Episode One – The Alphabet: It’s Just a Tool

With Episode One – The Alphabet: It’s Just a Tool, the consideration of what could be beyond literacy begins. And it starts by looking at the alphabet.

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9 thoughts on “Episode One – The Alphabet: It’s Just a Tool

  1. Left Overs and Side Dishes

    What didn’t make it onto the podcast, and other thoughts.

    Alphabet Theory, and the Alphabet Effect.

    Alphabet Theory posits that the West is superior to the East because of the alphabet. Paul Grosswiler, in his articles Dispelling the Alphabet Effect explains that “the alphabetic literacy theory attributes the West’s development of abstract thinking, deductive logic, science, mathematics, democracy, codified law, capitalism, and monotheism to the alphabet’s introduction in ancient Greece” This is an extremely ethnocentric theory, and dismisses the value of pictographic alphabets. Moreover, as Grosswiler argues, the West and East have both developed, but in a pendulum fashion. The alphabet is not the be all end all of development.

    This made me think of a trip I made to Whistler, BC. On the TransCanada highway are road signs with English and Squamish, an Aboriginal language. What I found particularly interesting about the signs was that in many instances, numbers were in the middle of Squamish words. For example: Skwxwù7mesh – obviously the latin alphabet isn’t the right tool for this job.

    1. Interesting last bit there Ashely! Do the Squamish have their own written language? I assume not, since I’m sure they would have used it for the road signs. Great example of what happens when you use the wrong tool for the job.

      I also want to add something that didn’t make it into the podcast. The unnaturalness of the writing.
      I’ve heard some people argue that the alphabet is different (and above) most tool because it is so entwined with literacy and language, something that seems so normal and natural to people nowadays. But this is not so, literacy, in the form of written language, is not natural, and so neither is the alphabet. Writing is completely artificial, in deep contrast to oral speech. “Oral speech is fully natural to human begins in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk” explains Walter Ong, in his book entitled Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. “Talk implements conscious life” he goes on to say “but it wells up into consciousness out of unconscious depths, though of course with the conscious as well as unconscious co-operation of society… Writing or script differs as such from speech in that it does not inevitably well up out of the unconscious. The process of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived, articulable rules: for example, a certain pictogram will stand for a certain specific word, or a will represent a certain phoneme, b another, and so on.”

  2. This also never made it into the podcast, but was something I found particularly interesting. The alphabet is a tool not only for reading and writing purposes, but also for math. It is used in measurements, axis labels, and algebraic equations. In fact, letters from both the Greek and Latin alphabets make an appearance in the realms of math, and thus they have a different purpose as a tool. If we were to do away with the alphabet, would we use different tools for mathematical purposes? I think this is an interesting angle from which to view the alphabet, as it is typically only thought of in its value as a communication tool. Just wanted to add my ramblings!

    1. Podcast number three actually mentions this topic! There is an interview with a math professor who says that the variables used in math aren’t truly reading. Not sure how I feel about this, but it was interesting to here his thoughts.

      1. Oh I believe that about “reading”, but I more so meant it in the sense of the alphabet becoming “obsolete”. If the letters are still in use in math, it’s still arguably a useful tool.

        1. I wonder if can be a useful tool though since the letters hold different meanings in math (i.e. the letter as a variable can be a stand in for any number)–therefore it’s not really a letter, just a symbol in the shape of something we recognize- devoid of meaning unless we relate it to a number– which I guess you could say that the symbol by itself is not really read then since meaning has not been attached yet…. This makes me think that in a post literate world we could use something besides a letter for math…I think….

  3. Found an article about a linguist who recently “reconstructed” fables from prehistoric times. Apparently PIE/ Proto-Indo-European, is the prehistoric foundation of most languages. It’s believed to have been created over 7,000 years ago. “The primary focus of Byrd’s work is to understand what this language would have sounded when it was spoken millennia ago.”

    Scroll to the bottom of the article to see what the fable looks like written out, and even clips of Byrd speaking the fable – so you can hear what he believes this prehistoric language sounds like.


  4. While I like the use of the word ‘tool’ to describe literacy, this podcast reminds me of the struggle I had with the idea of post-literacy (full disclosure: I took this course last year). I still feel that by using the term post-literacy and contrasting it to literacy we are suggesting a duality that does not exist. It seems far more likely that the use of literacy as a tool will evolve rather than being replaced. This is common for many tools, the hammer was created to drive nails (and other connectors) but is more often used now as a demolition tool for contractors. With this evolution the design of hammers themselves have evolved to make them more suited to their new use but the idea of a hammer still exists. It is generally easier to modify and adapt an existing tool to a new use than too develop completely new tools. While I don’t doubt that literacy will continue to evolve in new and potentially exotic ways, I am not sure this means it is not ‘literacy’.

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