Keynote Presentation: The Alphabet - A Tyrant?

William Bright - Professor Emeritus of Linguistics UCLA, Professor Adjunct of Linguistics, University of Colorado

Intended Audience: Manager, Software Engineer, Systems Analyst, Marketer
Session Level: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

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.

When the world wants to talk, it speaks Unicode
Unicode Standard Program Conference Board Call for Papers Talks and Papers Past Conferences
Showcase Registration Accommodation Travel Sponsors Next Conference
International Unicode Conferences are organized by Global Meeting Services, Inc., (GMS). GMS is pleased to be able to offer the International Unicode Conferences under an exclusive license granted by the Unicode Consortium. All responsibility for conference finances and operations is borne by GMS. The independent conference board serves solely at the pleasure of GMS and is composed of volunteers active in Unicode and in international software development. All inquiries regarding International Unicode Conferences should be addressed to info@global-conference.com.

Unicode and the Unicode logo are registered trademarks of Unicode, Inc. Used with permission.

21 Jun 2000, Webmaster