Keynote Presentation: The Alphabet - A Tyrant?
William Bright - Professor Emeritus of Linguistics UCLA, Professor Adjunct of Linguistics, University of Colorado
European education, in recent centuries, has given great prestige to written language as opposed to spoken language; but it is possible to have a complex culture without writing. In ancient India, long works of literature, science, and law were composed in the authors’ heads, preserved by memorization, and transmitted orally. Plato, who lived not long after the alphabet was introduced to Greece, feared that, if the oral tradition that created the Iliad and Odyssey was replaced by written tradition, this might have bad effects, in particular the weakening of our powers of memory. This seems to have occurred; it is hard nowadays for most of us to imagine memorizing poems that take days to recite. At the same time, it seems clear that a library full of printed books is a more effective means of storing information than any number of human heads.
Recently a Californian author, Leonard Shlain, in his book The Alphabet versus the Goddess, has hypothesized that the rise of literacy, particularly alphabetic literacy, was responsible for reconfiguring the human brain. According to him, preliterate cultures were characterized by “holistic,” right-brain thinking, oriented toward feminine values; but in literate cultures, he says, the LINEARITY of writing has fostered linear, left-brain thinking, oriented toward patriarchy and misogyny. This paper will argue that Shlain’s hypothesis has no basis in history, anthropology, or linguistics. Speech and writing each have their own positive and negative features, but there is no evidence that sexism is involved.
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