David Boulton: Perhaps you could give us a sense of yourself. How do you come to
this work? Tell us about your life story and how that leads to taking on
projects related to writing.
Johanna Drucker: I have a couple of
anecdotes that I always tell, and I think that whether theyíre mythic or
trueÖ We had alphabet wallpaper in the room that I slept in as a little kid,
and I was completely fascinated by it. It only had majuscules, the capital
letters, and my mother told me that all the words in the English language could
be made out of those twenty-six letters. I just didnít believe her and I would
lie there at night trying to think of words that couldnít be spelled with
those letters. I would put myself to sleep thinking it just isnít possible
that the infinity of language could be contained within this set of twenty-six
actually put my interest in the alphabet down to that early history. I also
think I was just fascinated by the visual forms. Iíve always loved the visual
shape of the letters. When I taught
at Harvard in the Art History department, and the students asked the faculty to
talk about their favorite work of art, I said - the alphabet. They thought that
was so amazing because theyíd never thought about the alphabet as a visual
form. So, my interest in the letters really comes from this
experience of them as a visual form and as a set of, again, codes that seemed to
me to be just inexhaustible. So how could it be so limited? Thatís how I got into it.
I got into it again at a later stage because Iím a poet and a writer, and I
always wanted to make books. When I
was in art school, I started to print books using letterpress.
With letterpress, you set every single letter, letter by letter, by hand.
So I started to have the experience of holding language in my hands. Very few
people ever hold language in their hands.
you start to do that, you start to have a completely different relationship to
the words. What is a heavy word? What is a light word? What is a short word?
When you run out of letters in a box of type and you realize that you are not
going to be able to say something that you were about to say, and youíre just
suddenly, whoa, because thereís no more Mís, and you think, well how am I
going to say mother? Or how am I going to say, murmur?
have to write your way around it, or you have to substitute, and then again you
are confronted again with this amazing sense of the material, physical quality
of the letters and of the alphabet. So,
I think all of those experiences combined for me to increase my sensitivity to
the alphabet as a visual form.
Boulton: Thatís a fantastic story.
Johanna Drucker: Itís such a funny story because itís true.
Boulton: My own experience is with using page layout tools where I canít get
what I want to say on one page and I donít want there to be a sentence on the
second page. Then I go back and end up starting to try to rewrite things to fit
through the mechanical contrivances rather than
around the semantic intention.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Writing for format.
Boulton: Itís an analog, but not in the same physical sense that youíre
Johanna Drucker: Yes, well I do it all the time with letterpress because you find
yourself either editing so it will fit, or writing more. Youíre standing there
at the case saying, I need thirteen more words if anything is going to fit on
the page, right. Itís fun if itís your own work.
Itís a little trickier if youíre doing somebody elseís.
Boulton: Excellent. I think we should go next into what interested you most
about the alphabet. In your book,
The Alphabetic Labrynth, youíve done a really good job of covering the span of
the development, the history, of how the alphabet came about and changed. In all
of your work, could you summarize, just as a place to get started with, what you
think are the jewels.
Johanna Drucker: Well, I think there are two histories when we talk about the
history of the alphabet. Thereís
the history of letterforms and how they came into being, and thereís a lot of
myths and misunderstandings about that history that are very common. Finding
sources that allowed me to see a broader base of that history and to have my own
misunderstandings corrected was one of the really major experiences for me of
other history is the history of ideas about the way we think about the alphabet,
and all of the properties that we project onto these letters, whether for
magical purposes or religious purposes or interpretive purposes.
So thatís another entire history, and I think that the history of
literacy and the history of reading, and of spelling reform and of shorthand
notation, and of phonetic systems, and all of these various variants on the
alphabet are also a part of that history of ideas.
are really two parallel histories. Whatís
interesting to me is how in the twentieth century those two histories have
and more we have specialists who look at the history of the alphabet within the
origins of writing systems in the ancient Middle East and in that place between
the Egyptian and ancient Sumerian cultures. Those are extremely specialized
scholars and archeologists. But, more and more weíve lost the other
history, which is the history of ideas about the alphabet. We tend, in the
late twentieth and early twenty first century, to bracket out the idea that
letters have a magical power or a mystical power. I think thatís a mistake,
because I think itís exactly at the intersection of these two things that the
alphabet functions most effectively.
we go back to that history of the letterforms, and I talk about the myths and
the misinformations, there are a number of really crucial points that I think of
as high points, or jewels, within this research. One of those is the misunderstanding
about the number of writing systems that have ever existed within human history.
Johanna Drucker: There are only two writing systems in existence today,
Chinese characters and the alphabet. People often say, well what do you mean
by that? Thereís Arabic letters, thereís Indian scripts, thereís Ethiopic
letters, thereís all of these various kinds of letterforms. What do you mean
thereís only two writing systems? Most
people donít understand that the alphabet is actually a synthesis of two early
writing systems, Egyptian hieroglyphics and various forms of cuneiform.
Once the alphabet came into existence, those other forms went out of
existence. Not causally. Not because of the alphabet, but due to various other
cultural and historical transformations. But,
all the major writing systems that we use today either descend from the
alphabet or Chinese writing.
Boulton: One of the things most amazes me, and maybe you can shed some light on,
is that these two systems emerge how many thousands of miles apart from one
another at roughly the same time, looking at a large scale.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Whatís doing that?
Johanna Drucker: Itís an unanswerable question in many ways. Iím not an
anthropologist and I donít really know the history. I couldnít give you, for
instance, in shorthand form, the periods of development between the late Stone
Age and the early Iron Age and so forth, but I know that
as various kinds of social formations come into play, the role of writing
comes to the fore.
Johanna Drucker: Certainly
we see that in the way that the alphabet comes into being in the Mediterranean
region within the 1700 BC period. Though writing systems exist in the ancient
Middle East, in the 3000 to 2700 BC period, thatís when we see the emergence
of hieroglyphics and cuneiform systems, the alphabet itself was formed out of
trade route activity about a 1000 years later. Thereís a wonderful bit of
research by a British archeologist named
Petrie, from the early twentieth century, in which he actually traced the
movement of the various symbols and signs that come to constitute the alphabet
through that region. He argues that they are simply a limited set of encoded
elements that become agreed upon because theyíre relatively simple, theyíre
easy to make, and they can be made in a lot of different materials. They
function well enough to be traded in between different language systems and
different cultural systems. He really sees the alphabet coming about partly
because of trade, mercantile reasons, and other functions within that particular
Boulton: Another theory is
acrophonics. The notion that we made the first sound in a word's pictograph the
sound value for the pictograph as a letter. Thereís the
theory of Robin Allot and others where it is expressed that there seems to
be a resemblance between the shape of these letters and something going on when
you look at the profile of the human mouth as itís articulating them.
Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.
Boulton: Can you speak to that?
Johanna Drucker: I think what
youíre asking about leads directly into the interpretation of the letters as
what we do know is that the letters, that the names the letters of the alphabet
have within the Hebrew naming system, aleph and beth and gimel, those are all
names of objects that are common objects within a nomadic desert culture. You
could look around the camp of Semitic tribes and you would see every item that
is named within that alphabet system. Of course it makes sense; these are common
objects. What are you going to use if youíre going to come up with a familiar
system to remember what the names of these characters are?
that however, retrospectively what happens is that those names like aleph the ox
come to be projected back on to the letterforms so that, and this is very much
an invention of nineteenth century historians, you start to see in the A, the
shape of the ox. Now there are no pictorial antecedents that are actually oxen
that are the origin of that A. There are schematic forms that could be called an
ox because they are some kind of circle, or have some kind of horns or that
thereís some kind of B that has a square shape so we say that could be a
house. But thereís no direct series of transformations where you can say, a
picture of an ox becomes simplified into a line drawing and then becomes a
little diagram of the shape that has horns and then turns upside down to become
thatís a fictive history. On the other
hand, there are many ways that the letters of the alphabet have lent themselves
to interpretation. The articulatory system is another, and there are wonderful
diagrams of the mouth and the throat and the teeth and the tongue that will show
you that A shows a certain configuration, B is the lips pressed together, and,
again you can, schematasize almost any complex visual form into a set of stick
figures that then can have other forms projected on to them. Is there a direct
relationship? Probably not.
of the major movements for alphabet reform in the nineteenth century was led by Isaac
Pitman and also by
Bell, and these were systems in which the hope was that you could create a
visual code that would almost be like an instruction set.
That if you could make a little sign that showed you where to put your lips,
your teeth, your tongue, so that you could say A properly, and where to put all
the organs of speech so that you could say B properly, that you would be able to
create a self reading alphabet. This is a great idea but, it turns out that
learning that code is extremely complicated.
Boulton: I noticed that you said
Alexander, talking about
Melville Bell, not Alexander Graham Bell.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Itís his father or grandfather.
Boulton: Which makes a wonderful lateral connection about the impetus behind
Grahamís phone and where it ultimately leads us.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: One other thing before we leave this early origin phase, thereís
another story that really fascinates me. There seems to be a coincidence
between the location that we see as the emergence of the initial alphabet and
the biblical story of Moses. Many archeological-linguists are saying that
the first known evidence of the alphabet is found in the Sinai and dates to the
time biblical scholars attribute to Moses.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: These two paths seem to intersect in a very coincident location and
time. Do you have anything that can shed a little light on that?
Johanna Drucker: Well,
it does seem as though around 1700 BC in the Sinai peninsula we see evidence
of what is the earliest sort of form of what comes to be the alphabet, and
thatís the Proto-Canaanite
alphabet. Some of that alphabet shows up in
turquoise mines in areas where Hebrew speaking persons and Jews who were coming
out of Egypt were working in these areas. But, it is an area of cultural mix,
and what the alphabet takes from the areas around the Tigris and Euphrates and
the whole sort of Sumerian civilization is a syllabic approach.
other words, the idea that what you are doing is actually representing syllables
comes out of the Sumerian use of cuneiform. Whereas the Egyptian pictographs,
the hieroglyphs, have been simplified, as we know, there are three forms of
writing within the Egyptian system. Thereís the sort of very formal
hieroglyphics; thereís a script form, which is hieratic; and thereís a
demotic script. So there are three
different forms within the hieroglyphic system.
of the early alphabetic signs can be traced by the relationship between the name
of the sign and the sound that it represents to the Egyptian point of origin. But, they also can be traced back to these Sumerian
points of origin. So it seems like we have a
cultural mix here. One of the most interesting things, I think, is that the
sequence of letters in the alphabet is fixed in that period in 1700 BC. Now,
it was a short alphabet at that point; itís much shorter than our current
alphabet, but that sequence of signs, the A, the B, the C, the D (at that point
not called that, and they donít quite resemble our contemporary letter forms),
that sequence is fixed and used for the assembly of architectural structures.
actually used the same way that we would use it in a little instruction book
that would come now, you know, with the night before Christmas when youíre
trying to put someoneís bike together and it says, part A, part B, part C.
So, as a sequencing device the alphabet has been extremely useful. Itís
by that fixed sequence that we can also trace the development and diffusion of
different offshoots of the alphabet.
Boulton: We were talking about images which stood for objects in the world, and
how they transitioned to represent a word thatís spoken that may not
correspond to an object in the world and thatís the precursory step to
Johanna Drucker: The abstraction.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly.
Boulton: GoodÖ the Moses connection.
Johanna Drucker: Oh yeah, the Moses connection. I
have a wonderful quote here, actually, about the Moses connection. Iíll just read it.
Exodus it says, ďI will give thee tables of stone, a law and commandants which
I have written.Ē Who is I?
Who is speaking in that? You
know, ďI will give thee tables of stone, a law and commandants which I have
written.Ē Thatís the voice of
God. The tables were the work of
God and the writing was the writing of God.
And, there are people who say, I mean, within the various interpretive
traditions, there are those who say that, the first writing was the table of the
Ten Commandants; it was those tablets that Moses went up on Mount Sinai and
Johanna Drucker: Now there are other traditions, even within the Jewish and
Hebrew scriptures that say that, no, itís Adam who invents the letters of the
alphabet and Adam who actually also has the system of naming that brings all of
the names of the creatures into being. We also know that naming is a magical
power, that by naming you bring the world into being. But, to put that power to
Adam seems to me to be heretical. You want to say that, in fact, the letters
come from God and that that the word is Godís word.
Thatís a very strong tradition within Western culture.
Boulton: Is there a reference in the bible to somebody writing before the Ten
Johanna Drucker: Well, I guess the question is, when are those texts written and
who writes them? Thereís a tradition of Enoch inventing the letters. There are wonderful traditions within Hebrew and then later, Arabic
scholarship about angel alphabets, which are some of my favorite. These are
angels that appear to Adam within the Garden of Eden and give him the letters.
There are angels who appear to David and give him different letters. So there
are various forms of angel alphabets that appear, and some of these look like
Chaldean letters and some of them look like variants of ancient scripts. Some of
them have flames on them and others of them have different pictorial attributes
to emphasize the fact that these are divine gifts.
are wonderful images and there are tales. One of the projects I really want to
do some day is to look at the history of angel alphabets and the history of
ideas about angel alphabets because I think itís really fascinating.
the sense that Moses is the law giver, that Moses is the source of bringing the
tablets down from Sinai, is something that carries with it the conviction that
this is the gift of writing as well as the gift of the law.
Boulton: And itís the beginning of the tradition of reading 'Godís words'.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Yes, and as I said before, the cultural authority of
the word, the sense that the word is law, and it comes from God. We see that
extend in the Middle Ages to the idea of the book of nature; that the world is
Godís work and that therefore everything within it has a place and an order.
And, if we as mere mortals could only learn to read that book of nature, that
then we would be able to understand Godís work.
there are all kinds of ways that those metaphors pass back and forth. One of the
great projects at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the
Renaissance is the attempt to systematize all knowledge into a legible system
that can be translated into another code. If you know the work of
John Wilkins, the fascinating British cleric and polymath, he comes up with
a whole system of writing that he thinks will, again, teach the reader about the
structure of the world, the structure of the cosmos, all of learning, by
understanding the way the writing system is constructed.
you can imagine this as a wonderful code that says, ĎHereís a line, and if
some dot appears above the line it means that itís part of the organic world
and if it appears below the line itís part of the inanimate world. So no
matter what youíre learning, if itís below that line, itís inanimate. If
itís above the line, itís animate. If it looks like an upright form, itís
a mammal. If itís a form that tilts, itís a bird. If itís a form that goes
like this, itís a reptile.í
he thought he could come up with a code system that would be so compact that
just by looking at these glyphs you would be able to understand all knowledge.
Now this goes right back to our story about the hieroglyphics, because where is
John Wilkins in the seventeenth century coming up with this notion
of a pictorial script and a pictorial code?
heís coming to it through Renaissance encounters with hieroglyphics. The
fascination that hieroglyphics asserted on the European imagination in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is amazing. Thereís this sense that
somehow hieroglyphics are both a secret language and a natural language. By
natural language we mean the sign looks like the thing it represents; it
explains itself; itís natural. We know that all
of these codes are far from natural - or theyíd be easier to learn.
Johanna Drucker: The thing thatís so amazing to me is
that without the alphabet and writing, the university wouldnít exist,
but nobody in the university studies the history of writing. Itís just
appalling to me. When I first started studying that stuff at Berkeley, it was
just like someone had opened up this universe of amazing things. When I went
back to the book this week and prepped for coming to talk to you folks I
thought, why have I strayed from this path? I must get back to writing about the
history of writing. It is the thing I care about most in the world. I got into
this just luminous state this week. It was likeÖIím back to writing about
writing. Anyway, so silliness
aside. Letís go back to the
Boulton: As you were saying, thereís this inexplicable coincidence thousands
of miles apart of the two writing systems that precede all writing systems on
the planet today, that come into existence at roughly the same time. One of
those stories coincides with this fantastic story thatís at the center of the
Western biblical tradition.
Johanna Drucker: Right. The Western biblical tradition, after all, is still very
much with us in terms of our secular lives. Are these not the weeks in which the
Ten Commandment tablets are being contested within a place of public justice in
the United States? And
the question of the division of church and state and what is the legacy of the
Ten Commandments to our codes of law? We
forget the code of Hammurabi, which is another one of the great codes within the
Judeo-Christian Western tradition, as one of the things that underlies a lot of
the law codes that we come to use in contemporary culture.
yes, the coincidence of the development of writing systems within that
particular period is really interesting. We donít have evidence
of writing systems that are much older than 3000 BC.
There are signs; there are marks, the
d'Azil stones, rock carvings and other forms of inscription. It
seems clear that one of the fundamental activities of human beings is to
represent themselves to themselves through mark making; that we
understand the world through representation. We want to present all of our
experience in some symbolic form and we see a magic and potency in that
Boulton: My sense of the research is that there is a general consensus that the
earliest forms of these marks and notations tend to, other than the cave art,
seem to be instrumental: records, receipts, things having to do with
memorializing various kinds of transactions. And, that there is a suggestion
that we went from this, originally inspired by a greater population density
having more complex interactions, to this hieroglyphic, simpler representation
that is still a big step over just this instrumental use and then from there
into representing speech. Itís kind of like three steps. Could we go all
the way back to what was the functional purpose of writing initially and how it
evolved in terms of its functional purposes?
Johanna Drucker: Well
again, different writing systems do have different functional purposes as they
come into being. Itís interesting
that the Chinese, the first Chinese characters that are invented are the
characters of the I Ching. And, so those have, again, an oracular power.
Theyíre used for divination, and theyíre used for the study and encoding of
knowledge. And by knowledge is meant a moral knowledge, a spiritual knowledge,
as much as a practical knowledge. So the I Ching characters are the oldest of
the Chinese characters.
the cuneiform tradition we know that the oldest forms that we have, at least,
are ones that were used for business transactions. Weíre pragmatic creatures.
Now, the hieroglyphics, however, are not really so much instrumental in the
business sense, theyíre instrumental in the sense of public language:
monumental language, prayers, invocations, memorials, tributes, records
of historical events.
Johanna Drucker: The point at which the sign systems start to be able to be used
for other purposes is a huge question.
What it does to spoken language
to have written language capable of abstraction is something that I think we
will never fully understand because we canít recover that history. By
definition, history is the point at which we have written record. So thereís a
paradox in trying to discover what it means for the written record to come about
and what it does to speech.
think that one of the points that we would want to clarify, or I would want to
clarify, is the assumption that writing is always the representation of speech.
There are many aspects of hieroglyphic writing that are not, in a sense,
pronounceable, or meant to be pronounced. Itís not a script for speech; itís
its own written code the way that pictorial representations are their own code.
donít look at a picture and imagine that weíre supposed to speak it out
loud. We receive that information visually.
think one of the confusions that comes with the alphabet, one of the great
potentials of the alphabet that is in many ways ignored through the literacy
training that we have, is the idea that its only purpose is to give us a speech
transcription rather than to appreciate its visual properties, and the
expressive properties of visual forms.
the Asian traditions of calligraphy, expressive qualities of written forms are
taken as a given. You wouldnít imagine doing a calligraphic work without
attending to the visual composition and to the way in which that inflects the
message that you are trying to put into that written form. Whereas in the West,
we tend to think that any old typewritten version of a speech is sufficient. Why
would you want to typewrite a speech by an inspiring preacher? Is it sufficient
to the words of a fabulous actor or actress to be able to render them in some
kind of Times New Roman? Do you really want to transform everything to this
bland uniform presentation? Or
should we now, especially with computers, emphasize the capabilities to use the
expressive qualities of different letter formsÖto actually make speech a
Boulton: My understanding was that
the latter stage in the emergence of writing systems was to have writing systems
that could transcribe speech. That none of the earliest forms, certainly the
earliest form of hieroglyphics.....
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Didnít have that potential at all.
Johanna Drucker: No.
Boulton: It was almost like, okay, weíre now symbolizing this thing and this
thing and this thing. Now we want
to take the pharaohís wordsÖ
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Now we want to take what the priests have to say and actually capture
what they said and put that out, which is entirely different.
So thereís this evolution from instrumental
counting, recording of transactions, to being able to represent ideas or objects
in relationships, to being able to represent speech.
Johanna Drucker: Thereís a really big difference between representing
things, as you said, and representing speech, and representing thought. I think
that the distinctions among these different things are real important to keep
clear. You can come up with a set of visual symbols that represent things and
those symbols can have visual properties that look like the things. I can have a
picture of a cow to represent a cow and then I can put three cows on there to
represent three cows. But I can
also come up with something thatís an abstract numeral, like the Arabic
numeral, three and that represents the concept, three. Thatís a huge leap because,
Iím not showing three-ness, but showing three things. I am saying, there is an
idea of three and Iím going to be able to represent it with a sign, and the
sign stays stable whether I am representing three cows, three balls, three
creatures, three flights of fancy, three yesterdays.
thatís a really huge leap. So the concrete presentation of information in
a sign is something that even animals are almost capable of. Itís a big
argument; Iím sure you know the debates about whether or not there are real
forms of language among animals. The basic state of that research as I
understand it, but Iíll be interested to know if youíve heard otherwise, and
certainly Coco raises some questions here, the wonderful Coco, but the
understanding is that animals,
especially primates, have the capacity to represent in analogous form; that is
the sign of something, a concrete or literal understanding of things in the
world. But they have a great deal
of difficulty making the leap to representing something in an abstract, symbolic
way, that is absent or that is an abstract concept.
some of the abstract concepts that we think about are so fundamental, all of the
things that are represented in prepositional phrases, between-ness, from-ness,
towards-ness, these are abstractions, and to represent those in a sign is
extremely difficult. You can represent
entities and quantities very readily in a sign, and essences, and properties. I
can show a tall man. I can show a tall man and a short man by showing them next
to each other. But to show a man of melancholic longing who has high principles,
and who has been imbued with a spirit of meanness - thatís very difficult to
show in a pictorial form unless youíre a really skilled artist.
abstractions represent a completely different stage of development in the
function of writing and in the capability of writing. Itís
that universality of abstraction that makes writing so powerful.
Johanna Drucker: We say that speech, language and writing are the only code in
which we can represent everything else. Now thatís a big claim. I would argue
that itís an untrue claim, for there are many things that canít be
represented in writing. Itís an argument I have with many of my poet friends
who believe that all of experience can be presented in language. I would say
there are many aspects of visual experience, just to take a very fundamental
realm, that are very, very difficult to describe in language, let alone other
aspects of the human....
Boulton: Language is a serial, one at a
time flow thatís radically different than the all at once-ness that we
experience in another way.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly. Thereís the temporal unfolding of language, that linear experience of
it, even though we know that we experience it really like a symphony.
You might hear the signs one after another but we know that weíre
creating a multi-dimensional field of meaning.
Boulton: Yes, but it still has an unfolding order.
Johanna Drucker: Right, exactly.
Boulton: Itís different than an all at once-ness.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly. You canít look at a picture and know exactly the
sequence in which youíre supposed to read its elements, or constituent
elements. But that sequential order has also given rise to various kinds of
misunderstandings. One of the major themes in the history of alphabet
interpretation has been the idea that maybe the letters of the alphabet actually
function as constituent elements of knowledge, language and human understanding.
maybe if we could really read the code weíd know that, well, if there were
three Aís in a sentence and two Eís and three Mís that, that meant it was
sort of like adding up three cups of flour, two pieces of thyme and one load of
sugar, therefore it equals X; this idea that the letters have a constituent
essence to them, and that we could actually read the letters.
Boulton: They seem to have this kind of almost semantic vector of energy to them
that seems to correspond with some of the chanting traditions. It does seem
letters are more than the complete abstract, no inherent meaning, arbitrary
symbols we typically attribute to them.
Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.
Boulton: There are a couple of things I want to do before we move on. How does the alphabet work? Where did it come from? What did
it do? What did it change, not only about oral language, but what did it change
about the way that we think? What powers did it enable us with collectively, in
terms of civilization? Thereís a lot connected to this story.
Boulton: Before we do that I want to rewind and I want to touch one more
time, on this coincidence between these two language systems. Weíve got
this system in the East that has this, as you said, oracular origin, and we have
this system in the West that seems to have this mystical, religious, biblical,
genesis as well. These two profound ignition points happen at roughly the same
time, and not simply due to technological perfections of a common instrument,
but having some other dimension to it. Just put those together whatever way you
can that speaks to all of those issues at once.
Johanna Drucker: Well, Iím glad that you object to the notion of technological
determinism. I think what we want to think about more is cultural receptivity
and the cultural conditions within which any human invention comes to have an
efficacy or a purpose. I also think we want to pull apart for a moment the
periods in which these writing systems come into being and think about it
perhaps in a slightly more refined sense.
Johanna Drucker: In other words, 3000 to 2700 BC we see Egyptian hieroglyphics
come into being. One of the interesting things about that is we see no
precursors. They come into being almost fully formed. What does that mean?
Thatís an amazing thing and itís a difficult thing to explain. Around the
same period, 3000, 3100 to 2700 BC, we see cuneiform writings come into being.
And those, again, separated the area of the ancient Middle East where also we
know the most advanced civilizations are really going through rapid
transformation in terms of the cultural institutions, the emergence of civic
forms of government, whether itís monarchical or legalistic, or whatever.
administration of public affairs as well as the administration of private
affairs is something thatís well served by writing systems, whether you need
transactions for records or whether you need the law as a point of public record
against which deviation, difference, transgression can be measured.
So, I think we shouldnít
underestimate the necessity for law, whether itís created within a sacred or a
also have the need for memory, for cultural memory. I think, again, the
transformation to a history sensitive, record-keeping culture is significant in
this period as well. Itís one of the things that scripture provides, a sense
of human cultural memory and myths and tales. The tales of Gilgamesh, other
writings from the ancient Middle East, the Book of the Dead from Egypt, these
are ancient scripts that, again, are preserved through writing, and passed on.
So thatís quite early. Itís 1700
B.C. when we begin to see the alphabet come into being.
point of origin for the Chinese writing system is somewhat debated, but I looked
it up this week in advance of coming to see you, and 1200 B.C. seems to be about
the earliest date that anyone is willing to put onto the I Ching.
You could stretch it back a little
bit, but when you think about it, it is a little bit later. I think a good
historian of Stone Age, Paleolithic, and Iron Age cultures would be able to
describe the conditions of technological capability as well as the sort of state
of the culture that would allow the writing system to be able to come into
being, come into circulation.
think that, in fact, if you look at it at a micro level, the range of periods of
which these writing systems come into being stretches over almost 2000 years -
which is not trivial when you think about it.
think itís actually more broadly separated, perhaps, than we realize. What we
do know is that there really wasnít any direct cultural transmission.
were in the Renaissance, many scholars who tried to trace a common origin for
Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Again, there was some profound
conviction that these two things must be connected and that they must have a
are a couple of other points that I think are important to make. One is that
there were other starts, aborted starts, for writing; and there are several of
a script that comes into being in the Indus valley, and thatís also around
2700 BC. Thereís an indigenous
Easter Island script that comes about but doesnít go anywhere.
In the ancient New World we have Mayan script coming into being, and
again, without any kind of contact. I
think itís an argument for the idea that symbol making and written forms of
mark making are things that do come about through human cultural evolution for
whatever reason to serve certain kinds of purposes. Itís not something
that has one point of origin and diffuses. So, I think thatís also really
interesting to think about. It argues for a cultural purpose. What that cultural
purpose is, is again, hotly debated. Those
arguments really map very well onto different moments in history.
instance, we think about what happens in the early eighteenth century with
someone like Voltaire or someone like Rousseau. Rousseau is a better example.
Rousseau imagines that the invention of language comes about through the
need for humans to express their passions. Then you have Besserat
in the twentieth century saying, ĎGuess what, folks, all of these cuneiform
tablets that you thought were mystical, magical and so forth? Theyíre filled
with transaction reports and these messages from husbands and wives who are
split over distance communicating about the business, and meanwhile passing on
cuneiform tablets actually contain messages that say things like, when you open
this be sure that whoever brought it to you also brought you three cows, two
goats, seven sacks of grain, and by the way, the kids are doing fine except that
theyíre quarrelsome, as usual; and the barnyard has been overrun by hens this
it turns out that the nature of human communication is much more universal
across five millennia than not. Therefore, we see that writing systems, even as
early as 2000 B.C., are being used to communicate the same kinds of things that
go in email today.
Boulton: One more thing before we leave this particular period. I appreciate
your apt distinction of the particular dating of the alphabet and the I Ching
origins of the Chinese characters. Thatís the first Iíve heard of those
dates since your book, and a couple of others said they were 1600 or 1800 BC or
both within a few hundred years of each other and now youíre suggesting on
more recent evidence that they are more like 500 years or more years apart.
Johanna Drucker: Right, that thereís a greater historical distance.
Boulton: But 500 years may have let
some cross-fertilization happen that may have been the inspiration and lessens
the coincidence. So letís drop that.
Boulton: There was also an evolutionary path of writing at a technological
level. It appears as if initially there were token-like objects, like dice,
markers where the people made agreements by putting these objects into buckets
or pots that represented so many sheep and/or other commodities, and that these
pots were basically put on a shelf. After a while, having these objects
represent things, quantities of things, stuck in a bucket with somebodyís
signature, signet ring, or other kind of impression on it to show who the
transaction was for or about, these token/icon objects began being impressed in
the still hardening clay, rather than putting them inside of them.
So the pots went from containers to flattening out to be surfacesÖ
Johanna Drucker: Tablets.
Boulton: Right, tablets, and from there
ĎI donít need to press these images into tablets, I can inscribe them
in the clay with a little stickí.
Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.
Boulton: So thereís a mechanical, technological evolution of the process of
writing that we havenít touched on.
Johanna Drucker: I think the process youíre talking about is also a process of
abstraction. Again, itís the difference between using a token to represent
something and using a sign that can be multi-purpose or represent any number of
things. I think that thatís, again, a huge leap, so that rather than thinking
that in every instance a token has to be made that conforms to the thing itself,
or stands in for the thing, that you might come up with a more universal system;
is something, again, that takes time to evolve.
mean, itís clear that that idea doesnít spring spontaneously into being.
other aspect of that history, of course, is the available means of technology in
any given region. So we do see that the shapes of letters conform to the
properties of whatever the writing materials are. So that when youíre carving
on a stone wall, and youíre doing hieroglyphics, youíre going to get certain
kinds of linear forms, theyíre not going to have elaborate shading to them,
and theyíre not going to have certain kinds of nuances to them. If youíre
going to be stamping something into clay, what you have is the shape of the
reed, and that just so happens to look like a little arrow, and there are
comments on this in the literature as well. So you have those particular forms
because theyíre relatively easy to make. When you start writing with a reed on
papyrus, youíre going to get another set of adaptations of the letterforms.
also goes back to explain that point that we touched on before about the
transformation from hieroglyphic forms, which are, again, monumental, public
forms, that can also be drawn. But if youíre going to do speed writing
and youíre going to transcribe someoneís speech, youíre not going to want
to sit there and draw a picture for every utterance. Youíre going to want to
be able to have some more streamlined way to represent what it is that theyíre
saying. So I think that the mechanical means that are used to produce a
regular, systematic set of letterforms also depends very much on the available
technology in any region.
that point, systematic, repeatable, is also really crucial here because if you
are going to have anything function beyond a use for an individual in a private
and idiosyncratic sense, it has to be learnable. It has to be something that you
It has to be something that can be encoded in a stable system and passed on.
know that one of the reasons that literacy, and high literacy, within a Chinese
culture is so limited is because of the number of signs that have to be learned.
We also know that print technology evolved very
differently in Chinese culture because of the number of signs that were
necessary, the number of characters that were necessary to print the text.
Even if you say that the bulk of Chinese language can be represented with 5000
characters, 5000 characters is still an awful lot of characters to have in a
print case as opposed to twenty-six or sixty, as we use for the letters in their
lower case, upper case, and the punctuation forms.
the challenges to literacy are also implicated, I think, in the way in which the
technology of production allows standardization to take place so that the system
can be disseminated fairly widely and learned fairly easily.
is great stuff. The alphabet is incredible.
Boulton: It is. Itís a story that goes from the ancient history to the
micro-time processing of the human brain.
Johanna Drucker: I know, and the problem is that along the way there are so many
really interesting stories, all the stories of origins. I have a wonderful quote
I can read it at some point about origins thatís really terrific, from Otto
Boulton: I want to make sure that we leave the last ten minutes or so for
reading some quotes and making sure that you
get a chance to speak to anything we have left out that you think is important.
go back for a moment, we were talking about a number of cultural pressures,
cultural environments, spiritual, instrumental, record keeping. All these
unfolding innovations: ĎLetís
stop using pots and use tablets and letís stop impressing here we can move
Johanna Drucker: Right
Boulton: Thereís an unfoldment of technical adaptation to meet the ever more
complex cultural context needs that has this elegance in it in the way that all
this is unfolded up to a certain point which we will come to later. Is there
something you can say to summarize in a way that you feel comfortable with, the
kind of dynamic I just described?
Johanna Drucker: The dynamic of material transformation andÖ
Boulton: Of these cultural forces creating these various different contexts,
while this technology is evolving and adapting almost like an evolutionary
environment that is putting a selective pressure on this differentiating
adapting technology to get ever better at doing all of that.
Johanna Drucker: Well I think one of the things
that we see happen with the development of any medium, and writing is certainly
a form of media, and touches on other forms of media, is that the longer itís
in existence, the more possibilities for specialization begin to emerge.
We see this, for instance, in the development of hieroglyphics.
go back to hieroglyphics as a very good example, where you have one form of
script that comes to be the province of the priests and the trained sacred
class, and then you have other forms of writing that develop along side it
because it can and because thereís a need for it. So the idea of writing
becomes fixed in the cultural mind.
thereís this sense that if thereís this thing called writing, then maybe
itís also good for this and for that and for so forth. But what kind of a
writing? So the writing becomes adapted so that it can actually suit that
point I wanted to touch on is that the first shorthand that we know of was
actually invented by Ciceroís slave, Tyro, to take down his orations when he
went to speak in the Roman forum. Let me
about thatÖtrying to transcribe Ciceronian sentences on the fly? So Tyro came
up with this system of shorthand notes that could be used to do this.
a perfect example of the way in which a cultural condition, the idea of public
speech as rhetoric and performance, the self-importance and perceived importance
of this particular man, Cicero, the sense that his words are not only there for
the moment for the effect that they have but also as models of perfect
rhetorical oratory; and that there has to be some capacity to record this. At
that point, of course, we donít have dictaphones or microphones or video tape,
so there has to be a way to take this stream of linear, temporally unfolding
speech and be able to record it for posterity, and also for transmission, and
also for its record function, for the idea that what Cicero says, especially as
it comes to be written, might have a kind of performative effect. That which has
been said becomes that which can be done, and in some sense is done.
use writing in a performative way. The signature remains a very important part
of our legal system. It is a performative act of writing. When you do that you
are actually giving away rights and you are agreeing to a legal contract. So,
writing remains for us a highly ritualistic process within daily use.
Boulton: I want to touch on the fact that one of the major differences
between the other writing systems and the alphabet is the emergence of a more
wide spread possibility of literacy. In fact, the actuality of more
widespread literacy because these other systems, not necessarily because they
were so idiosyncratic, but certainly because they were less learnable in some
ways and didnít transfer as deeply into the culture as the alphabet; which,
once it was done, the intention was to have more and more people reading it, or
at least in this case, the opportunity to have more and more people reading it.
In other words, that these other systems almost evolved by their scribes for
the scribes, and this alphabet system, whatever we say its origin was, was more
adapted to the learn-ability of people more broadly. Letís talk about that.
I guess there are many things in the question that you pose, and one of the
major themes I think weíd have to examine is the relationship between
writing and power. Certainly the control of literacy is a form of power. If you
have a cultural environment in which only a few people can read, whether itís
the reading of sacred texts or the reading of the law or the reading of other
kinds of specialized knowledge, then that disenfranchises a large portion of the
population that is nonetheless subject to the administered effect of that
particular knowledge and power.
we also see that literacy as we know it in the early part of the twenty-first
century is the legacy of something else, and that is really the Industrial
Revolution and the increased perception that an educated work force is a
valuable work force, and that there are many tasks that come to be part of the
day-to-day operations of industrial culture that require literacy. Those are
office workers and knowledge workers, information workers. So, the spread of
literacy is also tied to various transformations of economic systems and
production systems and so forth.
are other ways that literacy spreads and you touched on those as well, and those
have to do also with the training of individuals within various spiritual
traditions. Certainly the passing on of scripture, the learning of the bible,
the learning of the study of the Talmud is something of that. We talk about the
people of the book when we talk about the Jewish tradition, but there are other
traditions that would claim that identity as well, and certainly within the
study of the Koran you have a similar alignment. I mean, these are very close
traditions in terms of their points of origin and their approach to language and
its study, and the Christian tradition also.
many cases the bible is the means of teaching literacy, and of course itís
not incidental that when youíre teaching them the act of reading youíre also
teaching a set of moral precepts, and a whole code of behaviors, and a whole set
of assumptions, and a whole set of threats and promises and values about what
your behaviors mean and what kinds of consequences will ensue from this or that
kind of action. So all of these
things are very bound up together which is why I say that we have to think
about the relationship between writing and power when we look at the cultural
history of literacy.
Johanna Drucker: The
idea of enfranchisement, of literary enfranchisement, the idea of mass literacy
is really a very modern notion. Itís a wonderful notion because itís
the foundation of democratic process. In many ways it might be counted as
certain kinds of spiritual evolution, it might enable other kinds of spiritual
evolution, but I think itís inarguable that itís the foundation of
democratic process. You cannot have, and all the founding fathers, and they
were fathers, all the founding fathers argued this, that you must have
literacy to have democracy.
Boulton: Weíre going to come back to that and particularly
Franklinís and other 'founding father'sí sense of literacy. What we didnít
get to that I want to circle back to was, if you can speak to it, relative to
the population of Egypt, the population of the Sumerians - how many people were
actually using writing? What percentage of the population? Then, within those
writing systems, of the writing systems dominating and central to those
cultures, did they achieve a certain percentage of literacy? With the alphabet,
thereís a spikeÖ
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: In the ability of the populations using it to become literate. I
want us to bring those together somehow.
Johanna Drucker: I actually donít know much about the population percentage of
literates in ancient culture, but my guess is that itís pretty small. The fact
that there is writing has a public perception, but the ability to actually
use writing or to use any kind of form of literacy is quite limited. Where
were we going to go after thatÖto the alphabet and the spike.
Boulton: The efficiency of the alphabetÖ
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: The combatoric power of itÖ
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: The ecology of it, the limited number of things that you needed to
learn to be able to transcribe speech into language. In a way you could say that
literacy was enabled by the technological efficiency of the alphabet.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Itís certainly true that the alphabet is easier to
learn than any other forms of writing. But again, I think that what somebody like Eric Havelok would argue, and
what many people whoíve looked at the transformation from oral to literate
cultures would discuss would also be the ways in which the coming of literacy
has a relationship to what has gone before.
other words, if you have an oral tradition that is founded on the idea of
memorization and that will create certain kinds of repetitive mnemonics, or
certain kinds of devices for enabling memory within the way in which knowledge
is transmitted, whether those are verses that repeat or tales that have a
narrative structure. This narrative is a very assumable form for us for
knowledge. What those forms are is also transformed by the coming of writing
systems because writing allows static seeming abstractions to be fixed in a
semi-permanent way so that we donít have to rely upon many things that are
almost physical, physiological somatic properties. Rhythm is a very somatic
property. Our bodies feel rhythm. If you perform a poem that has a certain
rhythm you will be able to remember when it says something else, because there
is a break in the way it goes.
can see how that really is a memory function.
if Iím going to make a list and put it on the wall, I donít need the somatic
properties of the memory system. So, I do think that these transformations are
significant in the way in which, not only literacy functions, but in the way the
structure of knowledge is presented, and what constitutes knowledge has come to
be understood by a culture. There are people who would argue, I think, that the
way in which we read from left to right in Western culture is something that has
to do with brain function; whether it is determined by brain function or whether
it actually ends up patterning our ways of processing knowledge, because of the
way that we are educated is a question. Probably the two things work together.
It wasnít always the case.
early writing systems, even in various forms of Greek inscription, we have the Boustrophedon.
In the Boustrophedon the word describes the path of an ox that is going through
the plowing of the field. Well, that makes perfect sense on some levels, but of
course you would write that way. Why if your hand was all the way at this side
of a tablet or a piece of paper would you bother to lift it up, bring it back as
if itís some mechanical piece of machinery, put it down, and start it again?
It makes perfect sense to go this way and that way. But, in fact, itís not a
very efficient way of reading. Because
I donít know what, again, I dip into these fields of research from time to
time, so I donít know what the current state of research is, but at one point
the idea was that you donít even read all the way from left to right. You read
down the center of a column and your peripheral vision captures the phrases that
are around the center of the column, and so we process actually more rapidly. We
donít read every letter. We
donít read every word.
Boulton: A good reader doesnít.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: A struggling reader......
Johanna Drucker: A struggling reader has to. Right, and tries to, then is very
tripped up by that in many ways. So I think, again, literacy and orality
have many kinds of relationships to each other. What I think we see is that
the kinds of training that become institutionalized once you have certain kinds
of writing systems comes to have a very complicated relationship with
development, cognition, and other forms of information processing. Do we then
come to look at images from the upper left hand corner and read down across? We
do in many ways. Thatís not natural, thatís trained.
Boulton: One thing the emergence of the alphabet is clearly bringing is 'category'
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Which is a major thing. It becomes part of the Ďoperating systemí
for civilization as it develops in Greece and as the Greeks become literate.
Thereís the relationship between the elemental nature of the alphabet and
potentially, Iím not suggesting theyíre causal, platonic ideas and atomistic
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: The alphabet has this kind of infrastructure level influence over
the processes of our mental processing and I want to get at that from once
it starts to take hold with the Hebrews and all that comes from the first people
of the book.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: We have one whole thread of Western civilization grounded by the
people of the book who are enabled by the alphabet. Then weíve got it
spreading around through trade like a little web virus, moving over to the
Greeks who upgrade it.
their whole civilization seems to flower in different ways, reflecting it, if
not caused by it.
Johanna Drucker: Right, right.
Boulton: Then it spreads around and further differentiates, as you said. I
want to get us all the way to the Romans adding punctuation and spreading it
around before we come to our stop. So letís go back to the alphabet, and
again, go ahead and talk about......
Johanna Drucker: The atomistic nature.
Boulton: The interior effect on becoming more abstract and the external
effect on the structure and development of civilization.
Johanna Drucker: Okay.
Boulton: Our story is suggesting that the alphabet is one of the most, I would argue, Ďtheí
most fundamental technology in the history of history.
yeah. Yeah. Nothing is more basic, really, than
the alphabet. Itís amazing.
The atomistic concept of the alphabet, the idea that the letters are actually
little atoms in some sense is something that is, again, linked to the Hebrew
tradition, but not at the point of origin. Itís really a kabalistic notion.
Yetzirah, which is the book of creation in which that particular notion is
given its articulate form, really comes into being in the eleventh, twelfth and
thirteenth centuries, in North Africa and Spain. So, itís a later
Boulton: Iím not suggesting that the alphabet is atomistic.
Johanna Drucker: No, no.
Boulton: Iím suggesting that the elemental nature of the alphabet has a
correspondence to Greece developing atomistic concepts in physics, or Platoís
ideas which are discrete, stable, abstract generalizations that seem to
correspond, if not be caused by this structure thatís now infecting the minds
of the people who are using it.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Well, certainly itís true that the way that the Greeks
come to interpret the alphabet is shot through with those atomistic notions. One
of the most famous pieces of writing about alphabet symbolism is Platoís
discussion in the Cratylus,
where Cratylus and Socrates are having an exchange about the nature of the
letters. Socrates, in his usual
wily way, is leading poor Cratylus astray
and getting him to sort of follow this line of what looks like reason.
So Socrates keeps insisting on the idea that, arenít the letters really
sort of possessed of properties that tell us about what their meaning is and the
way that they function in different words?
comes up, for instance, with this whole discussion of the I and the iota is the
tiniest letter. Isnít it? I mean, doesnít that make sense, Cratylus?
And isnít an iota the smallest thing that we could possibly imagine?
Isnít it, Cratylus? And he says, what about that little...so he keeps insisting on this idea.
Now, on the one hand itís a fake idea, but an imaginative one, and thereís a
little passage Iíll read to you later, Plato and Cratylus,
where he talks about the rho and all the characteristics of this letter.
the point is that the idea that underlies this is much more fundamental. In
other words, we can take the idea that essences are attributes of the letters.
And so, therefore, that idea is not so much only linked to the alphabet, and I
think this is the point that youíre making, but that we could take this
idea of a set of elements that combine, the combinatoric notion, and that through
their machinations, they can be used to describe any number of other kinds of
things, whether they are physical properties, arithmetic properties and natural
see the beginnings of natural science in the work of Aristotle, and though
thatís not atomistic, per se, it again has a kind of mechanical, orderly,
hierarchical sensibility. Again, the sequencing that comes out of the use of
the letters of the alphabet becomes the foundation of all categorization
systems. Up until the present
day, we still use it in computer searches. Itís one of the things that
Vanover Bush in his 1945 essay, as we may think, text to task, and Bush says,
ĎWhy are we continuing to work with the organization and classification of
knowledge according to the sequence of the alphabet?
We think associationally. Why should we be limited to this abstract
system and the constraints that it imposes on our abilities to think?í So,
there it is. You have an ally in Vanover Bush.
Boulton: All of these are helpful,
but incidental to my main point. Coming backÖthere are enabling properties of
widespread literacy, of using a technology to write that is as powerful in its
combinatory possibilities and as simple and ecological to articulate in and read
back as the alphabet. Itís connected to the structure of the unfolding
tradition of the people of the book and of the efficiency of trade with the
Phoenician empire and with the Greeks. I want to talk about the alphabet as
an enabling technology to civilization itself and, again, to the cognitive
infrastructure of the Western mind.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Well, I
think one of the things that we want to call into question, or at least pay
attention to, is the relationship between fixity and indeterminancy in the use
of a writing system.
what do I mean by that? When I say fixity, I mean the capacity of letters, of
signs, of writing to actually put something down, make it clear, make it
legible, make it permanent. So when we talk about the instrumental use of
writing in a trade system, weíre talking about fixity. Weíre talking about
the idea that a letter can be used to represent a transaction. It can be used to
represent a law. It can be used as
a point of reference that appears to be static, stable, and for all intents and
purposes, permanent, semi-permanent.
the other side, if we think about the legacy of the people of the book, one of
the important transformations that occurs in the movement between Hebrew writing
and Semitic writing, and Greek uses of the alphabet, is that we see the
transformation from the vowels being left not notated to the vowels being given
notation. This, of course, is one of the huge transformations when
we move from Semitic writing systems to Greek writing systems. Thatís why
for many scholars, and for many, many years, within certain kinds of
traditions of textual studies and literary studies, the
fifth century BC in Greece is considered the origin of literacy because this is
the first time that vowel forms are given a permanent place within the
alphabetic writing system.
what does that mean? That goes back to my other point. If fixity, the idea of
permanence, legibility, stability, is one property of writing; indeterminacy is
another property of writing. We tend to bracket that out. We tend to think if
something is written, it has a stable form, we can read it, and get the meaning
out, as if itís ore, taken right out of the mine. Get that meaning, dump it
from one bucket to another - got the meaning of that sentence.
in fact, when we read,
we are taking a code and we are getting instructions from
that code to do a series of cognitive processes. And so, what we are actually
doing is enacting a cognitive performance in response to a set of instructions.
alphabet is a stable set of encoded instructions, but that doesnít mean that
the meaning that we produce from it is stable and fixed. Itís indeterminate.
But itís indeterminate within a field of possibilities. So, we read.
the shift from Hebrew, the shift from Semitic to Greek is a reduction, a closing
down of indeterminacy into what looks like greater determinacy. Where the
Semitic system leaves open, and deliberately so, because again, here is a
culture in which oral interpretation and reading are tightly controlled within
the study of the rabbis and the young men who are coming to the synagogue to
study. The idea is that no text is to be interpreted individually on your own;
itís to be interpreted within a tightly controlled cultural system - that
means that that process of reinterpretation will also be understood within an
oral context in relationship to the written text. In the Greek system we have a
different sensibility, which is that these texts are going to be able to be
passed on without as much control and with a different sense of their
Alphabet as a Spoken Sound Recording System:
Boulton: Speaking of the determinacy and indeterminacy, one of the things that
is a powerful enabler, and some people who talk about the use of it by the
Phoenicians, as traders dealing with people with multiple languages, is that the
alphabet creates an ability to take notations for languages so you could
actually play back the sounds of the words that somebody said, even though you
donít know what they are.
Johanna Drucker: Right, exactly.
Boulton: Which suggests the original phonetic correspondence. Letís touch on
that point - that there is a one to one relationship in the early emergence
of this as it first starts to spread around the world that enables it to
transcribe the sounds of speech in a minimally ambiguous way.
Johanna Drucker: Thatís a really important point, because itís very
important to separate out the history of languages from the history of scripts. We
have many forms of language that are written by an alphabetic script and
theyíre not all related to each other. The
fact that the alphabet is one of the major forms of writing doesnít mean that
all of the languages that are recorded by the alphabet or are able to use the
alphabet, are related to each other.
have, for instance, two radically different languages within the European
context: The Finno-Hungarian
language groups and Indo-European language groups. These are not related to each
Finno-Hungarian is the great mystery of languages, exactly where it came from,
where it originated, what its forms are, but itís radically different from
Indo-European languages, in its structure, its inflections, its grammar, its
sounds, everything. All of these languages can be represented by the alphabet.
the the alphabet, again, is a universal code in the sense that it can represent
almost any set of sounds. That said, we also know that thatís not true and
as soon as missionary activity became associated with colonial activity and
global exploration, and again, that starts with people like Matthew Rickey going
to the Orient and other early discoverers; thereís the realization that to
spread the word, to spread the Christian gospels, and to spread the sacred
texts, youíre going to have to be able to translate these into a whole range
of other languages. And that the limits
of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet are such that itís not really
sufficient to the purpose.
Boulton: At least in the time that they were using it they can use the system
to to reproduce the sounds they were hearing, that they captured amongst
themselves to say, well, this person from whatever language, and this person
from a different language, I can still play back what that person said to meÖ
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: In their languages. Now, yes, the alphabet has been adapted over time
to represent sounds that are not related anymore because they used different
sound sets and rhythms. But, for example, I could listen to Spanish and use the
alphabet to represent the sounds of Spanish even though I donít know the
meaning of the words.
Johanna Drucker: Right, right.
Boulton: So, in that sense, thereís a cultural, innovative, adaptive value to
the alphabet in the case of the Phoenicians as international traders, as being
able to write down what everybody is saying even though the people that
theyíre writing down wouldnít use it that way.
Johanna Drucker: Right, and that will work for the Phoenicians among the
Phoenicians to some extent, but even thatís going to run into trouble, as we
know. If you were to take that example of Spanish transcription, if you donít
know Spanish, Spanish is somewhat familiar to our ears as English listeners, but
supposing you are listening to Mandarin Chinese, or some dialect that is a
sub-Saharan African dialect where even the sounds are very strange to you, you
could make that transcription using the alphabet, but how accurate would your
playback be? To what extent could you actually capture that particular
transcription? I would argue that probably the amount of time that elapsed
between the time of transcription and the time of recreation, you would see a
curve that dropped off pretty radically in terms of your ability to recapture
what it was that you tried to transcribe.
Boulton: Letís go on a different task, within the Hebrew, Phoenician, and
Greek use of the alphabet there was a comparatively tight correspondence between
a letter and its sound as used within their language families.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Thatís a really good point. When
the alphabet was invented, the relationship between the letters and the spoken
language that they are used to represent was much, much closer.
For the Greek spoken language, the alphabet functioned quite well. I
think there are twenty-two letters in the ancient Greek alphabet, and the
correspondence of phonemes to letter forms really mapped pretty well. There
wasnít a lot of language that was left out, and there werenít a lot of
letters that were redundant or superfluous or so forth.
But, as the Greek alphabet became a kind of legacy system through
the Roman Empire, I mean the Roman Empire was a great disseminator of
letterforms as well as other things like plumbing, which were equally as useful,
although for different purposes...
Boulton: Lead pipes and all.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Exactly,
lead pipes and all. Arches, plumbing and the letters of the alphabet and roads.
Once these systems are in place theyíre really, really hard to dislodge.
So much of human history is written in alphabetic form, so much of
language is tied up with our understanding of the alphabet, public monuments and
so forth, itís very difficult to change them.
the alphabet adapts. It tries to adapt. It is adapted by the Romans who give it
a U and a J, and then it is given punctuation, and regularization of spelling
begins to occur to some extent, though we know that spelling doesnít fully
regularize until the eighteenth century with the coming of the dictionaries.
the printing press doesnít fully regularize spelling as extensively as one
alphabet adapts as it moves forward until you get to the point where you have
something like the Anglo Saxon remnants of other letterforms that are part of
the British Isles script traditions. You have a thorn and a yogh. You have these
two letterforms, for instance, that really work for the Anglo Saxon language,
for many of its, you know, German influenced sounds.
here comes the Latin alphabet and they want no parts of the thorn and the yogh
and so those letters, letterforms, actually vanished and we ended up having
these strange phís and thís and letter combinations that almost function
like letters because theyíre always together if theyíre going to represent
those discrepancies become wider and wider. We know that the alphabet is not the
most efficient system for representing the forty phonemes of English that we
Again, I think the important point here is that language is an abstract
system. So is writing. These
systems do not work as essences. In other words, an A doesnít have
an essence the way the smell of a rose has an essence, or lavender has an
essence. Again, the smell image is a good one.
When we think essence we really think odor, essence of a particular
what we do with these abstract systems is that we use them to differentiate.
We differentiate forty phonemes. We have the cognitive capability to use
that differentiation in a meaningful, substantial way. That differential
capability is what the alphabet carries with it. We can differentiate those
twenty-six symbols quite readily through our visual recognition system.
We donít confuse an A with a B. We donít confuse a B with an M.
There are letters that do get confused.
Again, young readers know these and some of us who work in a print shop
trying to hold up a letter and figure out, is it a P or a Q, also know these
confusions. But itís that differential quality that
the abstract writing system and abstract language system really use to function.
Itís not their essence.
Boulton: One of the most important pieces in this story is what we call the First
Millennium Bug. This is the collision between the twenty-four letter Roman
writing system (at the time) being spread around and modified as you said, and
this forty, (some people say fifty, depends on which expert you talk to),
distinct phonemes involved in the English language. As Richard Venezky said, or
Naomi Baron or other linguists, Ďnobody was minding the storeí.
Thereís nobody saying, ďLetís be careful about how we bring these two
Johanna Drucker: Right, right, right.
Boulton: As if the fate of our
children in the future is going to depend on how well they can process it.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Itís an accident of
history, tumbling, unfolding as these things try to co-mingle over time. But
before you go to that, which is where I want to end, I still want to come back
and see what we can say more about the technological enablement to civilization.
Boulton: Letís stay in the Greeks
right nowÖthereís an archaic period, which all of Greece we understand,
really was still an oral culture
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Itís not like they became a written culture in the sense we might
think of today. But literacy profoundly affected their oral-ness. Thereís a
window from approximately 500 BC to 800 BC, only a few hundred years,
memorialized by Socrates re-telling the story of Thuth and the emergence of
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: During that period of time when, coming from this interaction with
the Phoenicians, something happens in Greece which leads to the beginning of
Western civilization. To science, politics, some would argue self-reflexivity. All
these different dimensions. Get inside of that space and help me describe it.
Johanna Drucker: Well, at the risk of doing something that seems almost
historically anachronistic, I would say that in a way that period of the Greek
encounter with Eastern writing systems, because they were looking at
hieroglyphics, that we have an early phase of modernity. In other words, you
have historicism. You have a sense that there is a history.
of the most interesting things is when this cuts both ways. For instance, for
the priestly class in Egypt using
hieroglyphics, the use of hieroglyphics for esoteric purposes is keyed to the
point at which the Greeks come to be part of Egyptian culture.
Itís as though, again, a specialization occurs. Once you
have the Greeks present in Egyptian culture, the priests say, we are going to
turn the hieroglyphics not into something legible but something illegible. So we
are going to again specialize its function.
Boulton: Trying to protect itself.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly. Weíre going to turn it into something specialized.
The other thing is that when the Greeks start to look at hieroglyphics, thatís
the beginning of this kind of projection of otherness onto the hieroglyphics in
a sense that, oh, look at these signs. These are amazing. What is that culture
that has this amazing capability? They
attribute powers to these writing systems that the writing systems donít
necessarily have and they also invent a sense of history.
that historicistís sensibility, I think, that becomes so bound up with writing
- that if you have writing, then you have the
capability for memory and transmission. If you have memory and transmission then
oral culture can do something else. You begin to have these
separations and specializations of activity. So rather than having oral cultures
that have to do everything, in other words perform and record and transmit and
become the sort of the site for production of community and identity at the
level of person, and sort of state and nation and so forth as we move forward in
time, you have the sense that the writing, the written record, does some of that
work. The written record becomes a kind of point outside of present experience
that is always bound with the past.
always think of writing as memory. Writing is always bound up with memory. And
thatís why I say I think itís a kind of early historicism. Even
though you have legends before the Greeks, and you do have kinds of tales of
conquest and so forth, the sense of history as a practice is something that I
think we really do get from the Greeks, from Herodotus.
Boulton: In a short span of years they go from these mythic god figures to
Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly. Individuals.
Boulton: Politics, science and all those things. Thereís a relationship
Johanna Drucker: Right. I would argue that individuation
as a self conscious practice, the idea that I am myself, that I am a different
thing than you, is very much bound up with my ability to make a mark that shows
me that thatís my mark, thatís me. My mark is me and thatís
not your mark. I
think that is so fundamental to the way that writing functions.
I think we see the whole tradition of individuation within Western culture and
Eastern culture bound up with that. Itís
interesting to go back to the calligraphic tradition and think about the ways
that expressive inflection within the practice of copying is the place at which
the sort of individual artistry is assigned authorship even though the practice
is a copying practice and a traditional practice.
Boulton: So instead of being this kind of monotone technological recording
it has the ability to bring tone and inflection by
morphic variation of appearance.
Johanna Drucker: Right.
Boulton: Letís go to your
readings and come back on the other side of that to see if there are a few
points that we might go into.
Johanna Drucker: Herodotus, in the
fifth century BC, is one of the first historians, and this goes to my point
about historicism, and from Herodotus we get the tale of Cadmus, who was the
Phoenicians who came with Cadmus introduced into Greece after their settlement
of the country a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was
writing, an art til then, I think, unknown to the Greeks.
At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians.
But as time went on, they changed their language and also the shape of
Exodus I already read. Then hereís this whole discussion in Plato
in the Phaedrus
This is the other great debate. Is writing an aid or a detriment to memory?
Plato makes a point that actually sort of differentiates different kinds
of memory. In
heís talking about the fact that
Thoth takes writing to Thamus, the king of Egypt, and he claimed
the letter would make the Egyptians wiser, and give them better memories. But Thamus
wasnít convinced and he argued that the invention would, in fact, create
forgetfulness because they would trust the external written characters and not
remember of themselvesí.
this bit in the Cratylus
in which Cratylus is having a discussion with Socrates about the letters as
elements of language and he characterizes these elements as he says: ĎThey
are just as colors or elements of a painting, component parts.í Then he goes on to talk about the rho, and he says
rho is a sign of motion.í He
demonstrates this by saying, ĎLook, itís found in all of these words,
tremor, tremble, strike, crush, bruise, crumble and whirl.í In pronouncing this letter, Socrates says:
ĎThe language was most agitated and
least at rest.í
Mueller, a German philologist in the nineteenth century, said, - and this is
one of the great, great quotes. Muller
is the Rubicon which divides man from beast and no animal will ever cross it.í
the Roman writer
will be left but graven words and only the stones will tell of your piety.í A
statement with mixed messages in it.
Pocock - this is from Pocockís travels in Egypt in the eighteenth century on
page 354 of a multi-volume work. ĎMoses,
who was skilled in all the learning of the Egyptians, without doubt understood
their manner of writing. And if the
letters represented animals then he must have composed a new alphabet because
the law forbid them to make the likeness of any thing.í
Boulton: Thatís beautiful. Self-referential back to the Ten Commandments of
thou shall not make images.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly. And here is an argument for writing by
Hartlib, writing in 1654, in "The True and Ready Way of the Latin
are uncertain messengers to the treasury of memory.í
the search for a universal source of writing is something that obsesses authors
and scholars over the years. And
here I read to you simply the title of a work from 1852 by one Charles
Forrester. And here is the title of
his book: The One Primeval Language Traced Experimentally Through Ancient
Inscriptions in Alphabetic Characters of Lost Powers From the Four Continents,
Including the Voice of Israel From the Rocks of Sinai, and the Vestiges of
Patriarchal Tradition From the Monuments of Egypt, Eutoria, and Southern Arabia.
And he was looking for the
one language, one speech with which the whole earth had been overspread.
Henry Rollinson, the nineteenth century British archeologist, comments on the cuneiform characters by somewhat critically saying: ĎThese scribes employed their favorite weapons of war as the formation of their characters.í
Ege, in 1923, writes that:
'There is a whole volume of human history
of every one of the twenty-six alphabetic characters with which we write our
Boussard writing in 1799 sort of recapturing and rephrasing the tale of Thoth
says: ĎThoth is the scribe of the gods.
The measurer of time. The
inventor of numbers. The art of
writing. In the judgement hall of
Osiris, it is he who stands at the side of the great scales ready with his
palate and reed to record the result of the weighing of the heart.í
interesting, I think, about this is that hereís an eighteenth century writer
taking up this classical tale and by the time heís telling this tale, heís
actually ascribing to Thoth not only the capability to do writing, but
heís linking writing up with all of these other things. The measurer of time.
Not that thatís a very enlightenment idea thatís actually linked to the
Industrial Revolution. The inventor of numbers. Heís not the inventor of
numbers. Again, arithmetic calculation is another form of abstraction, but it
has other instrumental and mystical purposes.
he also puts him next to Osiris and says heís the one whoís going to record
the result of the weighing of the heart. Again,
you can see how Christian tradition about what happens to the soul at the last
judgement day has been sort of projected back on to Thoth.
So you get this mixing of traditions.
But here Boussard is presenting this as if itís simply the tale itself.
we also have another significant debate about the relationship of writing and
speech. On the one hand we have someone like Voltaire
saying: ĎWriting is the painting of the voice and the more it resembles it,
the better it is.í
we have a historian of writing from the twentieth century, Ignas
Gelb, who counters by saying, ĎLinguists
who define writing as a device for recording speech show very little
appreciation of the historical development of writing.í
By that, Gelb is trying to emphasize that writing has its own functions
and its own purposes that are not always only the recording of speech.
is the wonderful Oscar
Ogg, in 1948, in The Twenty-Six Letters; he does a very brief
account of all of these different ideas about the origins of writing.
He says, ĎThe
Chinese tell that a dragon faced, four-eyed, Sang Chin, invented the Chinese
alphabet. He looked up and he saw
the patterns of the stars. He
looked down and he saw the marks on the back of the turtle. And he saw in his garden the footprints of birds.
And from these patterns writing was invented.
Thoth is always pictured with a reed.
Brahma had no letters and so he invented them from seams in the human
skull. The Phoenicians got their
signs from Egyptians and then passed them to the Greeks.
And parts of it were taken from the Babylonians.
And maybe with Crete as a stepping stone.
And the Hebrews borrowed it from the Phoenicians when Solomon contracted
with the king of Tyre to help build the temple.í
See how all these things compacted.
Johanna Drucker: I have that beautiful Noel Humphries, which is longish, but I
think we have to read it.
Boulton: Okay. What about the Socrates as it pertains to...
Johanna Drucker: This is the Socrates. This is Humphriesí retelling of this.
science, letters, will render the wisdom of the Egyptians greater and will give
them a more faithful memory. Itís
a remedy against the difficulty of learning and of retaining knowledge.
Those who learn them will leave to those strange characters the care of
recalling to them all that they should rather have confided to memory.
And they will themselves preserve no actual recollection of these things.
Thus, thou hast discovered not a means of memory but only of
reminiscence. Thou giveth to them
the means of appearing wise without really being so for they will read without
the instruction of masters and think themselves wise upon many things when, in
fact, they will be ignorant, and their intercourse will be insupportable.í
really great. Then, I do want to
read this Noel Humphries just for the sake of its poetry because I think itís
the one thatís beginning there, but itís such a poetic piece, from 1853.
the invention of letters, the machinations of the human heart began to operate.
Falsity and error daily increased. Litigation
and prisons had their beginnings. As
also specious and artful language, which causes so much confusion in the world.
It was on these accounts that the shades of the departed wept at night.
But on the other hand, from the invention of letters all polite
intercourse and music preceded. And
reason and justice were made manifest. The
relations of life were defined and laws were fixed.
Governors had a lasting rule to refer to. Scholars had authorities to venerate. The historian, the mathematician, the astronomer, can do
nothing without letters. Were there
not letters to give proof of passing events, the shades might weep at noonday as
well as night. And the heavens rain
down blood. For tradition might
affirm what she pleased. So that
the letters have done much more good than evil.
And as a token of the good, heaven rained down ripe rain the day that
they were first invented.í
did? It did? Like, we were there and we saw this ripe rain come down?
So, that was what I pulled as quotes.
Johanna Drucker: You know, we didnít go back to talking about alphabet reform,
and I think itís really important. So,
I think we should touch on that.
realization that the alphabet is difficult to learn is something thatís not a
recent notion, and so there have been many attempts to reform the alphabet. The forces that work against this, of course, are convention
and the fact that many things have been written in alphabetic characters, and
that to lose that cultural memory is something that is a serious risk if we put
a new code into place.
the idea, and we talked about this earlier, that there might be an on- ramp up
that would allow the code to be learned in a more user friendly way, and make
that literacy possibility even more broad based, is something that educators
have addressed for a long time.
there have been, over the years, attempts to reform the alphabet. George Bernard
Shaw very famously put out a call for this and even promised a reward if
somebody could come up with a better phonetic representation of the English
alphabet that would make literacy easier to learn.
Boulton: In his will he set aside the proceeds of everything his estate was
earning to hold an annual contest to invent another alphabet.
Johanna Drucker: Exactly.
Boulton: When you talk about reform here, though, youíre talking about
orthographic reform, which has an oscillation between alphabet reform and
Johanna Drucker: Thatís right. Because,
do we change the letters or do we simply change the way theyíre used?
Do we simply make different combinations? Thatís what weíre talking
about with phonics.
Boulton: All of which betray, or
work against the inertia of the system or threaten the system.
Johanna Drucker: Right. And, so, again, some of the proposals that have come
forth fall into fairly recognizable categories.
There are spelling reform possibilities, and then there are ideas for
inventing a new script form. And
the script forms basically follow a couple of different possibilities.
is take the twenty-six letters and add in a bunch of new characters. When the International
Phonetic Alphabet was being developed, in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century, it was being developed for a number of different
purposes. One of those purposes was to spread Christian learning and so
to enable the transcription of biblical and sacred texts into a wide variety of
world languages. So those scripts
really had to be pretty extensive. Anthropologists
also use those scripts in order to transcribe native languages in what seemed to
be a fairly universal international phonetic alphabet.
A number of additional characters were made for that alphabet.
Difficulties of dissemination have to do with the casting of those
letters. As you said before, print
technology is very conservative. If
youíre going to have to cut, cast and reproduce new letter forms, thatís
also an extremely expensive and difficult task.
Boulton: In addition, a point youíre mentioning there were two other major
forces - a kind of language imperialism and ease of reading.
Johanna Drucker: Right. Right. And those two things go along with each other
because if you teach someone to read really easily, using certain kinds of
characters theyíre going to read the next thing that you give them.
But again, you also give them the possibility to expose themselves to
other forms of learning.
me just touch very quickly on the other kinds of letter reforms that have been
proposed. One of these is the
mapping of the articulatory processes, and I talked about that earlier with
Bishop John Wilkins as an early instance of this.
But other Renaissance educators and reformers and people intent upon
teaching language to the deaf also came up with systems:
George Dalgarnoís very famous sort of code system for trying to teach
the articulatory system through a coded, visual form.
thereís also the attempt to record the acoustic experience of language.
This is what links Alexander Melville Bell with
Alexander Graham Bell and
the idea that what weíre trying to capture there is the experience of hearing,
not the experience of pronunciation. The
difference between producer and receptor are also very interesting because in
the alphabet we confuse those two things. We allow that code to perform that double function, and
thatís another one of the areas of confusion in terms of how that set of
letters is actually used. So that was something we needed to touch on.
Boulton: Do you have much on the1906 Theodore Roosevelt
Johanna Drucker: No, I donít even know that story.
Boulton: Thatís one of the most
fascinating stories in all of this. Thatís what put the stink of shame on
spelling reform, as far as I can tell. It just knocked it off the table for
Johanna Drucker: What? What did he do?
Boulton: He ordered the U.S. Government Office of Printing to adopt what was the
Melville Deweyís spelling reform work financed by
Andrew Carnegie. It had Darwin, William
James, the U.S. Commissioner of EducationÖ the
of the universities in England and America all came together, they
worked out this multi-generational staging of how to shift the spelling, they
worked out this plan, somebody showed it to Roosevelt and he said ĎItís
greatí, apparently ashamed because he couldnít spell. He issues an order to
the Office of Government Printing that causes a turmoil that goes through the
Supreme Court and United States Congress; theyíre all in this argument. The
press comes in and says, trying to attack
Roosevelt, that this is all a scheme
Carnegie to make money selling all these books. And the whole thing
Johanna Drucker: Ohhhh. Well, again, itís been a holy
grail of educators for a long time - which is how to actually create an alphabet
that has a better correlation between spoken language and written forms, but
also is easier to learn. Iím certainly not the person who knows how to
solve that problem.
so crazy, because the code changes all the time.
I mean, look at emoticons, and the way that emoticons have come into use
within the electronic environment.
Boulton: But you wonít find too many of them printed in the Library of
Johanna Drucker: It will come. Emoticons are a change
because theyíve become part of the written code.
I mean electronic capabilities are going to change things.
Boulton: Those are iconic.
Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.
Boulton: They are somewhat self-evident. Theyíre
different than this constructive process of taking these letters in and
assembling them unconsciously faster than we could possibly think about and
generating this virtually heard stream that simulates talking to ourselves.
Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, right. It is a different business. I agree.
David Boulton: Thank you Dr. Drucker.
Special thanks to Bill Blackburn for transcribing this interview.