Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 4 Alphabets: A Good Thing?

July 13, 2015

Hi again, everybody!

The Alphabet Effect
Robert K. Logan
William Morrow & Co., New York

The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word And Image
Leonard Shlain
Viking/Penguin, New York, London, Ringwood, VIC, Toronto, Auckland and New Delhi

Demitris Nicolaides’ theory regarding the profound significance of alphabetic spelling, which I discussed last time, brings to mind earlier works along similar lines. Robert Logan, again a physicist, came to an interesting but arguably ‘maverick’ view of language through collaboration with Marshall McLuhan, and in his book he argued that various key features of Western civilisation – notably the development of a) logic, b) science and even c) monotheistic religion – are due to the adoption of ‘linear’ alphabetic writing (initially by the Greeks). The otherwise astute Chinese, supposedly handicapped by their (also ‘linear’!) logographic script (which is in fact very well suited to their language), were unable to think abstractly and thus never developed an independent ‘systematic science’. Logan had less to say about non-Western cultures which – perhaps inconveniently for him – did/do use alphabetic (or abjadic) spelling, such as India. And, while broad-brush differences between civilisations do clearly exist, Logan’s case for his EXPLANATION of these effects is more rhetorical than truly persuasive.

Leonard Shlain, a surgeon who also strayed into this set of issues, came instead to a strongly NEGATIVE view of alphabetic writing. (Long-term readers may remember reading some of this before.) Shlain argues that the development of literacy and in particular the adoption of alphabetic scripts in ancient times (at the expense of logographic scripts such as Chinese script) reinforced the brain’s ‘masculine’ left hemisphere at the expense of the ‘feminine’ right, upset the socio-psychological balance between the sexes and triggered massive, unwelcome changes in apparently unconnected areas of human thought and society. These chiefly involved shifts in the direction of ‘linear’, non-holistic thinking, an excessive concern with logic and science, and the growth of patriarchal systems in which women and their ideas have been suppressed and undervalued. Many of the major cultural patterns and changes of the last few thousand years are, Shlain maintains, to be explained in these terms.

Much of Shlain’s discussion of language and writing is badly confused, and some is simply wrong. Given that linguistics is central to his thesis, the major problems which he has in this area are crucial. He does not systematically distinguish adequately between languages (in their spoken forms or considered generally) and the writing systems used to represent them (a common problem for non-linguists). One very obvious instance of this is provided by his very strange discussion of the mutual non-intelligibility of pairs of modern European languages; Shlain blames alphabetic writing for this, but such languages are, naturally, mutually unintelligible in speech and equally naturally remain so in writing (in any language-specific script). In addition, Shlain does not distinguish adequately between alphabets and writing systems more generally; some of the negative consequences which he sees as arising from the use of alphabets would, if he were correct, come about even if non-alphabetic writing systems were used. He largely ignores the important phonological but non-alphabetic category of syllabary; and he mistakenly describes Chinese characters as ideograms (they are, of course, language-specific logograms) and Chinese itself as lacking in the grammatical category ‘word’. At an even more basic level, Shlain confuses the notions of phoneme and phone (‘speech-sound’) and his definition of the very word alphabet is utterly wrong; he naïvely defines an alphabet as ‘any form of writing that contains fewer than thirty signs’.

Furthermore, Shlain’s accounts of the origin and early development of language and society are highly speculative, inadequately referenced and at times overtly partisan, relying excessively on traditional beliefs and endorsing (rather uncritically) the currently popular but ideologically-charged theories of early matriarchal paradises which were later overthrown by literate males. His claims about links between writing systems (or other aspects of language) and cultural patterns are often implausible and/or inadequately defended. For instance, he suggests that the Phoenicians’ use of their abjad – as noted, the ancestor of the Greek alphabet (and thus of the Roman alphabet) – was somehow associated with the alleged barbarity and uncultured character of their civilisation. Overall, Shlain cannot be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N

Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 3 Greek and Greek Philosophy

July 6, 2015

Hi again, everybody!


Demetris Nicolaides is a professor of physics at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. In his book (In The Light Of Science: Our Ancient Quest For Knowledge And The Measure Of Modern Physics, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2014), he examines anew the major shift in thinking exhibited in the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the seventh, sixth and fifth centuries BCE (Thales of Miletus, etc.). These thinkers turned from the mythological ideas of their day and began to seek rational accounts of the natural world.

Nicolaides argues that the conceptual breakthroughs of the pre-Socratics actually anticipated much of later science, and indeed that much of the work of contemporary scientists involves the same fundamental problems. The perception of the dramatically novel ideas of these early thinkers as ground-breaking (and as the precursors of theoretical science) is wholly mainstream (and very familiar to scholars of ancient philosophy); but these stronger interpretations arguably involve a degree of special pleading. Nicolaides is himself obviously of Greek ethnicity, and where one’s own group identity is involved it is all too easy to over-interpret works written long ago in radically different cultural and intellectual contexts (and in markedly different varieties of the language in question, with no surviving native speakers) – especially where, as in this case, the material is known only from fragmentary quotations by later authors. One is reminded of attempts by some Muslim thinkers to interpret various passages in the Qur’an (typically vague, or expressed in terms of the very different concepts of the day) as importing the insights of modern science.

In the publisher’s ‘blurb’, it is suggested that Nicolaides also ‘makes a convincing case that … the power of the Greek language … played a large role [in this intellectual revolution]’. This specific aspect of his position invites skeptical-linguistic attention.

Over the decades, various non-mainstream writers have proclaimed the special status of specific languages and their ensuing suitability for use in various domains or especial effectiveness in life generally. The cases made for such claims are typically weak, to say the least. Predictably, the language identified is often one favoured by the author, typically his/her own language or its ancestor. Because of its long history and respected status, and the admittedly profound intellectual achievements of ancient Greek civilisation, Greek is a major focus for non-mainstream claims of this (as of other) kinds. So too is Classical Latin; the importance of a knowledge of Latin for the understanding of the grammars of other languages and/or of logic has at times been grossly exaggerated. All such claims require close scrutiny.

As a matter of fact, Nicolaides’ treatment of language in this context is quite brief: the main discussion of Greek per se occupies only six pages (pp. 80-81, 85-88). He begins by highlighting the Greek writing system: as the Greeks became literate again in pre-Classical times, the Phoenician abjad (one symbol per phoneme, but with only consonants represented) was converted into a full essentially phonemic alphabet in which the vowels too were represented (by re-assigning consonant symbols not needed for Greek). Nicolaides proclaims that this made Greek ‘the first easily read and written language of the world’; but this view seems to arise out of a pro-alphabetic bias rather than from any empirical evidence (in his support he also quotes Bertrand Russell, who was many things but was not a linguist). It should be noted here that Leonard Shlain (see below) has argued that the adoption of alphabetic writing had a DAMAGING effect on culture. More seriously, it appears that all known alphabets and abjads are descended from a single ancestor script, suggesting that the very idea may have occurred to would-be codifiers of language only once. And, as I have stated in this forum, some prominent linguists hold that strictly phonemic alphabetic writing is in fact psychologically UNNATURAL.

When he resumes his discussion of Greek specifically (p. 85), Nicolaides admits his ignorance of the linguistics of Greek but endorses as ‘generally accepted’ the partisan notion that Greek displays ‘extraordinary richness’, ‘a plentiful vocabulary’, ‘thorough and rigorous grammar’ (it is not clear what these two adjectives mean in context; the grammar of ancient Greek was in fact rather chaotic), ‘diverse phonology’ (not explained in detail; in fact, Greek had only an average-sized inventory of phonemes), and in consequence ‘a highly expressive and communicative nature’. But, even if this were all true, it would not follow that Greek was especially suited to empirical science. It might even be argued that some specific features of the language (such as the ready expression of abstract notions in constructions such as ‘the good’ or ‘the unbounded’) encourage the development of metaphysics and the philosophy of mathematics rather than empirical science or mathematics as actually used in science. In any case, instead of attempting to justify these claims, Nicolaides at once resumes his discussion of the (unrelated) issues involving the alphabet; and when he returns to the language itself (pp. 86-88) his treatment is vague and unconvincing. He also weakens his case where he suggests in a blatantly folk-linguistic manner that some (unidentified) languages (in contrast with Greek) can be described as ‘poor’ and indeed are obstructive of clear thinking and communication.

Whatever the strengths of Nicolaides’ other ideas, these specifically linguistic aspects of his thesis cannot at present be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N