On the tyranny of the alphabet

Written Language and Literacy
April 14, 2000

When a new academic journal appears in a well-established field of study the hope must always be that this heralds some new approach to old problems. Or at least a theoretical advance in unifying formerly disparate lines of inquiry. The case of writing is awkward. Its study has long been in the hands of three quite separate groups of experts: specialists in ancient languages, specialists concerned with the social and pedagogical ramifications of writing, and specialists who regard writing primarily as the instrument of literature. Their viewpoints and interests are, understandably, quite different.

One's impression on reading the first three issues of Written Language and Literacy is that the articles are a rather haphazard collection. Topics range from the reconstruction of ancient Semitic phonology to the relationship between poverty and reading in the East End of prewar London, and from the difficulties of indicating tone in the orthography of African languages to digraphia in Taiwanese. Fascinating as this diversity may be, the absence of any attempt to interrelate its various strands, and the fact that the editor apparently sees no pressing need to do so, raise a number of interesting questions. These relate not only to matters of editorial policy, they also touch on what purports to be one of the journal's chief concerns - the concept of literacy itself. How many readers are sufficiently "literate" to decipher this whole gamut of specialised text?

There is a question-begging definition supplied on the inside of the front cover. Literacy, we are told, is "the institutionalised use of written language". Not, it should be noted, just the use of writing or the ability to use it, but its "institutionalised use". But who is in charge of this institutionalisation? Was Finnegans Wake an illiterate novel? It certainly was not written in "standard English". Did mere publication make it literate? Or did it become so only when accepted into the canon of literary masterpieces? There are questions that are being fudged by any definition of literacy that links it to institutionalisation. How, as writers, we know when our use counts as institutionalised and when it does not remains unexplained. Or is "institutionalised writing" supposed to be pleonastic and "uninstitutionalised writing" a contradiction in terms?

The editor, in a personal contribution in the third issue, speaks of uniting "the theoretical concerns of grammatology and the practical concerns of promoting literacy". This sounds as if promoting literacy were self-evidently some kind of moral obligation. Before we buy that, there is a question some of us will want to ask. Whose literacy? The days are gone when the word literacy wore a permanent halo. A little literacy may be a dangerous thing, and some forms of it could be crippling.

Literacy will be considered, the editor tells us, "from the interdisciplinary viewpoints of linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, education, literature and book arts". Some notable absentees from this list: no mention of philosophy, religion, politics, mathematics or any of the natural sciences. The omission of religion is particularly striking, given the major historical role that religion has played both in destroying old forms of literacy and in forcing literacy on non-literate peoples under the pretext of educating them. And what lies hidden behind this weasel phrase about "interdisciplinary viewpoints"? Do the disciplines mentioned in fact have "interdisciplinary viewpoints"? The first on the list - linguistics - is a discipline notorious for attempts to exclude writing from its legitimate concerns. "Writing is not language" thundered one eminent theorist of the interwar period, and many linguists would still agree. The position was well summed up by the commentator who observed:

"Textbooks continued to include brief chapters on the subject, but this was to emphasise that writing and language were entirely distinct and that the former had no place within the domain of modern linguistics." But if that is so, then "written language" is neither fish nor flesh, let alone good red herring.

The terms in which Written Language and Literacy sets out its intellectual stall are themselves revealing. Apart from literacy, the other "major aspect" of writing in which it claims to be interested is "the structures, histories, typologies and functions of the writing systems (scripts) used by the languages of the world". Here all yesterday's buzzwords are safely in place ("structure", "history", "typology" and "function"), presumably to reassure potential subscribers. The give-away comes at the end of the sentence. A writing system is implicitly equated with its script. The tail wags the dog, as it always has done in western "histories" of writing.

All this leaves us without any clear indication of where the study of writing per se belongs. Whose academic baby? One solution to such problems is to invent a new discipline, custom built to welcome the orphan.

Saussure did it with "semiology" when no existing discipline dealt with the general phenomenon of "the sign". The solution in the case of writing was "grammatology", which made its first appearance in the second half of the 20th century. Soon after its appearance, unfortunately, the writing fraternity was rent in two by a great schism; so now we have one grammatology whose patron saint is the late Ignace J. Gelb and another grammatology (or anti-grammatology) whose patron saint (or heretical archpriest, depending on your viewpoint) is Jacques Derrida. The former chose the term and the latter popularised it. Awfully bad luck for a nascent discipline of such promise.

Grammatologists of the Gelbian orthodoxy studiously ignore the existence of any other kind. The grammatology of Written Language and Literacy evidently belongs under the patronage of St Ignatius rather than St Jacques. There is no official pronouncement to this effect, but it is fairly obvious. Good old chestnuts like the decipherment of the Phaistos disc, the Indus Valley seals and the rongorongo boards of Easter Island duly make their appearance. But, in spite of this, the lurking presence (absence?) of that other grammatology inevitably makes itself felt.

It would be a mistake to expect anything else; for the two grammatologies are not just homonymous. They are incestuous. Or, to put it more neutrally, they are head and tail of the same cultural coin. The coin in question is the profound ethnocentricity of western perceptions of writing. This is already flagged by the pompous pseudo-Greek term "grammatology" itself. As the etymology indicates, its basis is the study of letters, the grammata . One system - alphabetic writing - implicitly takes the anchor role.

The reason for the ostrich attitude that followers of St Ignatius adopt towards Derrida is not hard to understand. Derrida cut Gelbian grammatology off at the knees by indicting, in a sustained polemic, the cultural bias of its underlying presuppositions. Was he right? The evidence to be found in Written Language and Literacy suggests very much, alas, that he was. Gelbian grammatology continues the long tradition of western scholarship, which assumes that alphabetic writing is "the best". All other systems are to be judged accordingly; in other words, by "alphabetacentric" standards. Dr Johnson's famous reason for regarding the Chinese as barbarians was that their writing was not alphabetic. Had he lived to see the introduction of pinyin (Chinese written phonetically in the Roman alphabet) he would presumably have had to concede that at long last the Chinese were making an effort to become civilised. The assumed supremacy of the alphabet underlies virtually all modern classifications of writing systems. European scholars closeted in their libraries and irritated by the sheer proliferation of marks on paper, constructed for themselves the theoretical fantasy of a "perfect alphabet", in which each letter would unambiguously represent one sound and no other.

So why not bring current orthographies into line, approximately at least? The dreary ghost of this absurd ideal still haunts Written Language and Literacy : it appears on cue every time the magic formula "spelling reform" is intoned. Even the experts are fed up with it. "What could be more tedious than a spelling reform?" laments one contributor. What indeed? Except perhaps academics wittering on about it, as they have been doing extremely tediously since at least the beginning of the last century.

The current fuss about spelling reform is in Germany, where they take such matters seriously. But only a couple of years ago one professor of English was urging the British government to set up a language academy to control orthography and recommending the University of Reading to adopt the spelling "Redding". A laugh? Yes: alphabetacentric academic cranks are a pain rather than a laugh only when they persuade politicians to adopt half-baked educational policies such as the teaching of "phonics" in schools. It is pleasant to report that this high-tedium debate has not so far leadened the pages of Written Language and Literacy . It may, one fears, be only a matter of time before it does.

The subtler manifestations of alphabetacentricity are more pernicious because they are cloaked as theoretical advances in the study of writing systems. One is the recent invention of the term abjad to designate those forms of writing that never quite made it as "true" alphabets, because they concentrated on consonants and tended to neglect vowels. (The distinction between consonants and vowels, it hardly needs pointing out, is eminently alphabetacentric to start with.) And here in Written Language and Literacy we find the editor solemnly debating with one of his colleagues the question of whether or not certain Asian writing systems can be properly classified as "alphabetic". What hinges on the resolution of such a debate? Nothing, except scoring points in alphabetacentric one-upmanship.

All this is sad because it reinforces the impression of academics engrossed myopically in their own quarrels while ignoring the more fundamental questions about writing that face the world today. One might have hoped that a new international journal devoted to writing would have put at the forefront of its concerns the global revolution in which we are all now caught up, whether we like it or not. Within a few years, written communication in one form or another will have outstripped quantitatively every other form of communication on this planet. But it will no longer be writing preserved on paper and much of it will not be produced by human beings. What this revolution means for western culture is something society in general has not yet realised. Neither, to judge by the contents of Written Language and Literacy , has the academic world.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford, and editor, Language and Communication .

Written Language and Literacy: (Twice a year)

Editor - William Bright
ISBN - ISSN 1387 6732
Publisher - John Benjamins
Price - Euros 99.83; (instit.)Euros 48.10 (indiv.)
Pages - -

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