The alphabet: A tyrant?

William Bright

(Keynote address, 17th International Unicode Conference, San Jose, California,

7 September 2000)


The musician John Cage related that he once attended a lecture, in New York, by the famous Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. At the outset, Suzuki said, "I don't want anyone to take notes. Simply listen to me with your full attention. If you take notes, your attention will be diverted to the activity of note-taking." Then he proceeded with his lecture. As Suzuki spoke, Cage became aware that the woman sitting next to him had her notebook open and her pencil in hand; she was taking notes on what Suzuki was saying. Cage whispered to her, "Didn't you hear him? He said not to take notes." The woman replied, "What? Oh! Yes! It says that right here!"

Cage's story reminds us that literacy, intended as a tool, can also acquire undesirable influence over our thinking and behavior. Some recent writers have suggested that alphabetic literacy in particular - as contrasted with the logographic system of Chinese characters - has in fact exercised a kind of tyranny over European civilization. The writer Leonard Shlain, in his recent book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, has even argued that the worldwide spread of alphabetic literacy is associated with the growth of patriarchy, and with the oppression of women. Let me state at once that I consider this book so bad that it would not merit discussion, except for the fact that it has been a best-seller, and in the past two years, Shlain has regularly spoken on university campuses. So I want to examine and evaluate Shlain's ideas; but first, let me give you some idea of my own background - of "where I'm coming from."

1. Some personal background. My interests and training are in linguistics and anthropology, specifically in non-European languages, and in those used by non-literate societies. As a student at Berkeley in the 1940s and 50s, I undertook the study of American Indian languages, specifically of the Aztec language of Mexico and of several of the obsolescent languages of Native California. The language on which I wrote my dissertation is called Karuk, and is spoken on the Klamath River in northwestern California. In 1949, when I began my field work, it had about 200 fluent speakers; at present, it has fewer than ten, all over 80 years of age.

Subsequently I spent two years doing linguistic research in India, focusing on the relationship between written and spoken language within the social framework of that nation, and helping to lay the foundations for the interdisciplinary field which was to become known as sociolinguistics. After returning to the US, I spent 30 years as a teacher and researcher at UCLA, continuing to pursue studies both in Native America and in South Asia.

Following the traditional path of anthropologists, my sympathies and interests were particularly in spoken rather than written language, and in non-literate rather than literate communities. But starting in the 1960s, two trends became apparent around the world. First, unwritten languages everywhere were tending more and more toward obsolescence and eventual extinction. Second, younger members of non-literate communities, like the Karuk, were becoming more and more concerned with learning their heritage languages, with preserving them in writing, and with teaching them to following generations. To make progress toward these goals, American Indian communities needed technical assistance from linguists. We were presented with a paradox: In our modern world - which is dominated by political, economic, and social institutions built on literacy - the wisdom, the history, and the traditions of non-literate communities stand in danger of being totally lost unless they can be preserved in writing. I became personally involved in this undertaking by acting as a linguistic consultant to the Karuk tribe. The technical system of transcribing the language, which I had used in my dissertation, needed to be replaced by something simpler, adapted to educational and typographic needs. In consultation with Karuk coworkers, a practical spelling system was developed; it is now taught in local schools, and has been used for several bilingual publications in Karuk and English.

My work on Karuk literacy led, by the 1980s, to a development of my research interests toward types of writing systems, how they evolve, and how they are used and toward the study of literacy in its sociological, psychological, neurological, and educational aspects. In the 1990s, after I retired from teaching, my colleague Peter Daniels and myself edited a reference volume, The World's Writing Systems (1996). In 1998, I founded a new journal in the field, Written Language and Literacy.

That summarizes my background in linguistics, so far as it is relevant to my interest in written language. However, I should also mention that I have a long-standing interest in typography and book arts, and for some years I pursued the hobby of hand-press printing. This led to my getting acquainted with such outstanding typophiles and typographers as Sumner Stone, Chuck Bigelow, and Kris Holmes; and for several years I served on the editorial board of the journal Fine Print, which was published in San Francisco in the 1980s. A continuing friendship with Chuck and Kris, in particular, has helped me to follow developments in computer typography, at least to some extent, and to appreciate the accomplishments of the Unicode organization. So it is that I have the honor to be with you today.

2. A linguist's view of written language. Human language exists in three modalities: one of them, speech, uses the acoustic/auditory channel; the others, writing and gesture, use the visual channel. Historically, gesture may have originated first, speech second, and writing certainly third; but at present any one of the modalities may be used independently of the others. Writing systems are of two types: phonographic, in which the symbols correspond basically to the sounds of speech, as in most European scripts; and logographic, in which they correspond basically to words, as in Chinese writing. One type of phonographic writing is the syllabary, in which each symbol corresponds more or less to a syllable, e.g. a consonant plus a vowel - as in Sequoyah's Cherokee script, or as in the type of Japanese writing called kana. However, the most widely known type of phonographic system is the alphabet, in which each symbol (letter) corresponds more or less to a particular sound. This type of system has variants, such as the consonantary, in which the consonants are written in full, while the vowels are indicated only partially or optionally, as in Hebrew and Arabic. Another variant is the alphasyllabary, in which vowel symbols are written as obligatory diacritics to consonants, and each combination forms a graphic syllable, as in Hindi or Amharic. For present purposes, however, I'll use the term "alphabet" in its most general sense (as Shlain does in his book).

It's likely that writing first originated as an adaptation of what we call pictographs, i.e. conventionalized graphic symbols that are based directly on visual stimuli - anything from cave paintings to the icons that we now see on our computer screens. Writing in the sense of arbitrary graphic symbols - linked not to visual stimuli, but to the words of a spoken language - seems to have been invented independently just three times in the history of the world, first of all by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, in the style we call Cuneiform, around 3000 BC. Not long afterward, it was also invented in China; and some centuries later, in southern Mexico and Guatemala, giving rise to the Mayan script which has only been deciphered in recent years. My colleague Peter Daniels has pointed out a remarkable fact: in Sumerian, in Ancient Chinese, and in Classical Mayan, most words consisted of single morphemes that is, the minimum meaningful elements of grammar - which in turn consisted mostly of single syllables. (Modern Spoken Chinese has departed considerably from this "monosyllabic" pattern, but other modern languages retain it, e.g. Vietnamese.) Daniels further notes that the syllable, in all languages, is the smallest element that can be pronounced and understood in isolation; it is the minimum unit of linguistic salience. So Daniels hypothesizes that these correlations were not accidental: the fact that word, morpheme, and syllable all coincided in Sumerian, Chinese, and Mayan seems to have provided the necessary conditions for the evolution from visually-based symbols to a word-based symbols.

The logographic symbols originally used by the Sumerians were adapted by their ancient neighbors the Akkadians - who spoke a Semitic language, which had a "polysyllabic" structure, very different from the Sumerian monosyllables. The Akkadians revised the logographic cuneiform of the Sumerians into a syllabary. This in turn was borrowed by Western Semitic peoples - the so-called Phoenicians - and revised further into a consonantary, reflected by the Hebrew and Arabic systems that are still in use. Later the Phoenician system was borrowed by the Greeks, who added vowel symbols to produce the first alphabet. This was then adapted further by the Romans, resulting in the roman alphabet that we know today. Meanwhile, in East Asia, the Chinese logographic script was borrowed by the Japanese and Koreans, who spoke polysyllabic languages. But it was adapted by the Japanese to create a syllabary, kana, and by the Koreans to create an alphabet, hangul; both these systems continue to be used alongside Chinese characters in Japan and Korea respectively. It appears that all the writing systems of the Eastern Hemisphere trace their ancestry to the family trees that sprouted in ancient Sumeria and China - if not by direct transmission, then by so-called "stimulus diffusion", as when Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary after becoming aware of the English alphabet.

3. Literacy in history. Since the period when written language first became current in European civilization, it has acquired great prestige, to the point where most literate people tend to think of the written word as the "correct" form of language, and the spoken word as an imperfect reflection. But it is possible to have a complex culture without writing. In ancient India, long works of literature, science, and law were composed in the authors' heads, preserved by memorization, and transmitted orally. In ancient Greece, not long after the introduction of the alphabet, Plato expressed his fear that, if the oral tradition that created the Iliad and Odyssey were replaced by a written tradition, this might have bad effects, in particular the weakening of the human powers of memory. In fact, this seems to have happened; it is hard nowadays for most of us to imagine memorizing poems that take days to recite, although this is still done in India. At the same time, it's clear that a library full of printed books is a more effective means of storing information than any number of human heads.

It has also been frequently observed that no written language can convey as much information as the corresponding spoken language; the subtle distinctions of pitch, loudness, and timing which are characteristic of speech are missing in written language, not to mention elements like facial expression and body language. It's easier to feel certain about the truthfulness and the sincerity of people in face-to-face oral communication than when we read what they have written.

Plato also pointed out another disadvantage of writing: the fact that, in oral communication, we can question our interlocutors, we can challenge them and debate with them - but a printed book can only repeat the same thing, however many times we look at it. In spite of all the bookstores and libraries available to us, higher education in our society continues to be built around oral lectures and discussions; this is not just a matter of tradition, but reflects the fact that interactive oral communication is more conducive to learning than simple reading. For all these reasons, when we want to achieve the most complete and effective exchange of information, we recognize that making a telephone call is better than writing a letter, and face-to-face interaction may be even better than a phone call. (Conversely, of course, when we want to conceal the truth, or to disguise our feelings, we may prefer a letter rather than the telephone, or a phone call rather than a direct confrontation.) In fact, then, although a society as complex as ours could not exist without the massive storage of information that is made possible by written language, we nevertheless continue to function through an interaction of writing and speech. Each of these modalities has its strengths and its weaknesses, and we assign uses to each of them accordingly.

However, in his recent book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain has hypothesized that the rise of literacy, particularly alphabetic literacy, has been much more powerful than previously supposed; in his view, it has been responsible for reconfiguring the human brain. According to him, preliterate cultures were characterized by "holistic," right-brain thinking, oriented toward feminine values; but in literate cultures, he says, the linearity of writing has fostered analytic, left-brain thinking, oriented toward patriarchy and misogyny. I will present Shlain's argument in brief, and then some criticisms of it. I will argue, in fact, that Shlain's hypothesis has no basis in history, anthropology, or linguistics. Speech and writing each have their own values and shortcomings, but there is no evidence that sexism is involved, or changes in the human brain.

4. Shlain's thesis is as follows. In the evolution of the human species, males became specialized for hunting, females for child-rearing. As part of this process, the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls linear and sequential thinking, became more developed in human males; but the right hemisphere, which controls holistic and concrete thinking, became more developed in females. In the development of writing systems, Shlain says that pictographs represented a right-brain form of expression; but as these evolved into logographic symbols among the Sumerians, the process of abstraction was carried out by left-brain activity. The subsequent development of syllabaries and alphabets in the Ancient Near East represented a still greater degree of abstractness, and was correlated with the increasing importance of masculine, left-brain cognition. As the simplicity and efficiency of alphabet writing enabled it to triumph in the Ancient Near East and in Greece, mother-goddess religions were replaced by the worship of masculine figures such as Yahweh, Zeus, and Allah; at the same time, matriarchal social structures were replaced by patriarchal ones, in which women were subjugated and abused. In a series of chapters, each focusing on a particular culture and historical period, Shlain argues that this situation has continued until modern times. However, he concludes on an optimistic note, suggesting that the proliferation of non-linear images in film, television, graphics, and computers is once again reconfiguring the brain, encouraging right-hemisphere modes of thought and bringing about the re-emergence of the feminine.

5. Critique. It's clear that Shlain's book is addressed not to scholars, but to educated non-specialists. But paradoxically, the work may be more difficult for scholars to read than for a lay audience, since specialists in history, anthropology, or linguistics have to stop at nearly every sentence, as a variety of reactions pass through their minds: What on earth does Shlain mean by this? Isn't this a gross oversimplification, or a gross overgeneralization, or a gross exaggeration? What about the counterfactual presuppositions of this statement? Where in the world did Shlain get this idea? What about counter-examples X, Y, and Z? What is supposed to be the logical connection of this sentence to the one that precedes it, or the one that follows it? Literally, the mind boggles. It seems that Shlain has read widely, but not too well; he has drawn on many sources, but without discrimination or critical insight.

I illustrate by quoting a passage from Shlain's discussion of spoken Chinese (pp. 181-82), with my own running commentary. He begins by saying that, in English and other Western languages, sentences are composed of words, characterized by semantic constancy: the meaning of a word "is not altered by moving its position in a sentence or inflecting it differently" (Shlain uses "inflection" to mean "changes in pitch"). He continues:


"Spoken Chinese differs, however, in that it has no distinct parts."

[False. If this were true, it would not possible for elements in Spoken Chinese to correspond to the discrete symbols of Written Chinese; a literate Chinese could not read his language aloud, or write it from spoken dictation.]

"Depending on the dialect, Chinese contains 400 to 800 monosyllabic sounds or, as linguists call them, "vocables," none of which signifies a specific word."

[False and/or meaningless. The count of 400 to 800 syllabic units ignores the relevance of tone in Chinese, which I will discuss later. The phrase "monosyllabic sounds" is confusing; a syllable in Chinese, or any language, typically consists of a sequence of sounds, as in a Chinese surname such as Wang. The term "vocables" is not commonly used by linguists. Apart from the existence of homonyms, such as exist in all languages (as in English h-e-r-e vs. h-e-a-r), it's true in general that each Chinese syllabic unit has a phonetic, grammatical, and semantic identity of the type that linguists label with the term "word" in describing any language.]

"Instead, the meaning of each syllable depends entirely on the place (syntax) it occupies in relation to the preceding and following vocables."

[False. All words in all languages have variations of meaning associated with context; a desk dictionary of English lists 24 senses for the word hit, and 40 for the word put. But Shlain must have read somewhere, and misunderstood, a statement that the role played by a Chinese word in the sentence - e.g. as grammatical subject or object - is determined by its syntactic position. This is also true of English and many other languages, in which a noun preceding the verb is usually the subject, and a noun following the verb is usually the object (as contrasted with other languages like Latin and Russian, in which the role of words is marked more by suffixes).

"There is no word for the word word in Chinese, because the Chinese language has no words!"

[Doubly false. English-Chinese dictionaries list several equivalents for the English term word; these partly overlap in meaning with terms referring to the syllable and the written character, since these elements tend to coincide in Chinese. Linguists have universally recognized that Spoken Chinese has words in the same sense that other languages do.]

"Besides the holistic nature of its syntax, spoken Chinese depends heavily on musicality. Each Chinese vocable has four to nine 'tones'. The meaning of each vocable can vary according to the singsong manner in which it is spoken."

[Highly misleading. Shlain's term "singsong" appears to trivialize the role of pitch, or tone, in Spoken Chinese. The fact is that each Chinese syllabic unit consists inherently of a combination of consonants and vowels with a specific pitch contour, and this tone is just as important to the meaning of that unit as a consonant or a vowel. Such tonal contours distinguish meaning in languages all over the world, including most African languages, Navajo, Swedish, Lithuanian, and some dialects of Dutch.]


Apart from these general characteristics of Shlain's argumentation, I'll refer to some more specific problems.

(1) Shlain continually makes claims of universality for his statements; e.g., "Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that ... relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies" (p. 3). But he devotes almost all his attention to the Ancient Near East and Europe; less than 50 pages are devoted to India and China together, and the pre-contact New World is ignored.

(2) The essence of Shlain's method is binarization, to the point where every one of his 35 chapter titles is formulated as a pair of terms, usually in opposition: "Image/Word," "Right Brain/Left Brain," and even the double pair "Males:Death / Females:Life." Shlain then lines up his binaries and correlates them: Image is to Left Brain is to Females is to Life ... and so on, chapter after chapter ... as Word is to Right Brain is to Males is to Death ... etcetera, etcetera. He is not interested in ambiguities, or in fuzzy boundaries, or in tensions between opposites, or in syntheses, or in possible paradoxes. Women are nurturing and men are violent, and that suffices for what Shlain calls his "barnyard commonsense" (p. 131). This is not respect for women; it is mere cocktail-party feminism, which once more thrusts women into the prison of hackneyed dichtomies. In fact, a major paradox in the book is one of which Shlain seems unaware: in spite of the overwhelming duality of his own thinking, he twice refers specifically to duality as a negative consequence of alphabetic writing (pp. 7, 22).

(3) In terms of biological evolution, Shlain seems to be a not-so-covert Lamarckian. He states, "When written words began to supersede spoken words, the left brain's dominance markedly increased" (p. 40). That is, he sees dominance of the left brain in Western culture as having been transmitted, not merely by borrowing - by Roman from Greek, by Greek from Phoenician, and by Phoenician from Mesopotamian - but as part of the genetic heritage of the European and Near Eastern peoples. It should be noted that biologists no longer believe in such inheritance of acquired traits.

(4) Shlain is fond of grand abstractions, and he likes to anthropomorphize or personify them: "Nature tried to solve the problem" [of frequent death in childbirth among human females" (p. 12); "Culture was ladled into the baby's brain through the agency of ... language" [ibid.]; "Evolution came up with the economical idea of using the human tongue for communication" (p. 14); "The brain, like a patient Olympics coach, taught the tongue to perform a wide range of acrobatic gymnastics" (ibid.); "Nature redesigned the human nervous system ..." (p. 16); "By listening carefully to the forms of speech ..., the right hemisphere is expert at ferreting out hidden messages ..." (p. 20)

Occasional statements by Shlain are so completely off the wall as to leave one's jaw hanging. Here are some of my favorites.

(1) A crucial step in Shlain's presentation has to do with the relationship of the brain hemispheres to the structure of the human eye, as understood in terms of rods, which are sensitive to brightness, and cones, which perceive color. He states (24): "like rods, cones report to both hemispheres" which is correct but then he adds: "the left [hemisphere] is metaphorically best suited [my emphasis] to process [the cones'] output." But what does metaphor have to do with the neurology of vision? Shlain seems to recognize the problem with his argument here, because he adds a footnote: "there are no specific neuronal pathways yet identified [my emphasis] that connect ... the cones preferentiallyj with the left brain." A more honest statement would be: "There is no evidence of neuronal pathways that connect the cones preferentially with the left brain."

(2) A little later, Shlain writes (p. 26): "The specialization of visual functions within each human eye corresponded to the lateralization of the cerebral hemispheres and the bifurcation of the human sexes. The holistic vision of the rods assisted the right brain in gathering and nurturing. Tunnel vision [i.e. focus vision] was primarily subordinated to the unique demands of the hunting left brain." This is a gross oversimplification. Peripheral vision is essential not only to the female who is gathering wild plants, but to the male hunter who is scanning a landscape for game; and focus vision is essential not only to the male who is hunting or fighting, but to the female who is sewing, weaving, or cooking.

(3) According to Shlain, "Writing involves the muscles of only one side of the body" (p. 44). This will come as a surprise to left-handed typists.

(4) Shlain states: "An alphabet by definition is any form of writing that contains fewer than thirty signs" (p. 65). Whose definition can this be? The Devanagari alphabet, used for writing Sanskrit and Hindi, contains 44 signs; some other alphabets of South and Southeast Asia contain even more.

(5) In ancient Greece, the city of Thebes is said to have been founded by the mythic hero Cadmus, who slew a dragon and sowed its teeth; and he is also said to have introduced the alphabet to Greece. Shlain writes: "A human has twenty-eight teeth ... There is approximately the same number of letters in any alphabet [recall my previous note] ... Metaphorically, letters perform the same function as teeth. Writing can tear the wholeness of nature into small bites ..." (p. 122). I can only say that I find this an astonishing leap of imagination.

(6) Shlain's brief discussion of Southeast Asia is inaccurate in such complex ways that I'll need once more to make sentence-by-sentence comments:


"Southeast Asians lived primarily in a tribal manner until the English, French, and Dutch carved out abritrary 'spheres of influence' in the eighteenth century." (421)

[False. Although so-called "tribal" peoples have long lived in the hill country of Southeast Asia, the mainstream civilizations of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia had been integral parts of the Buddhist world for centuries before Europeans arrived. Their scholars studied Sanskrit and Pali (the language of the Buddhist scriptures), and they wrote their languages in alphabetic scripts derived from those of India. During the same period, Vietnam was predominantly under the influence of Buddhist China, and wrote its language in an adaptation of Chinese characters.]

"By the middle of the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries had adapted a form of Indian script to Southeast Asian vernaculars." (421)

[False on several counts. Nineteenth-century Christian missionaries in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia continued to use the existing Indic scripts for the mainstream languages, and adapted them to some tribal languages. In Vietnam, by contrast, a roman-based writing system was introduced by European missionaries much earlier, in the 18th century; and this replaced the earlier Chinese-based script.]

"The Vietnamese overthrew their ancient traditions and their French colonialist masters at the same time as they entered the fanatical, blindly doctrinal stage of early alphabet literacy." (422)

[False again. As I've indicated, the Vietnamese had alphabetic literacy for about 200 years before they successfully revolted against the French.]

"[In the war between Vietnam and the US,] one army [that of the Vietnamese] was at the height of alphabet-induced determination and the other [that of the US] was bewitched by a new communicative medium that ultimately sapped its will to win."

[I assume that Shlain is referring to television. Elsewhere, however, he seems to regard TV positively, as a holistic medium which can save literate society from itself.]

"After each of the other Southeast Asian nations adopted their new alphabetic language, they became haunted by extremes in human behavior ... In Thailand, women's status fell precipitously and prostitution became a national industry. Burma, once a self-sufficient country, ... fell into economic decay ..." (422)

[As for Thailand, it might be suggested that the main factor fostering prostitution was the influx of American soldiers on "rest and recreation" leave from Vietnam. Both Thailand and Burma continued, throughout the period in question, to use the same alphabetic scripts that they had derived from India centuries earlier.]


In summary, Shlain states: "the essential character of the twentieth-century Southeast Asian was utterly transmuted by the rapid spread of alphabet literacy in the nineteenth century" (423). I insist that there is absolutely no evidence for such a claim. In fact, I'm flabbergasted by Shlain's argument that the tragic events of recent times in Southeast Asia were brought about by an increase of literacy. How can he ignore the role played by the foreign policy of the Western powers, and specifically by the military intervention of the United States?

6. Conclusion. Shlain ends his book by looking optimistically toward Marshall McLuhan's dream of the 1960s, in which TV was supposed to transform our consciousness by returning us to visual images as our major modality for communication. "I am convinced," Shlain says (432), "that we are entering a new Golden Age one in which the right-hemispheric values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature will begin to ameliorate the conditions that have prevailed for the too-long period during which left-hemispheric values were dominant." I too hope for a world in which humans display greater tolerance, caring, and respect for nature. However, I also hope for a world in which society will have greater respect for logic, clarity, and truth. Any writing that purports to be non-fiction whether scholarly books, technical reports, journalism, or business documents is supposed to meet a basic criterion: You're not allowed to just make it up. Shlain's work fails to meet this criterion.


acknowledgements. I am indebted to Michael Patrick O'Connor, a specialist in languages of the Ancient Near East, for ideas expressed in his review of Shlain's book, currently in press in Written Language and Literacy. I am equally grateful to my colleague Peter Daniels for his input; and to my wife the neurolinguist Lise Menn for extensive discussion.



Bright, William. 1998- (ed.) Written Language and Literacy. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Daniels, Peter T., & Bright, William. 1996 (eds.) The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shlain, Leonard. 1998. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin.