McLuhan, M. & Logan, R.K. (1977). Alphabet, mother of invention. EtCetera. 34(4). December. Pp. 373-382.

 

ALPHABET, MOTHER OF INVENTION

MARSHALL McLUHAN AND R.K. LOGAN*

 

*Marshall McLuhan, a media historian, and R . K . Logan, a physicist, are Professors at the University of Toronto .

 

             If one must choose the one dominant factor which separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom, it would undoubtedly be language. The ancients said : "Speech is the difference of man ." Opposition of the thumbs and fingers and an erect stature were certainly key developments in the separation of man from animals, but the great quantum leap of intellectual capacity took place with speech . The work of Whorf and Sapir shows that the spoken language structures the way in which man thinks and perceives the world . It is the medium of both thought and perception as well as communication . Until literacy developed, speech was the principal means of communication. With writing, a new medium of communication opened up and man's intellectual development made a second quantum leap, "contrary to the ancient view that only old things can come out of change,"(1) In 1926, Breasted noted that "The invention of writing and of a convenient system of records on paper has had a greater influence on uplifting the human race than any other intellectual achievement in the career of man . Carlyle, Kant, Mirabel and Renan believed that writing was the beginning of civilization ."(2) Harold Innis, the Canadian economic historian, was perhaps the first to examine the effects of writing in shaping the intellectual, social, economic and political life of man :

            . . . the art of writing provided man with a transpersonal memory . Men were given an artificially extended and verifiable memory of objects and events not present to sight or recollection . Individuals applied their minds to symbols rather than things and went beyond the world of concrete experience into the world of conceptual relations created within an enlarged time and space universe . . . . Writing enormously enhanced a capacity for abstract thinking . . . . Man's activities and powers were roughly extended in proportion to the increased use and perfection of written records .(3)

                Innis observed that writing upon stone and clay created priestly bureaucracies and gave command over time because of the permanence of the record. Writing on paper, on the other hand, created military bureaucracies and gave command over space because of the ease with which information written upon paper could be transported and hence provide command at a distance . Innis attributed the fall of Rome to the disappearance of its source of paper .

            If writing has had the impact that Breasted and Innis suggest, then the particular form a writing system assumes plays a crucial role in shaping the thought of its users . Not only should one expect a major difference in the thought patterns of literate and pre-literate people, but one should also expect a comparable difference in the thought patterns of societies whose writing systems differ significantly .

Innis pointed out the differences that using a particular medium such as paper, clay, or stone has on the organization of a society . Of equal importance in affecting a society's thought patterns is the way in which the spoken word is visually coded . There is a vast difference between ideographic (pictographic) codes, syllabic codes, and the alphabetic code, and the thought patterns they encourage .(4) Let us compare Chinese and European culture . Western alphabetic and Chinese literacy represent the two extremes of writing . The alphabet is used phonetically to visually represent the sound of a word . Chinese characters are used pictographically to represent the idea of a word . Consequently, they are less abstract and less specialized than alphabetic writing . Eastern and Western thought patterns are as polarized as their respective writing systems .

            Western thought patterns are highly abstract, compared with Eastern . There developed in the West, and only in the West, a group of innovations that constitute the basis of Western thought . These include (in addition to the alphabet) codified law, monotheism, abstract science, formal logic, and individualism . All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B . C. and 500 B . C. We do not consider this to be an accident . While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and pro vided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations .

            The effects of the alphabet and the abstract, logical, systematic thought that it encouraged explains why science began in the West and not the East, despite the much greater technological sophistication of the Chinese-the inventors of metallurgy, irrigation systems, animal harnesses, paper, ink, printing, movable type, gunpowder, rockets, porcelain, and silk . Credit must also be given to monotheism and codified law for the role they played in developing the notion of universal law, an essential building-block of science . Almost all of the early scientists - Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Anaxagoras and Heraclitus-were both law-makers in their community and monotheistically inclined. They each believed that a unifying principle ruled the universe . (5)

            Phonetic writing was essential to the intellectual development in the West. No such development occurred in the East . To understand why the alphabet developed in the West and not in the East, we need only consider the nature of the spoken Chinese language . All Chinese words are monosyllabic . As a consequence of the limited number of sounds possible for a word, there is an enormous amount of redundancy in the sounds of Chinese words . There are 239 words, for instance, with all the same sound, shah. There is little incentive for the development of an alphabet under these conditions . Western tongues, on the other hand, lend themselves to alphabetic transcription because they are more fractured .

            All writing systems began as ideographic systems in which the idea of a word is represented by a sign .(6) The Chinese system never developed beyond the ideographic stage . The Sumerian and Egyptian systems which began in 3500 and 3000 B .C. respectively, evolved into syllabic systems in which the sounds of syllables were represented by signs . The Egyptians retained their hieroglyphs and used a mixed system of ideograms and syllabic signs . In addition to these signs, they also developed twenty-two uniconsonantal signs which could' have served as an alphabet . These signs were restricted to rendering foreign proper names, however, and, hence, cannot be considered a true alphabet.

            The first primitive alphabet was developed by the Semitic tribe, the Seirites, who mined copper for the Egyptians in the Sinai desert . They are referred to in Scripture as the Midianites, or Kennites, and are the tribe Moses sojourned with in Sinai . The Seirites adapted the twenty-two Egyptian consonants to their own Semitic tongue . This primitive "alphabet" was used by the Phoenicians and Hebrews and spread from the Middle East to the Indian sub-continent where it formed the basis of the Brahmi, Pali, and Sanskrit alphabets . All of these forms of writing operated on the phonetic principle minus a vowel structure and, hence, fell short of the phonetic alphabet.

            The Greeks borrowed the Semitic alphabet from the Phoenicians and converted it into a truly phonetic alphabet with the inclusion of vowels. So enriched, the Greek alphabet spread to other cultures and became the basis of all modern Western alphabets, including our own. The alphabet was invented once, and only once, in the history of man, and its effects, as we shall see, were as unique as the thing itself . By including the vowels, the Greek alphabet became the most sophisticated writing machine developed by man . The impact of the Greek alphabet was naturally much greater than the impact of the earlier and more primitive phonetic writing systems such as the Babylonian syllabary or the Semitic alphabet of consonants only . The effects of these earlier phonetic writing systems, however, cannot be ignored.

            The Babylonian syllabary, like the alphabet, encouraged the development of classification . The reform, and simplification of the Babylonian syllabary from 600 signs to 60 signs occurred at the same time that the Hammurabic legal code was introduced . In addition to organizing the laws in a systematic manner, the code also promoted uniform and standardized procedure throughout the Babylonian empire, introducing uniform weights and measures . The Semitic alphabet made its strongest impact on the Hebrew people . The effects of classification are seen clearly in the way they codified their law and also in the systematic way in which they recorded their history, the first people to do so . The abstraction which the use of the alphabet encourages expressed itself in the theological concepts of the Hebrews, the first people to entertain the idea of one, and only one, God . True monotheism begins at Mount Sinai when Moses descends with the tablets of the Law "written by the finger of God" (Exodus 24 :12) . It is at this moment in the history of the Israelites that they are simultaneously introduced to monotheism, codified law, and systematic writing .

By adding vowels to the Semitic alphabet, the Greeks created the first truly phonetic alphabet which is able to accurately and unambiguously transcribe the spoken words of any language, using only twenty to thirty signs, or letters. "The original Greek invention achieved the essential task of analysis and it has not been improved upon ."(7)

The purely phonetic alphabet had its greatest impact on the Greeks, the very first people to achieve and to use it . The Greek alphabet first came into use around 700 B .C .(8) Within 300 years the Greeks had developed from dependence on an oral tradition based on myths, to a rationalistic, logical culture which laid the foundations for logic, science, philosophy, psychology, history, political science, and individualism . How can one account for this rapid transition from a state of group involvement to individual skepticism? We believe that the alphabet served as the operative ground for this rich development which was characterized by the classification and abstraction of ideas .

The very word idea is indicative of the revolution in thinking that took place with literacy . This word, which is not to be found in Homeric Greek, derived from the word eidos, indicating "visual image." The alphabet had the mysterious and unique power of separating the visual faculty from the other senses and giving dominant play to the visual . The pervasive use of uniform elements, the phonetic letters that the alphabet entailed, encouraged the additional visual matching of situational elements which formed the ground for Greek logic, geometry, and rationality . The idea of truth itself, the correspondence of thing and intellect, is based on matching . At a more popular level, the development of realistic representation in the arts is identified with the Greeks in their first age of literacy .(9)

            The phonetic alphabet also served as a paradigm for the process of abstraction, for the written word is an abstraction of the spoken word which, in turn, is an abstraction from the holistic experience . The word, when written with the phonetic alphabet, represents a double level of abstraction beyond the merely spoken language . First, the spoken word is broken up into its constituents of semantically meaningless phonemes which, in turn, are represented by meaningless letters. The use of the phonetic alphabet encouraged the development of abstractions:

With literacy they (the Greeks) suddenly saw their universe as ordered . Their new world view, however, was in conflict with the vocabulary they inherited from their oral tradition . Their conflict produced essential and permanent contributions to the vocabulary of all abstract thought : body and space, matter and motion, permanence and change, quality and quantity, combination and separation, are among the counters of common currency now available because pre-Socratics first brought them near the level of consciousness . (10)

 

                Paradoxically, the alphabet enabled the Greeks to reduce the massive polyphonies of their oral culture by selecting and logically (visually) connecting what had been simultaneous and musical . If the Greek means of abstracting and conceptualizing was by logical connection, the abstract art and science of the twentieth century proceeds by the contrary means of pulling out the "logical" (visual) connections in space and time . This returns the art and philosophy of today to musical form. If the Greek drive to abstraction had been to eliminate the acoustic and musical in favor of visual and logical connectedness, our nonrepresentational and abstract art and science assumes a complementary pattern .

            The Greek alphabet also provided both the model and the bias for classification, an essential development in Greek analytic thought during the period from 700 to 400 B .C ., especially for logic, science, and history . In addition to serving as a paradigm of abstraction and classification, the alphabet also served as a model for division and reparability. With the alphabet, every word is separated into its constituent sounds and constituent letters . Havelock shows that the Greek idea of atomicity-that all matter can be divided up into individual tiny atoms-is related to the use of the alphabet: " . . . they saw the analogy with what the alphabet had done to language and likened their atoms to letters (11) The Greek capacity for divisiveness and separation extends way beyond their atomicity of matter . With writing, what is recorded or remembered becomes separate from the writer, existing in a book or a scroll . Knowledge takes on objective identity, separate from the knower . The Greek, in this way, developed the notion of objectivity and detachment, the separation of the knower from the object of his awareness . This is the beginning of the scientific method and the source of the dichotomy the Greeks created between subjective thinking as found in art and poetry, and objective thinking as exemplified by philosophy and science . In art, percept precedes concept, while in science, method dominates both .

            The Greeks invented "nature" (phusis) which is their classification of the objective external world . "Nature" does not include man or any of his artifacts such as the alphabet, which may explain why the Greeks never studied the effects, even of their own technology, a radical flaw in their objectivity . It was the separation of man from nature, perhaps, that allowed Western thinkers to consider nature as an object to be studied, or a resource to be exploited .

            The Greeks did not study the entelechies or formal effects of human artifacts, but only those of natural forms, whether of mineral, flora, or fauna. When Achilles encounters the ghost Patroclus, he feels frustrated and says : "I see that we do live on after death, but without entelechies ." The entelechy of anything is, as it were, the functional vortex of energy and power which it manifests by its action . The merely visual or logical connectedness which the phonetic alphabet fosters in the thought and perception of literate men is quite unable to relate the environmental and structural forms to their users . Edward T . Hall spots this peculiar gap in "the edifice of Western thought" when he observes : "Quite simply the Western view is that human processes, particularly behavior, are independent of environmental controls and influence ."(12) That which is environmental or ecologically holistic has an acoustic or simultaneous structure inaccessible to the lineal forms of thinking fostered by the alphabet .

            Another important split in Greek thinking was the separation of the individual from his society . Plato develops the notion of psyche or soul from which the notion of an individual developed . In the Republic, Plato ". . . equipped his reader with the doctrine of the autonomous and identified it as the seat of rational thought . . ."(13) That the alphabet contributed to this unique event in the history of man was certainly not recognized by Plato or Aristotle . Like other literate Greeks, they avoided the study of the effects of their own artifacts .

 

Left-Right Split of the Brain and the Role of the Alphabet in Hemispheric Dominance

 

Recent developments in the field of neurophysiology tend to support the hypothesis that the alphabet produced a situation favorable for the development of logic, rational thought, and science . Neurophysiologists have determined that while there is a certain degree of redundancy and overlap between the two hemispheres of the brain, essentially the left and right hemispheres of the brain perform specialized tasks . The right hemisphere is the locus of the artistic, intuitive, spiritual, holistic, simultaneous, discontinuous or creative side of our personalities, whereas the left hemisphere controls the lineal, visual, logical, analytic, mathematical, and verbal activities of our psyche .

            We here suggest that the alphabet created a lineal and visual environment of services and experiences (everything from architecture and highways to representational art) which contributed to the ascendancy or dominance of the left, or lineal, hemisphere . This conjecture is consistent with the results of the Russian neurophysiologist Luria who found that thee area of the brain which controls linear sequencing and, hence, logic, mathematics, and scientific thinking, is located in the pre-frontal region of the left hemisphere ;

 

The mental process for writing a word entails still another specialization: Putting the letters in the proper sequence to form the word . Lashley discovered many years ago that sequential analysis involved a zone of the brain different from that employed for spatial analysis . In the course of our extensive studies we have located the region responsible for sequential analysis in the anterior regions of the left hemisphere .(14)

 

            Luria's results show that the expression "linear thinking" is not merely a figure of speech, but an actual, bonafide activity of the brain which takes place in the anterior regions of the left hemisphere of the brain . His results also indicate that the use of the alphabet, with its emphasis on linear sequence, stimulates this area of the brain . Luria's findings provide an understanding of how the written alphabet, with its lineal structure, was able to create the conditions conducive to the development of Western science, technology, and rationality .

            The alphabet separated and isolated visual space from the many other kinds of sensory space involved in the senses of smell, touch, kinesthesia, and acoustics . This made possible the awareness of Euclidean space which is lineal, homogeneous, connected, and static . When neurophysiologists assign a vague "spatial" property to the right hemisphere, they are referring to the simultaneous and discontinuous properties of audile-tactile and multiple other spaces of the sensorium . The Euclidean space of analytic geometry is a concept of the left hemisphere of the brain, while the multi-dimensional spaces of the holistic sensorium are percepts of the right hemisphere of the brain.

The Mystery of Zero

 

            The Greeks, the first people to develop the totally phonetic alphabet with its continuous and connected spaces, unwittingly excluded the possibility of zero from their culture . One of the great historical paradoxes is that although the Greeks invented logic and formal geometry, they never developed the concept of zero, and thus their algebra was only marginal . The Greeks, guided by Parmenides' logic, simply rejected the notion of non-being as being logically inconsistent . Aristotle held that nature abhorred a vacuum . The Greeks were literally too inhibited by their logic to entertain or to conceive zero . The Hindus, on the other hand, regarded non-being as the goal of their spiritual life, the way to Nirvana . The Hindus in their oral culture, with almost total disregard for logical rigour but with sheer intuition, invented the notion of zero and the Arabic-Hindu numerals we presently use. They pioneered all of the present day calculational algorithms or methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and square rooting, as well as developed algebra into a sophisticated mathematical system . Without the mathematical ideas developed by the Hindus and transmitted to Europe by the Arabs, the scientific revolution of the Renaissance could never have taken place . Hindu algebra laid the foundations for the work of Descartes, Leibnitz, and Newton.

 

The Intensification of the Effects of the Alphabet with Print

 

If the phonetic alphabet had created a ground or climate favorable to intensified activity of the left hemisphere of the brain, the printed word reinforced this effect many times, both for the individual reader and by the spread of the reading habit . The very activity of type- setting became a major paradigm of sequential and segmented organization which fostered the habit of precise measurement so necessary for the development of analytic, experimental technique . Without the development of the experimental and observational technique by Tycho Brahe, Galileo and others, Renaissance scientists would never have broken out of the constraints of Greek theory with its relative indifference to the imperfections of the physical world . The effects of precise and repeatable diagrams in botany and anatomy brought a completely new dimension to these sciences . Writing on "Early Science and the Printed Book," Stillman Drake observed that print made available texts from the ancient world, so crucial to the renaissance of learning and science, and made this material available on a much larger scale .(15) Arabic texts transmitting the Hindu notions of zero, place, numeration, and algebra were also more widely circulated as a result of printing . These mathematical developments were essential for the "rise of science ." Another effect of printing was to spread scientific learning beyond the walls of the university where it had been monopolized and limited by academics, Most of the breakthroughs in science during the Renaissance were made by non-academics like Copernicus, Brahe, and Galileo.

            The Re-Emergence of the Oral Tradition with Non-Print Electric Media

 

            If the alphabet and print intensified the lineal activity of the left hemisphere of the brain, the new holistic and simultaneous information environments created by electronic technology bring back into full play the activity of the right hemisphere of the brain . Electricity moves at the speed of light, creating a simultaneous, non-lineal, acoustic environment of interface and resonance rather than connection . The right side of the brain is specially qualified to deal with this figureground environment of simultaneous information and pattern recognition. The lineal, segmented, causally connected description of nature characteristic of the left side of the brain can no longer cope with the new ecological, nuclear environment .

            The clock-work universe of Newton, phased out at the speed of light, is replaced by the holistic non-linear descriptions of quantum mechanics, general relativity, and the new astronomy . Einstein's General Theory of Relativity no longer describes the interactions of the individual components of matter placed in the passive container of Newtonian space. In Einstein's world, matter, through its gravitational interactions, creates "space" which, in turn, reacts back on this matter . Lineal, connected, infinite, static Euclidean space gives way to a dynamic, resonating, non-lineal, non-Euclidean, finite, closed universe which folds back on itself-"On a clear day you can see the back of your head ."

            In the world of atomic physics the distinction between particles and waves assumes a complementary character . Light displays the properties of particles, knocking electrons out of metals (the photoelectric effect), while electrons are found to behave like waves (electron diffraction). According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, one can no longer measure simultaneously the exact position and momentum of a particle . One is forced to adopt a probabilistic description of nature, in which particles are represented by waves of probability . The chemical bonds which hold atoms together are resonances of these probability waves .(16) The very elementary particles of which matter is composed are themselves resonating composites of each other .

The electric service environment of simultaneous information, as was first exemplified by the telegraph, provided a new social ground favorable to the rediscovery of oral culture . This was reflected by the interest that developed in the nineteenth century with folk tales, folk culture, and anthropology . These, in turn, relate to the changes that occurred in psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century . Just as Planck was ushering in the idea of the discontinuous quantum of energy, Freud was preparing the demise of the mechanistic psychology that arose during the Enlightenment under the influence of Newtonian physics and print mentality . Freud returned medicine to the oral tradition of curing the sick through the use of words . Lain Entralgo's studies reveal that as the ancient Greeks established their medicine on a firmer scientific ground, they dropped the verbal elements of their treatment to concentrate solely on somatic cures . Freud's psychotherapy represented a return to the shamanistic traditions of tribal medicine, and "the therapy of the word ."(17)

            Evidence for the revival of oral traditions can also be found in the art, music, and literary world of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Examples include Mark Twain's use of local dialects in Huckleberry Finn, the symbolists' avoidance of ideological connections in their poetry, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, the popularity of jazz and rock, whose origins are found deep in the rhythms of African music, the dropping of melodic connections in atonal music, and the use of African motifs and abstract discontinuity in the paintings of Picasso and the cubist school .

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

 

1 . Mario Bunge, Causality : The Place of the Causal Principle in Modern Science (New York : Meridian Books, 1970), pp . 203-4 .

2. James H . Breasted, The Conquest of Civilization (1926), p . 23 .

3 . Harold Innis, Empire and Communications (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1971), pp . 10-11 .

4 . See H . M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1962) and Understanding Media (New York : McGraw-Hill, 1964) .

5. R. K. Logan, "The Poetry of Physics and Physics of Poetry," University of Toronto Lecture, notes unpublished .

6 . See D . Diringer, The Alphabet : A Key to the History of Mankind (1947) and J . Gelb, Study of Writing (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1963) .

7 . Eric Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1976), p . 61 .

8 . R . Carpenter, "The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet," AmericanJournal of Archaeology, XXXVII (1933), pp . 8-29 ; "The Greek Alphabet Again," A.J.A ., XIII (1938), pp . 58-69 .

9 . See E .H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion : A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York : Pantheon Books, 1960) .

10 . Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Boston : Harvard University Press, 1963) .

11 . Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy .

12. Mildred and Edward Hall, The Fourth Dimension in Architecture : The Impact of Building on Man's Behavior (Santa Fe, New Mexico : The Sunstone Press, 1975), p . 7 .

13 . Havelock, Preface to Plato, p . 207 .

14. A . R . Luria, "The Functional Organization of the Brain," Scientific American, Vol. 222, #3, March, 1970, pp . 66-73 .

15 . Stillman Drake, "Early Science and the Printed Book : The Spread of Science Beyond the Universities," Renaissance and Reformation, Vol . VI, No . 3, 1970, pp. 43-52 .

16 . Lines Pauling, The Nature of the Chemical Bond (Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1960) .

17 . Lain Entralgo, The Therapy of the Word in Classical Antiquity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970) .