The Alphabet Effect

The Alphabet Effect

The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization

Book - 1986 | 1st ed
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Publisher: New York : Morrow, c1986
Edition: 1st ed
Branch Call Number: 411 L831
Characteristics: 272 p. ; 22 cm


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Aug 07, 2016

This book on the influence of the alphabet on human civilization is the work of a Canadian physicist. It is full of interesting facts and insights but unfortunately seems to stray far away from its alleged subject, in some chapters, while ignoring entirely issues that any book on alphabets should have addressed.
The sharp distinction that the author makes between alphabets and syllabaries seems misplaced. He sees a syllabary as intermediate between an alphabet and a logographic writing system like Chinese pictograms. This is true in the banal sense that a syllabary will generally have more symbols than an alphabet but hardly in any other sense. The Japanese katakana, for example, has 48 characters, more than most alphabets but way fewer than any system of pictograms. The difference between a syllabary and an alphabet is blurred in any case: katakana includes five individual vowels and one individual consonant. An alphabet like Russian Cyrillic, on the other hand, includes vowels like e, ю and я, each of whch represents a consonant-vowel combination when it appear as the first letter in a word. For example, the letter я stands for the syllable "ya" at the start of a word.
It seems the fundamental division would be between phonetic and non-phonetic forms of writing, with an alphabet being the logical phonetic system for most languages, but possibly not for a language with a small number of syllables like Japanese.
The descriptive chapters on how the existing alphabets developed from a common Canaanite alphabet are very interesting. The author’s speculations on how the use of an alphabet promoted such diverse things as science, technology and monotheism are fascinating, but not always convincing. I very much liked the discussion of why the structure of Chinese, with its monosyllabic words, impeded the development of a Chinese alphabet.
One thing that is desperately lacking is a set of tables showing the alphabets and writing systems under discussion. There are also substantial errors of fact in the book. Czech Catholics outnumber Czech Protestants and Dutch-speaking Catholics also considerably outnumber Dutch-speaking Protestants. The index is also poor, and ignores names mentioned in the book.
Almost a third of the book deals with the introduction of the printing press and later of computers, which aren’t really related to the development of alphabets, although they are to their significance. On the other hand the politicization of alphabets for the purposes of obliterating or affirming national identities isn’t discussed at all. The author wrote in 1986, before the breakup of the Soviet Union, but he should have been aware, for example, of the switch in writing Belarusan from Latin script to Cyrillic script after the Second World War when Belarusans living under Polish rule were added to Soviet Belarus. In fact, bizarrely, the Cyrillic alphabet is never mentioned once in the book, although there are more books published in Cyrillic than in any other alphabet except for the Latin alphabet.


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