The Alphabet Effect


The Alphabet Effect is a group of hypotheses in communication theory arguing that phonetic writing, and alphabetic scripts in particular, have served to promote and encourage the cognitive skills of abstraction, analysis, coding, decoding, and classification.

The theory claims that a greater level of abstraction is required due to the greater economy of symbols in alphabetic systems; and this abstraction and the analytic skills needed to interpret phonemic symbols in turn has contributed to the cognitive development of its users. Proponents of this theory hold that the development of phonetic writing and the alphabet in particular – as distinct to other types of writing systems – has made a significant impact on Western thinking and development precisely because it introduced a new level of abstraction, analysis, coding, decoding and classification.

A result of these skills, the use of the alphabet created an environment conducive to the development of codified law, monotheism, abstract science, deductive logic, objective history, and individualism. All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C.

The emergence of codified law in Sumer as exemplified by the Hammurabic code actually coincided with the reform of the Akkadian syllabic system and is not directly influenced by the alphabet per se but rather by a phonetic writing system consisting of only sixty signs. Also it has to be pointed out that there was a robust scientific tradition in China but that science as practised in ancient China was not abstract but concrete and practical. In fact the impetus for formulating the Alphabet Effect was to explain why abstract science began in the West and not China despite the long list of inventions and technology that first appeared in China. The Alphabet Effect provides an alternative explanation why China had been overshot by the West in science and technology, despite its earlier successes.

Another impact of alphabetic writing was that it led to the invention of zero, the place number system, negative numbers, and algebra by Hindu and Buddhist mathematicians in India 2000 years ago. These ideas were picked up by Arab mathematicians and scientists and eventually made their way to Europe 1400 years later.

The alphabet effect hypothesis points out that the alphabet facilitated the rise and dissemination of monotheism, by providing an easy way to write about a deity that is omnipotent, omnipresent, yet invisible. In contrast, monotheism did not succeed when Akhenaten attempted to promulgate it via hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt, nor did it even arise in places such as China, which relied on an ideographic writing system.

Prior to the written word there was a monopoly of knowledge by priests. This was because literacy was seen to be very time consuming. Therefore all literacy was left in the hands of priests. With the priests monopolizing the content of religious texts there would be little or no dissension among the public. Thus the introduction of the alphabet substantially limited the power of the priests and religious texts were now open to society for questioning.

A social ramification of the introduction of the alphabet was the creation of social distinctions within society. Those who are illiterate within society are seen as being deficient and backward. Consequently, the development of the alphabet allowed for distinctions to be formed within society between the literate upper class and the illiterate lower class.

The development of the alphabet and hence the written word has also affected the impact of emotion. To translate a beautiful picture into words would be to deprive it of correctly articulating its best qualities. Therefore the written word has deprived both images and beautiful objects of the correct level of emotion with which to express their exact appearance.

The fact that the alphabet introduced the idea that a person’s writing could live on long after they died was another social ramification of the alphabet. This argument is also shared by Andrew Robinson. Robinson believes that the need for immortality has always been of extreme importance for many authors. As a result, the development of the written word allowed for the immortality of authors and their written works.

1 thought on “The Alphabet Effect

  1. Your readers interested in the Alphabet Effect might want to read my book:
    Robert K. Logan. 2004a. The Alphabet Effect. Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press (1st edition 1986. New York: Wm. Morrow).

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