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The Alphabet Effect: THE IMPACT OF THE PHONETIC ALPHABET ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF WESTERN CIVILIZATIONby Robert K. Logan (Morrow: $16.95; 280 pp.)

August 24, 1986|Jonathan Culler | Culler is author of "Ferdinand de Saussure" (Cornell), "On Deconstruction" (Cornell) and other works on linguistic and literary theory. and

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan spread the word, in "The Gutenburg Galaxy" and "Understanding Media," that "the medium is the message." Exploring the different ways print, movies and television involve the audience and so send an implicit message, he changed our thinking about the media.

Now from the McLuhan stable in Toronto, Robert Logan speculates not about the effects of print or writing itself but about the effects of alphabetic writing systems, as opposed to syllabic writing (a sign for each syllable) and pictographic or logographic writing (signs for words, concepts or propositions). He, too, makes sweeping claims: "The alphabet, as we shall discover, has contributed to the development of codified law, monotheism, abstract science, deductive logic and individualism, each a unique contribution of Western thought. . . . It has played an instrumental role in the development of the logical style of analysis that is characteristic of the Western way of thinking."

But while McLuhan's arguments were based on canny and convincing contrasts between media, Logan offers simplistic ideology: Western civilization is rational and analytic while the East is mystical and holistic; this can be explained in part by their systems of writing. When Western children learn the alphabet, Logan writes, they learn also "the intellectual by-products of the alphabet, such as abstraction, analysis, rationality and classification, which form the basis of the alphabet effect and the basis for Western abstract scientific and logical thinking. The use of the phonetic alphabet helps to explain why Western and Chinese thinking are so different (abstract and theoretical for the West versus concrete and practical for the East)." A table labeled "Comparison of Eastern and Western Cultural Patterns" lists 25 oppositions between East and West, including:

(East) (West)

Ideograms Alphabets

Acoustical Visual

Analogical Logical

Inductive Deductive

Concrete Abstract

Mystical Causal

Intuitive Rational

Relativity Absolutism

These contrasts pose a good many problems. (Why would an ideographic system of writing, such as Chinese characters, produce an acoustical rather than visual orientation? Is induction really more characteristic of Chinese and Japanese cultures than of European cultures?) They also represent an Anglo-American or, at the very least, Western European view and owe much to the inclination to see one's own procedures as more logical and rational than other cultures'.

The history of writing, which Logan recounts in some detail, shows that the different alphabets of the modern world, such as the Greek, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin (of which English is a variant), have a common, Near-Eastern root. Alphabetic writing was invented only once. It is a remarkable cultural invention: a way of representing language through a combination of a limited number of characters which are not hierarchically ordered, do not themselves have meaning and are thus available for potentially infinite combinations.

To trace the effects of something so pervasive is difficult, requiring a good deal of subtlety and methodological care. Logan fails in several ways. First, his comparisons are tainted by the ethnocentrism I have mentioned, which affects his assumptions about what is abstract or concrete, logical or illogical. Chinese, he claims, induces analogical thinking: The character for "Law" represents a hand carving a written mark and "Light" a human figure holding a torch. But English, whose terms he claims are abstract rather than concrete, can be described in a very similar way: television is "far seeing" and airport a "port for craft of the air." What seems bizarrely concrete in language may function in an abstract way for speakers.

More important, Logan speaks grandly of "Western civilization" without attempting to determine which qualities can truly be said to characterize all of the cultures with alphabetic writing, including, for instance, Arabic, Russian, Mexican, Jewish. Nor does he ask whether both Japan and China, which have non-alphabetic writing systems, fit his model of the holistic, intuitive East. He seems content with a simplistic, dubious opposition between West and East, even though this is undermined by his own discussion of India, which he sees as alphabetic yet Eastern, mystical yet the source of key notions for Western mathematics, including the discovery of zero.

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