John Man: Alpha Beta (Wiley 2000) [IBR2022]

Writing was invented perhaps four times: in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Central America (‘perhaps’ because there are those who argue that the Egyptians took over the idea, though not the form, from Mesopotamia). The base-ten numbering system also emerged four times independently: in Babylon, China, India and Central America. Monotheism arose independently in the Old and New World (a generalization I can defend, in a small way, by citing a tribe with which I spent some time in 1979-80, the Waorani of the eastern Ecuadorian jungle; they believed in a single god, Waengongi, from long before the arrival of Europeans). And evolution had an evolution of its own from long before it was formalized by Darwin. But the alphabet, despite its multifarious forms, was a unique idea, arising only once, spreading across cultures and down centuries. There are many other writing systems, but they are all ideographic or syllabic. Other than the unknown scribes who originated the first tentative form of the alphabet around 2000 BC in Egypt, no culture or person ever independently dreamed up the idea.

This was the wrong book.

I was looking for a different book on the alphabet – one with a somewhat mystical theory – and couldn’t remember the name. This was suggested, and I figured, hey, why not, maybe a straightforward history is the place to start.

Alas, this particular book was the victim of poor timing: I was deep in my Chesterton obsession so didn’t focus as much as I could have, and got lost halfway through. Once I put Chesterton to bed, I started over (it’s a fairly short book) but got lost in the same place. Either I’m losing brain cells at an alarming rate, or there’s something about the second half of this book that’s a lot less readable.

…[T]he roots of the alphabet are still emerging. It seems increasingly certain that this revolutionary, one-off concept arose in Egypt, about 2000 BC. These discoveries will remain controversial until more evidence is found, interpreted and accepted, but one thing you can bet on: as archaeology becomes ever more effective, astonishing advances are still to be made. One day, perhaps, some cache of scrolls or inscriptions will reveal the genii – perhaps even the individual genius – who mined the first treasure-trove of letters from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Man’s primary point is that the alphabet – originally, proto-Sinitic or proto-Canaanite – was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics some time around 2000 BC. He tells this by way of two discoveries, one slightly west of the Nile in the 1990s, and one in the Sinai in the early 20th century. I’m unable to relate these two separate discoveries, or figure out any kind of timeline, but this serves as a basic theory of alphabetic origin. From there, the alphabet was adapted into Hebrew, by the Phonecians who spread it around, and eventually the Greeks and Romans.

The rest of the book delves into explanations of the limitations of cuneiform and hieroglyphics, general linguistic theories of sound production, and glimpses into various writing systems. Although less than a linear history, these are the sections that were the most interesting to me.

Included is a section on the Korean alphabet, which I briefly encountered in a mooc on Korean philosophy. Originally Korea adopted Chinese script as the written basis for their language; it didn’t fit well, but they made it work. In the 15th century, Sejong, a king and a scholar, spent decades consulting with scholars and finally produced The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People, a handbook for Hangul, an alphabet designed for the Korean language.

Its letters are based on an accurate analysis of Korean phonemes. It makes a clear distinction between consonants and vowels. Perhaps the most outstanding feature is that the shapes of the basic letters have significance (whereas the purpose of Roman shapes is lost in history). Sejong’s letters are based on the position of the tongue when the sound is made…
Rooted in practicality, Hangul also reflects Sejong’s Neo-Confucianism. The whole alphabet divides into two complementary opposites of yin – the female, passive, dark, wet and cold principles – and yang – the male, active, bright, dry and hot ones. The interplay of these two forces produce the five elements of wood, earth, fire, metal and water. In Hangul, the vowels are all elaborations on three basic Confucian symbols: a vertical for man, a horizontal for earth and a circle for heaven. Moreover vowels are either bright or dark, and consonants either hard or soft, with further symbolic connections to the five elements depending on whether they are consonants of the back teeth, front teeth, tongue, lips or throat.
Yet, despite Sejong’s authority and the beauty of his system, Hangul did not sweep away tradition. It found modest use in several of his pet projects, and in Buddhist literature, poetry and novels. The establishment refused to be convinced. Bureaucrats and scholars kept their precious Chinese for over four centuries…. In the 1990s, his great invention finally won.

This is used to demonstrate what Man calls his Working Theories of Script Innovation:

1. In a writing system, complexity knows no bounds and imposes none.
2. A writing system will last as long as its culture, unless changed by force.
3. New writing systems emerge only in new, young, ambitious cultures.

Another interesting, if already well-known, aside is an examination of the Pioneer plaque designed by Carl Sagan in 1971. If the Pioneer probe ever reaches intelligent life, what would serve as a “Hi there, we’re your neighbors” calling card?

A similar problem from the 1980s was faced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  They wanted to post some kind of warning on nuclear waste sites, warnings that would be intelligible in 10,000 years, even if current society collapsed and a completely new culture evolved. They assumed language would not survive, so what about pictures, or stylized pictographs like Do Not Walk signs? The problem is even those can be misinterpreted now; who knows how they would strike whoever was here so many millennia from now. They enlisted Thomas Sebeok, a professor of linguistics, to recommend such a warning. He came back with a detailed analysis of why the task was impossible, and recommended an Atomic Priesthood (I swear, I am not making this up) that would be passed down over the years making the area culturally taboo if science should shrivel and die. “Naturally, no such ‘priesthood’ has ever been established,” says Man. I asked one of my online science fiction experts if this had generated a story or novel or series, but it seems not. It makes me wonder about the origins of various existing cultural taboos.

I’m well aware I didn’t give this book its due, and at some point I just stopped trying. I may revisit it, or try a different book on the same subject (or find the original book I was looking for) but for now I’ve gotten tired of the whole mess. In spite of that I came out of it with some interesting tidbits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.