An Interview...

Dr. Johanna Drucker – Art Meets Technology: The History and Effects of the Alphabet

Dr. Johanna Drucker is currently the Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. She has been on the faculty of Yale University, Columbia University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and Harvard University. Dr. Drucker has authored many books including: Theorizing Modernism,The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern ArtThe Alphabetic LabyrinthThe Century of Artists' Books and Figuring the Word. In addition to her scholarly work, Dr. Drucker is internationally known as a book artist and experimental, visual poet. Additional bio info

The following interview with Dr. Johanna Drucker was video taped in Washington D.C. on September 12, 2003. Early in our project's development we encountered her book: The Alphabetic Labyrinth, which is a great resource for understanding the evolution of the Alphabet.  During our interview we found Dr. Drucker to be a rare blend of teacher, scientist, artist, technologist, and poet. Sparkling and witty, she was a delight to talk with.

Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.

(see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.

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.

Personal Background:

Dr. Johanna Drucker: I have a couple of anecdotes that I always tell, and I think that whether they’re mythic or true… 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 didn’t believe her and I would lie there at night trying to think of words that couldn’t be spelled with those letters. I would put myself to sleep thinking it just isn’t possible that the infinity of language could be contained within this set of twenty-six letters.

I actually put my interest in the alphabet down to that early history. I also think I was just fascinated by the visual forms. I’ve 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 they’d 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? That’s how I got into it.

Then I got into it again at a later stage because I’m 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.

When 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 you’re just suddenly, whoa, because there’s no more M’s, and you think, well how am I going to say mother? Or how am I going to say, murmur?

You 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.

David Boulton: That’s a fantastic story.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: It’s such a funny story because it’s true.

David Boulton: My own experience is with using page layout tools where I can’t get what I want to say on one page and I don’t 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right. Writing for format.

David Boulton: It’s an analog, but not in the same physical sense that you’re speaking of.

Dr. 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. You’re standing there at the case saying, I need thirteen more words if anything is going to fit on the page, right. It’s fun if it’s your own work. It’s a little trickier if you’re doing somebody else’s.

David Boulton: Excellent. I think we should go next into what interested you most about the alphabet. In your book, The Alphabetic Labrynth, you’ve 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.

The History of the Alphabet:

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Well, I think there are two histories when we talk about the history of the alphabet. There’s the history of letterforms and how they came into being, and there’s 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 this research.

The 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 that’s 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.

There are really two parallel histories. What’s interesting to me is how in the twentieth century those two histories have separated. More 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 we’ve 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 that’s a mistake, because I think it’s exactly at the intersection of these two things that the alphabet functions most effectively.

If 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.

Two Writing Systems:

Dr. 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? There’s Arabic letters, there’s Indian scripts, there’s Ethiopic letters, there’s all of these various kinds of letterforms. What do you mean there’s only two writing systems? Most people don’t 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.

David 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: What’s doing that?

Dr. Johanna Drucker: It’s an unanswerable question in many ways. I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know the history. I couldn’t 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.

The Alphabet Comes into Being:

Dr. 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, that’s 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. There’s a wonderful bit of research by a British archeologist named Flinders 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 they’re relatively simple, they’re 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 domain.

David 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. There’s the articulatory 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 it’s articulating them.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.

David Boulton: Can you speak to that?

Dr. Johanna Drucker: I think what you’re asking about leads directly into the interpretation of the letters as visual symbols.Certainly 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 you’re going to come up with a familiar system to remember what the names of these characters are?

From 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 there’s some kind of B that has a square shape so we say that could be a house. But there’s 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 an A.

So that’s 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.

One of the major movements for alphabet reform in the nineteenth century was led by Isaac Pitman and also by Alexander 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.

David Boulton: I noticed that you said Alexander, talking about Alexander Melville Bell, not Alexander Graham Bell.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right. It’s his father or grandfather.

David Boulton: Which makes a wonderful lateral connection about the impetus behind Graham’s phone and where it ultimately leads us.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

Early Alphabet:

David Boulton: One other thing before we leave this early origin phase, there’s 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David 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?

Dr. 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 that’s 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.

In 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. There’s the sort of very formal hieroglyphics; there’s a script form, which is hieratic; and there’s a demotic script. So there are three different forms within the hieroglyphic system.

Some 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; it’s 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 don’t quite resemble our contemporary letter forms), that sequence is fixed and used for the assembly of architectural structures.

It’s 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 you’re trying to put someone’s bike together and it says, part A, part B, part C. So, as a sequencing device the alphabet has been extremely useful. It’s by that fixed sequence that we can also trace the development and diffusion of different offshoots of the alphabet.

David Boulton: We were talking about images which stood for objects in the world, and how they transitioned to represent a word that’s spoken that may not correspond to an object in the world and that’s the precursory step to getting…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: The abstraction.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly.

David Boulton: Good… the Moses connection.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Oh yeah, the Moses connection. I have a wonderful quote here, actually, about the Moses connection. I’ll just read it.

In Exodus it says, “I will give thee tables of stone, a law and commandants which I have written.” Who is I? Who is speaking in that? You know, “I will give thee tables of stone, a law and commandants which I have written.” That’s 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 brought down.

Other Origin Myths:

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Now there are other traditions, even within the Jewish and Hebrew scriptures that say that, no, it’s 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 God’s word. That’s a very strong tradition within Western culture.

David Boulton: Is there a reference in the bible to somebody writing before the Ten Commandants?

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Well, I guess the question is, when are those texts written and who writes them? There’s 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.

There 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 it’s really fascinating.

But, 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. 

David Boulton: And it’s the beginning of the tradition of reading ‘God’s words.

The Book of Nature and the Systemization of all Knowledge:

Dr. 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 God’s 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 God’s work.

So, 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 Bishop 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.

So, you can imagine this as a wonderful code that says, ‘Here’s a line, and if some dot appears above the line it means that it’s part of the organic world and if it appears below the line it’s part of the inanimate world. So no matter what you’re learning, if it’s below that line, it’s inanimate. If it’s above the line, it’s animate. If it looks like an upright form, it’s a mammal. If it’s a form that tilts, it’s a bird. If it’s a form that goes like this, it’s a reptile.’

So, 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 somebody like John Wilkins in the seventeenth century coming up with this notion of a pictorial script and a pictorial code?

Well, he’s 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. There’s 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; it’s natural. We know that all of these codes are far from natural – or they’d be easier to learn. 

David Boulton: Excellent.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: The thing that’s so amazing to me is that without the alphabet and writing, the university wouldn’t exist, but nobody in the university studies the history of writing. It’s 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 like…I’m back to writing about writing. Anyway, so silliness aside. Let’s go back to the serious business.

Back to the Beginning 3000 BC:

David Boulton: As you were saying, there’s 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 that’s at the center of the Western biblical tradition.

Dr. 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.

But yes, the coincidence of the development of writing systems within that particular period is really interesting. We don’t have evidence of writing systems that are much older than 3000 BC. There are signs; there are marks, the famous Mas 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 representation system.

David 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. It’s 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?

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Well again, different writing systems do have different functional purposes as they come into being. It’s 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. They’re used for divination, and they’re 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.

Within the cuneiform tradition we know that the oldest forms that we have, at least, are ones that were used for business transactions. We’re pragmatic creatures. Now, the hieroglyphics, however, are not really so much instrumental in the business sense, they’re instrumental in the sense of public language: monumental language, prayers, invocations, memorials, tributes, records of historical events.

Transcribing Speech:

Dr. 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 can’t recover that history. By definition, history is the point at which we have written record. So there’s a paradox in trying to discover what it means for the written record to come about and what it does to speech.

I 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. It’s not a script for speech; it’s its own written code the way that pictorial representations are their own code. We don’t look at a picture and imagine that we’re supposed to speak it out loud. We receive that information visually.

I 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.

In the Asian traditions of calligraphy, expressive qualities of written forms are taken as a given. You wouldn’t 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 forms…to actually make speech a visual poetry?

David 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…..

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: Didn’t have that potential at all.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: No.

David Boulton: It was almost like, okay, we’re now symbolizing this thing and this thing and this thing. Now we want to take the pharaoh’s words…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David 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 there’s this evolution from instrumental counting, recording of transactions, to being able to represent ideas or objects in relationships, to being able to represent speech.


Dr. Johanna Drucker: There’s 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 that’s an abstract numeral, like the Arabic numeral, three and that represents the concept, three. That’s a huge leap because, I’m not showing three-ness, but showing three things. I am saying, there is an idea of three and I’m 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. 

So that’s a really huge leap. So the concrete presentation of information in a sign is something that even animals are almost capable of. It’s a big argument; I’m 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 I’ll be interested to know if you’ve 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.

Again, 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 – that’s very difficult to show in a pictorial form unless you’re a really skilled artist.

So abstractions represent a completely different stage of development in the function of writing and in the capability of writing. It’s that universality of abstraction that makes writing so powerful. 

Limitations of Writing:

Dr. Johanna Drucker: We say that speech, language and writing are the only code in which we can represent everything else. Now that’s a big claim. I would argue that it’s an untrue claim, for there are many things that can’t be represented in writing. It’s 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….

David Boulton: Language is a serial, one at a time flow that’s radically different than the all at once-ness that we experience in another way.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly. There’s 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 we’re creating a multi-dimensional field of meaning.

David Boulton: Yes, but it still has an unfolding order.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, exactly.

David Boulton: It’s different than an all at once-ness.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly. You can’t look at a picture and know exactly the sequence in which you’re 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.

So, maybe if we could really read the code we’d know that, well, if there were three A’s in a sentence and two E’s and three M’s 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.

David 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.

David 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? There’s a lot connected to this story.

More Than Technological Determinism:

David 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. We’ve 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Well, I’m 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.

The Emergence of Writing in the West and East:

Dr. 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? That’s an amazing thing and it’s 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 it’s monarchical or legalistic, or whatever. 

The administration of public affairs as well as the administration of private affairs is something that’s 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 shouldn’t underestimate the necessity for law, whether it’s created within a sacred or a secular realm.

We 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. It’s 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 that’s quite early. It’s 1700 B.C. when we begin to see the alphabet come into being.

The 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.

I 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.

I think it’s actually more broadly separated, perhaps, than we realize. What we do know is that there really wasn’t any direct cultural transmission. There 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 common origin.

There 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 them. There’s a script that comes into being in the Indus valley, and that’s also around 2700 BC. There’s an indigenous Easter Island script that comes about but doesn’t go anywhere. In the ancient New World we have Mayan script coming into being, and again, without any kind of contact. I think it’s 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. It’s not something that has one point of origin and diffuses. So, I think that’s 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.

For 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, ‘Guess what, folks, all of these cuneiform tablets that you thought were mystical, magical and so forth? They’re filled with transaction reports and these messages from husbands and wives who are split over distance communicating about the business, and meanwhile passing on family news’.

The 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 they’re quarrelsome, as usual; and the barnyard has been overrun by hens this year.

Again, 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.

David 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. That’s the first I’ve 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 you’re suggesting on more recent evidence that they are more like 500 years or more years apart.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, that there’s a greater historical distance.

David Boulton: But 500 years may have let some cross-fertilization happen that may have been the inspiration and lessens the coincidence. So let’s drop that.

Early Recording Technologies:

David 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 somebody’s 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 surfaces…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Tablets. 

David Boulton: Right, tablets, and from there ‘I don’t need to press these images into tablets, I can inscribe them in the clay with a little stick’.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.

David Boulton: So there’s a mechanical, technological evolution of the process of writing that we haven’t touched on. 

Dr. Johanna Drucker: I think the process you’re talking about is also a process of abstraction. Again, it’s 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 that’s, 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. I mean, it’s clear that that idea doesn’t spring spontaneously into being. 

The 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 you’re carving on a stone wall, and you’re doing hieroglyphics, you’re going to get certain kinds of linear forms, they’re not going to have elaborate shading to them, and they’re not going to have certain kinds of nuances to them. If you’re 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 they’re relatively easy to make. When you start writing with a reed on papyrus, you’re going to get another set of adaptations of the letterforms.

That 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 you’re going to do speed writing and you’re going to transcribe someone’s speech, you’re not going to want to sit there and draw a picture for every utterance. You’re going to want to be able to have some more streamlined way to represent what it is that they’re 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.

But 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 can teach. It has to be something that can be encoded in a stable system and passed on.

We 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. 

So 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.

This is great stuff. The alphabet is incredible.

David Boulton: It is. It’s a story that goes from the ancient history to the micro-time processing of the human brain.

Dr. 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 that’s really terrific, from Otto Egge.

David 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.

Let’s go back for a moment, we were talking about a number of cultural pressures, cultural environments, spiritual, instrumental, record keeping. All these unfolding innovations: ‘Let’s stop using pots and use tablets and let’s stop impressing here we can move faster….’

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right

David Boulton: There’s 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?

Dr. Johanna Drucker: The dynamic of material transformation and…

David 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.

Dr. 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 it’s in existence, the more possibilities for specialization begin to emerge. We see this, for instance, in the development of hieroglyphics.

We’ll 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 there’s a need for it. So the idea of writing becomes fixed in the cultural mind.

Then there’s this sense that if there’s this thing called writing, then maybe it’s 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 purpose.

Another point I wanted to touch on is that the first shorthand that we know of was actually invented by Cicero’s slave, Tyro, to take down his orations when he went to speak in the Roman forum. Let me think about that…trying to transcribe Ciceronian sentences on the fly? So Tyro came up with this system of shorthand notes that could be used to do this.

That’s 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 don’t 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.

We 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.

Literacy is Power:

David 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 didn’t 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. Let’s talk about that. 

Dr. Johanna Drucker:Well, I guess there are many things in the question that you pose, and one of the major themes I think we’d 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 it’s 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. 

But 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.

There 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. 

In many cases the bible is the means of teaching literacy, and of course it’s not incidental that when you’re teaching them the act of reading you’re 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.

Alphabet Promotes Wide Literacy and Democracy:

Dr. Johanna Drucker: The idea of enfranchisement, of literary enfranchisement, the idea of mass literacy is really a very modern notion. It’s a wonderful notion because it’s 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 it’s inarguable that it’s 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. 

David Boulton: We’re going to come back to that and particularly Benjamin Franklin’s and other ‘founding father’s’ sense of literacy. What we didn’t 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, there’s a spike…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: In the ability of the populations using it to become literate. I want us to bring those together somehow.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: I actually don’t know much about the population percentage of literates in ancient culture, but my guess is that it’s 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 that…to the alphabet and the spike.

David Boulton: The efficiency of the alphabet… 

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: The combatoric power of it…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David 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. 

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right. It’s 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 who’ve 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.

In 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 don’t 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.

You can see how that really is a memory function. But, if I’m going to make a list and put it on the wall, I don’t 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 wasn’t always the case.

In 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 it’s 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, it’s not a very efficient way of reading. Because I don’t know what, again, I dip into these fields of research from time to time, so I don’t know what the current state of research is, but at one point the idea was that you don’t 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 don’t read every letter. We don’t read every word.

David Boulton: A good reader doesn’t.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: A struggling reader…… 

Dr. 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. That’s not natural, that’s trained.

The Operating System of Western Civilization:

David Boulton: One thing the emergence of the alphabet is clearly bringing is ‘category’ ordering…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: Which is a major thing. It becomes part of the ‘operating system’ for civilization as it develops in Greece and as the Greeks become literate. There’s the relationship between the elemental nature of the alphabet and potentially, I’m not suggesting they’re causal, platonic ideas and atomistic physics.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: We have one whole thread of Western civilization grounded by the people of the book who are enabled by the alphabet. Then we’ve got it spreading around through trade like a little web virus, moving over to the Greeks who upgrade it.

Then their whole civilization seems to flower in different ways, reflecting it, if not caused by it. 

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, right.

David 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 let’s go back to the alphabet, and again, go ahead and talk about……

Dr. Johanna Drucker: The atomistic nature.

David Boulton: The interior effect on becoming more abstract and the external effect on the structure and development of civilization.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Okay.

The Most Influential Technology in the History of History:

David Boulton: Our story is suggesting that the alphabet is one of the most, I would argue, ‘the’ most fundamental technology in the history of history.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Oh yeah. YeahNothing is more basic, really, than the alphabet. It’s 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. It’s really a kabalistic notion. The Sefer 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, it’s a later interpretation.

David Boulton: I’m not suggesting that the alphabet is atomistic.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: No, no.

The Alphabet, Atoms and Platonic Ideas:

David Boulton: I’m suggesting that the elemental nature of the alphabet has a correspondence to Greece developing atomistic concepts in physics, or Plato’s ideas which are discrete, stable, abstract generalizations that seem to correspond, if not be caused by this structure that’s now infecting the minds of the people who are using it.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right. Well, certainly it’s 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 Plato’s 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, aren’t 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?

Socrates comes up, for instance, with this whole discussion of the I and the iota is the tiniest letter. Isn’t it? I mean, doesn’t that make sense, Cratylus? And isn’t an iota the smallest thing that we could possibly imagine? Isn’t it, Cratylus? And he says, what about that little…so he keeps insisting on this idea. Now, on the one hand it’s a fake idea, but an imaginative one, and there’s a little passage I’ll read to you later, Plato and Cratylus, where he talks about the rho and all the characteristics of this letter.

But 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 you’re 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 properties. 

We see the beginnings of natural science in the work of Aristotle, and though that’s 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. It’s one of the things that Vanover Bush in his 1945 essay, as we may think, text to task, and Bush says, ‘Why 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?’ So, there it is. You have an ally in Vanover Bush.

David Boulton: All of these are helpful, but incidental to my main point. Coming back…there 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. It’s 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. 

Fixity and Indeterminancy in Writing Systems:

Dr. 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. Now 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, we’re talking about fixity. We’re 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.

On 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. That’s 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. 

Now 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 it’s ore, taken right out of the mine. Get that meaning, dump it from one bucket to another – got the meaning of that sentence. 

But 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. The alphabet is a stable set of encoded instructions, but that doesn’t mean that the meaning that we produce from it is stable and fixed. It’s indeterminate. But it’s indeterminate within a field of possibilities. So, we read.

Now, 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; it’s 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 accessibility.

Alphabet as a Spoken Sound Recording System:

David 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 don’t know what they are.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, exactly.

David Boulton: Which suggests the original phonetic correspondence. Let’s 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.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: That’s a really important point, because it’s 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 they’re not all related to each other. The fact that the alphabet is one of the major forms of writing doesn’t mean that all of the languages that are recorded by the alphabet or are able to use the alphabet, are related to each other.

We 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 other. The Finno-Hungarian is the great mystery of languages, exactly where it came from, where it originated, what its forms are, but it’s 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.

So, 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 that’s 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; there’s the realization that to spread the word, to spread the Christian gospels, and to spread the sacred texts, you’re 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 it’s not really sufficient to the purpose.

David 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 me…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David 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 don’t know the meaning of the words.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, right.

David Boulton: So, in that sense, there’s 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 they’re writing down wouldn’t use it that way.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, and that will work for the Phoenicians among the Phoenicians to some extent, but even that’s going to run into trouble, as we know. If you were to take that example of Spanish transcription, if you don’t 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.

Letter-Sound Correspondence:

David Boulton: Let’s 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. 

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right. That’s 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 wasn’t a lot of language that was left out, and there weren’t 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…

David Boulton: Lead pipes and all.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right. Exactly, lead pipes and all. Arches, plumbing and the letters of the alphabet and roads. Once these systems are in place they’re 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, it’s very difficult to change them.

So, 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 doesn’t fully regularize until the eighteenth century with the coming of the dictionaries. Even the printing press doesn’t fully regularize spelling as extensively as one might imagine.

The 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. 

But, 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 ph’s and th’s and letter combinations that almost function like letters because they’re always together if they’re going to represent that sound.

So, 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 use. 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 doesn’t 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 perfume.

Instead, 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 don’t confuse an A with a B. We don’t 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 it’s that differential quality that the abstract writing system and abstract language system really use to function. It’s not their essence.

The First Millennium Bug:

David 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, ‘nobody was minding the store’. There’s nobody saying, “Let’s be careful about how we bring these two systems together…”

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right, right, right.

David Boulton: As if the fate of our children in the future is going to depend on how well they can process it.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: It’s 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.

The Alphabet and The Explosion of Greek Civilization:

David Boulton: Let’s stay in the Greeks right now…there’s an archaic period, which all of Greece we understand, really was still an oral culture

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David Boulton: It’s not like they became a written culture in the sense we might think of today. But literacy profoundly affected their oral-ness. There’s 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 letters.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

David 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.

Dr. 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.

One 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. It’s 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.

David Boulton: Trying to protect itself.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly. We’re going to turn it into something specialized. The other thing is that when the Greeks start to look at hieroglyphics, that’s 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 don’t necessarily have and they also invent a sense of history.

It’s that historicist’s 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.

We always think of writing as memory. Writing is always bound up with memory. And that’s why I say I think it’s 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.

David Boulton: In a short span of years they go from these mythic god figures to Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly. Individuals.

David Boulton: Politics, science and all those things. There’s a relationship here.

Dr. 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 that’s my mark, that’s me. My mark is me and that’s not your mark. I think that is so fundamental to the way that writing functions. 

Again, I think we see the whole tradition of individuation within Western culture and Eastern culture bound up with that. It’s 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.

David Boulton: So instead of being this kind of monotone technological recording mechanism, it has the ability to bring tone and inflection by morphic variation of appearance.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Right.

Quotes and Readings:

David Boulton: Let’s 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.

Dr. 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 Phoenician.

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 their letters. 

The Exodus I already read. Then here’s this whole discussion in Plato in the Phaedrus about Thoth. 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 the Phaedrus he’s talking about the fact that Thoth takes writing to Thamus, the king of Egypt, and he claimed ‘That the letter would make the Egyptians wiser, and give them better memories. But Thamus wasn’t convinced and he argued that the invention would, in fact, create forgetfulness because they would trust the external written characters and not remember of themselves’. 

Here’s 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: ‘They are just as colors or elements of a painting, component parts.’ Then he goes on to talk about the rho, and he says ‘The rho is a sign of motion.’ He demonstrates this by saying, ‘Look, it’s found in all of these words, tremor, tremble, strike, crush, bruise, crumble and whirl.’ In pronouncing this letter, Socrates says: ‘The language was most agitated and least at rest.

Max Mueller, a German philologist in the nineteenth century, said, – and this is one of the great, great quotes. Muller says Language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast and no animal will ever cross it.’

Escalapius, the Roman writer says, ‘Nothing will be left but graven words and only the stones will tell of your piety.’  A statement with mixed messages in it.

Richard Pocock – this is from Pocock’s travels in Egypt in the eighteenth century on page 354 of a multi-volume work. ‘Moses, 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.’ 

David Boulton: That’s beautiful. Self-referential back to the Ten Commandments of thou shall not make images.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly. And here is an argument for writing by Samuel Hartlib, writing in 1654, in “The True and Ready Way of the Latin Tongue”: ‘Ears are uncertain messengers to the treasury of memory.’

Now, 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: ‘These scribes employed their favorite weapons of war as the formation of their characters.’

Otto Ege, in 1923, writes that: ‘There is a whole volume of human history in back of every one of the twenty-six alphabetic characters with which we write our thoughts.’ 

Nicholas Boussard writing in 1799 sort of recapturing and rephrasing the tale of Thoth says: ‘Thoth 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.’

What’s interesting, I think, about this is that here’s an eighteenth century writer taking up this classical tale and by the time he’s telling this tale, he’s actually ascribing to Thoth not only the capability to do writing, but he’s linking writing up with all of these other things. The measurer of time. Not that that’s a very enlightenment idea that’s actually linked to the Industrial Revolution. The inventor of numbers. He’s not the inventor of numbers. Again, arithmetic calculation is another form of abstraction, but it has other instrumental and mystical purposes. 

Then he also puts him next to Osiris and says he’s the one who’s 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 it’s simply the tale itself.

Now we also have another significant debate about the relationship of writing and speech. On the one hand we have someone like Voltaire saying: ‘Writing is the painting of the voice and the more it resembles it, the better it is.’

Then we have a historian of writing from the twentieth century, Ignas Gelb, who counters by saying, ‘Linguists who define writing as a device for recording speech show very little appreciation of the historical development of writing.’ 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.

Here 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, ‘The 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.’ See how all these things compacted.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: I have that beautiful Noel Humphries, which is longish, but I think we have to read it.

David Boulton: Okay. What about the Socrates as it pertains to…

Dr. Johanna Drucker: This is the Socrates. This is Humphries’ retelling of this.

‘This science, letters, will render the wisdom of the Egyptians greater and will give them a more faithful memory. It’s 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.

It’s really great. Then, I do want to read this Noel Humphries just for the sake of its poetry because I think it’s the one that’s beginning there, but it’s such a poetic piece, from 1853.

‘From 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.’

It did? It did? Like, we were there and we saw this ripe rain come down? So, that was what I pulled as quotes.

Alphabet and Spelling Reform:

Dr. Johanna Drucker: You know, we didn’t go back to talking about alphabet reform, and I think it’s really important. So, I think we should touch on that.

The realization that the alphabet is difficult to learn is something that’s 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.

However, 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.

So 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.

David Boulton: In his will he set aside the proceeds of everything his estate was earning to hold an annual contest to invent another alphabet.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Exactly.

David Boulton: When you talk about reform here, though, you’re talking about orthographic reform, which has an oscillation between alphabet reform and spelling reform.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: That’s right. Because, do we change the letters or do we simply change the way they’re used? Do we simply make different combinations? That’s what we’re talking about with phonics.

David Boulton: All of which betray, or work against the inertia of the system or threaten the system.

Dr. 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.

One 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 you’re going to have to cut, cast and reproduce new letter forms, that’s also an extremely expensive and difficult task.

David Boulton: In addition, a point you’re mentioning there were two other major forces – a kind of language imperialism and ease of reading.

Dr. 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 they’re 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.

Let 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 Dalgarno’s very famous sort of code system for trying to teach the articulatory system through a coded, visual form.

Then there’s 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 we’re 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 that’s 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.

David Boulton: Do you have much on the1906 Theodore Roosevelt story?

Dr. Johanna Drucker: No, I don’t even know that story.

David Boulton: That’s one of the most fascinating stories in all of this. That’s what put the stink of shame on spelling reform, as far as I can tell. It just knocked it off the table for further conversation.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: What? What did he do?

David Boulton: He ordered the U.S. Government Office of Printing to adopt what was the descendent of Melville Dewey’s spelling reform work financed by Andrew Carnegie. It had Darwin, William James, the U.S. Commissioner of Education… the Who’s Who 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 ‘It’s great’, apparently ashamed because he couldn’t 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; they’re all in this argument. The press comes in and says, trying to attack Roosevelt, that this is all a scheme by Carnegie to make money selling all these books. And the whole thing collapses.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Ohhhh. Well, again, it’s 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. I’m certainly not the person who knows how to solve that problem.

It’s 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.

David Boulton: But you won’t find too many of them printed in the Library of Congress.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: It will come. Emoticons are a change because they’ve become part of the written code. I mean electronic capabilities are going to change things.

David Boulton: Those are iconic.

Dr. Johanna Drucker: Uh huh.

David Boulton: They are somewhat self-evident. They’re 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.