order, and so do their individual components, letters.

Flanders Book Cover

A key point that Flanders makes in her book is about how this abstract symbol has come to organize our lives.  Alphabetical order is everywhere, and as with so many other successful innovations, this order has come to seem natural.  But this order is a relatively recent development.  Religion, power, rank, or subject were long the most common systems for ordering things.  In the medieval world, for example,

It was impossible to understand the world without understanding God’s plan for it, and any well-constructed encyclopedia had to explain the world by reflecting God’s plan in its organizational structure, as well as in the information it contained. In the thirteenth century, De rerum proprietatibus, On the Nature of Things … set the order of the great chain of being: from God, to man, to animals, to inanimate objects. God had created a hierarchical world, and those who followed him reflected that hierarchy in their work. Alphabetical order looked like resistance, even rebellion, against the order of divine creation.

The invention of paper made the keeping of written records was much easier and more economical and thus created a pressing need for being able to organize and retrieve these records.  And the invention of printing created the concept of a standard text.

It was only with the arrival of printed books that the concept of a work that was finished, fixed, came to be. Previously, manuscripts from antiquity onwards commonly contained wide margins, sometimes to allow for the inclusion of expensive illuminations and decoration, but more frequently for the addition of annotations and amendments.

The first university libraries were based on the bequests of wealthy patrons and thus were often organized by donor — heterogeneous collections of volumes that the donor had accumulated over the years.  Within collections the arrangement was generally by subject.

But all libraries needed to record the arrangement of books on the shelf in a shelf list for later retrieval. And libraries also needed a catalogue that would cross-reference the shelf location with alphabetical lists by subject, title, and author. Out of this arose the card catalogue, which made it easy to add or remove items without constantly having to reprint the listings.

Even as alphabetization, and printing, had turned deus into d-e-u-s, as the shelfmark or accession number had turned a book into a movable unit, so the card or slip turned information into physically manipulable chunks of knowledge.

Notice how, in the egocentric world of current academic practice, we customarily give pride of place to author over title or subject, both in organizing reference lists and in citing individual publications.

Consider also how the alphabet has invaded languages that use ideographic representation, where learning to read and write involves memorizing several thousand characters.

In the twentieth century, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, script reform was instituted to ease the learning process. The result was pinyin (literally, ‘sounds spelled-out’), which both simplified the forms of many of the written characters and created a romanized system of phonetic renderings, for use in telegrams, road signs, corporate logos and much of the impedimenta of modern life, including computers.

Today, many Chinese do much of their writing by typing phonetic versions of words on pinyin keyboards, then selecting the correct characters from the range of possibilities brought up on their screen. They can, therefore, recognize – read – a character with no difficulty, but can have trouble reproducing – writing – the more complex graphemes on their own.

For better and for worse, we have all come to rely on alphabetical order in our lives.  Flanders concludes her study like this:

Of all the methods that have been explored – hierarchical, categorical, geographical, chronological, alphabetical – we might say that alphabetical is as close as we can get to a universally accessible, non-elitist form of sorting, and therefore it is the worst form of classification and organization that has ever been devised, except for all those other forms that have been tried.

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