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

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

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

  1. Robert Gengerke says:

    Without having read the books, I nevertheless appreciate this thoughtful and well composed critique. Frankly, Shlain would have lost me the moment he made a connection between brain hemispheres and a masculine/feminine dichotomy; how a surgeon could come to such a simplistic (and demonstrably wrong) conclusion is beyond me.

  2. Sean Manning says:

    If Shlain at least reads popular books on linguistics, then the theory that Chinese does not have a well-defined category for ‘word’ might come from William C. Hannas, “Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma” The specialist in the Sinitic languages on Language Log seems to take Hannas seriously.

    Does Shlain say anything about the writing systems of ancient Egyptian or the varieties of cuneiform?

  3. marknewbrook says:

    You may well be right, Sean. Shlain is now deceased but I will check his biblio (and also his [limited, as I recall] discussion of hieroglyphs & cuneiform) when I have my own copy (currently in storage) to hand. Reports naturally welcome from anyone who DOES have a copy to hand! Re Chinese words’, Hannas does, as I recollect, make sense, although I myself would prefer to say that the notion of ‘word’ has to be somewhat reconceptualised for Chinese. Mark

  4. Sean Manning says:

    You are welcome, Mark. I cannot read any East Asian language, but it is hard to dabble in Sumerian and not become curious about the relationship between Chinese characters and the Chinese languages and the problem of defining “word.”

    Thanks for showing us the ideas of so many curious characters.

  5. Pacal says:

    It is now over a year (The date I’m posting this is Sept. 2016) since the last posting on Skeptical Humanities so should I conclude that this website is defunct?

    • marknewbrook says:

      No, the whole site is not defunct, it’s just that I myself have been very occupied with other stuff of late! I will resume when pos! Cheers! Mark

  6. Steve says:

    Interesting. I only took one undergraduate GE linguistics class and I wouldn’t have made the mistake of mis-defining an alphabet or failing to distinguish between language and written systems. Admittedly, I had an in-depth education on the evolution of English as a language though.

    As for illiterate equal civilizations vs literate patriarchal societies, one only need examine the archaeological records of the Minoan society to throw that into doubt, as many believe the Minoans may have had a fair amount of gender equality, yet they had a written language.

    Also, we still have pre-literate societies in existence, and they vary in their level of equality between sexes.

    Interesting article!

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