The Alphabet In The Atlantic

In “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books,” Tim Carmody’s writes for The Atlantic,

3. There are many crucial developments in the very early history of writing, but for the sake of time/space (writing being the primary technology that allows us to think of these interchangeably), let’s cut to the emergence of the alphabet. From bureaucratic cuneiform to monumental hieroglyphs, early writing systems were mostly divorced from speech. Scripts where symbols matched consonants or syllables allowed you to exchange symbols for sounds. An abjad, like Phoenician, Hebrew, or Arabic, was a script for merchants, not scribes. This took on an additional order of magnitude with the emergence of the first proper alphabet, Greek. The Greeks took the Phoenician letters and 1) added symbols for vowels; 2) completely abstracted the names and images of the letters from words in the language. (In Phoenician as in Hebrew, “aleph” means ox, and “bet” means house; the Greek “alpha” and “beta” are meaningless.)
This fusion of orality and literacy helps explain the potency of classical Hellenic culture. Songs and dances became literature; disputations became rhetoric and philosophy. The Greeks were able to incorporate the knowledge of the civilized world in their own language, and in turn transmit their own amalgamated culture wherever they went. As Ong notes, unlike writing or agriculture, the alphabet was only invented once – every single alphabet and abjad can trace itself back to the same Semitic roots. It was (and remains) a revolution that happened over and over and over again.

Looked at from one direction, I think this account is generally correct. But there are problems with details like “The Greeks took the Phoenician letters and . . . added symbols for vowels.” “Added” doesn’t tell the whole story by a considerable margin. “Adapted and added” might have been better but still not quite on point.
But from another direction, Carmody’s view seems Hellenoocentric to a fault. And I do mean fault. Long before any direct evidence of Greek literary texts, the scribes at Ugarit wrote what can only be called literature in a slightly modified abjad. And if you want to say that this is irrelevant to the history of the use of the alphabet because it left no lasting tradition of writing beyond the Late Bronze Age, then how about the 9th century monumental inscriptions in Aramaic, Phoenician and Moabite? These certainly transcend the usages that we see in the early alphabetic inscriptions that might well be the work of merchants. The tradition of using linear abjads in literature that they may well have inaugurated continued into what eventually became the Hebrew Bible. And while it is at best speculative, it is as likely that the Greeks first learned to write what we might call literature from the Phoenicians as that they took it up it on their own. I think Carmody’s brief explanation of the history of the alphabet moves all too quickly from reasonable speculation concerning origins to the great literature of Europe without stopping at more than a few important landmarks along the way. Is this a case of abstraction gone wrong?
Via ANE-2 News List.

2 thoughts on “The Alphabet In The Atlantic”

  1. I find it strange that few people seem to take note of how many of the Greek myths actually have origins in the Levant and Mesopotamia (in some cases, preserving some of the names — at least in part — of the original characters). A couple examples that come to mind immediately are Cadmus and Vulcan (from Tuvalcain). Also, the popular Greek Zodiac is based on the earlier Mesopotamian one. Seems to be just a slow Westward progression of borrowing; Mesopotamia > Levant > Greece > Etruria > Rome > etc… Last I checked, we are still using a base-12 time system (well, I guess the actual numbers used to represent are base-10), as well (but that has little to do with literature, or the alphabet).

  2. Blame the walls between the disciplines for that, Busi. Classicists know all about the borrowing from the Common Semitic pool.
    Classicists and Medievalists also know about documents and inscriptions written down from dictation— as well as more than a few scholars with the ability to distinguish scribal hands across documents/inscriptions.
    Ever try to get these “concepts” across to Semiticists, Biblical scholars, and writing historians?
    Never mind that, since the 1990s, Medievalists have been working on computer programs to aid in distinguishing hands.
    Hey, fairly recently, computer aided research recognition apps have also been started in Greek epigraphy.

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