Alphabet Soup

Language and how we use it.
May 20 1998 3:30 AM

Alphabet Soup

A technological history of reading and writing.

As regular readers of such publications as Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies; the Classical Journal; and the Journal of Biblical Literature are by now well aware, a dispute has long simmered about whether people in ancient times read to themselves silently, as we moderns do, or mostly read aloud. The unequivocal references in ancient sources to silent reading are few, and the context often suggests that the practice is unusual. St. Augustine describes with amazement how the great Ambrose, bishop of Milan, could follow the written text with his eyes even as "his voice and tongue stayed still."

No spaces example
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The majority view today is that reading aloud was the rule in antiquity--a view that has now received powerful new support from Paul Saenger, a medievalist and curator at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Saenger observes in Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading that most ancient texts virtually demanded to be read aloud, because the words were written in what is known as scriptura continua--that is, they were all run together, forcingthereadertosoundeverythingout. Then, in the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish-speaking monks, for whom the Latin of literature and Scripture was a foreign language, began inserting spaces, just to help tell all those unfamiliar words apart. Irish manuscript traditions went on to influence the whole Western world, and the separation of words became a universal convention--thereby making silent reading practical. Silent reading--now so vast and entrenched that we take it for granted--seems to have come about more or less by happy accident.

Specialists will no doubt be arguing over Saenger's thesis for years to come--don't let your subscription to Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies lapse. But I was drawn to the argument of Space Between Words for two reasons: First, it treats words as physical objects produced by physical means and designed to be understood by physical beings; and second, it reminds us of the breathtaking role serendipity can play in matters of language.

Boustrophedon example

The physicality of words is something we tend to lose sight of--literally--although the consequences of physicality are inescapable and often startling. Some years ago I shouldered the rewarding (and not very exacting) task of editing some articles by Bernard Lewis, distinguished scholar of the Arab world. At one point in our conversations the subject drifted, and I found myself asking Lewis--thinking he was bound to know--about the kind of ancient Greek writing that was written from left to right on one line, then from right to left on the next, then from left to right again, and so on. "You're thinking of boustrophedon," he replied at once. "The term comes from Greek words that describe the way an ox-drawn plough turns in a field."

I pursued the matter a little further, asking how such a writing system came to be. Lewis' answer emerged after a pleasant subterranean rumbling that I took to be laughter (though his answer was entirely serious). "It probably arose," he said, "from the practice of writing long inscriptions on cliff faces." Imagine, he went on, lowering a chap with his chisel from the top of a monument and moving him along as he does his work. What do you do when he finishes the first line? Do you haul him all the way back to where he started? Or do you just drop him down a few feet to the next line and then let him continue his work in the opposite direction? The subterranean rumbling resumed for a moment, making it clear the answer should be obvious.

Sinhalese vs. Sanskrit

In his 1996 memoir Running in the Family the novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje wrote evocatively about the alphabet he learned in Sri Lanka as a boy, making note of the aesthetic consequences of yet another technological imperative:

I still believe the most beautiful alphabet was created by the Sinhalese. The insect of ink curves into a shape that is almost sickle, spoon, eyelid. The letters are washed blunt glass which betray no jaggedness. Sanskrit was governed by verticals, but its sharp grid features were not possible in Ceylon. Here the Ola leaves which people wrote on were too brittle. A straight line would cut apart the leaf and so a curling alphabet was derived from its Indian cousin.

There has been no lack of commentary about the consequences that the latest version of Ola leaves--computers and electronic text--will have on the future of reading, writing, and the Word, and I have no wish to revisit all the speculative Big Questions here; Sven Birkerts, Michael Joyce, Steven Johnson, and the rest of the gang can agonize or exult over these without any outside help. Many issues will simply remain up in the air for years to come, no matter what anyone says.

Still, computers and electronic text have already wrought changes in the way the world's words are constructed. In Japan, individuals have long been accustomed to elaborating upon the way their basic names are written in kanji characters--personalizing names with a flourish of extra characters or with added or subtracted strokes. Those flourishes now must come to an end for official purposes, in the interest of computer standardization. Likewise, the Association of Spanish Language Academies has voted to eliminate "ch" (as in chorizo) and "ll" (as in llama) as distinct letters in what had been a 29-letter Spanish alphabet. (An extra Spanish letter "n," the one with the tilde, remains in place for now.) The Germans, for their part, have begun this year to phase out their distinctive letter for a double "s," the letter that looks somewhat like an English capital "B."

The forces that are bringing a little more order to orthography are doing the same to semantics. Because an electronically linked worldwide medical community needs a common language, new terminology has been adopted by the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists to describe human body parts. The Adam's apple is henceforward to be known as the laryngeal prominence. The Achilles tendon now becomes the calcaneal tendon. The space between a woman's breasts is now to be known as the intermammary sulcus.

It is beyond me to chart the future byways of the digital revolution, but I'll venture one counterintuitive prediction: Electronic media will usher in a resurgence in the quality and value in handwriting. Signs of a renaissance of the handwritten word are here and there discernible. Most obviously, there is the proliferation of specialty shops for fountain pens and handmade paper. But it can also be seen, hauntingly, in the almost sacral reception given to Ronald Reagan's handwritten letter revealing his affliction with Alzheimer's disease. "Script's primary power," wrote Edmund Morris, Reagan's biographer, in a 1995 reflection on the letter, "is to convey the cursive flow of human thought, from brain to hand to pen to ink to eye--every waver, every loop, every character trembling with expression."

As handwriting becomes ever less a daily utilitarian workhorse it may well become ever more a cherished means of interpersonal transmission--for the sorts of messages that one sets aside to preserve (or pulls out to reread from one's intermammary sulcus). Some future Paul Saenger, perhaps in a book to be called When Hands Left the Keyboard, will, I hope, be able to tell the story of one more happy accident.

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear frequently. He also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

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