Sunday, August 28, 2022

Johanna Drucker's "Inventing the Alphabet"

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and a distinguished professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been the recipient of Fulbright, Mellon, and Getty Fellowships and in 2019 was the inaugural Distinguished Senior Humanities Fellow at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Her artist books are included in museums and libraries in North America and Europe, and her creative work was the subject of a traveling retrospective, Druckworks 1972-2012: 40 Years of Books and Projects. Her publications include Visualizing Interpretation, Iliazd: Meta-biography of a Modernist, and The Digital Humanities Coursebook.

Drucker applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present, and reported the following:
The text on page 99 falls in Chapter 4 of Inventing the Alphabet, “The Confusion of Tongues and Compendia of Scripts.” The section focuses on the 16th-century French linguist, Cabalist, and scholar, Guillaume Postel and describes the contents of Postel’s 1538 publication, Linguarum Duodecim Characteribus Differentium Alphabetum (Diverse Alphabetic Characters from Twelve Languages). In this book, Postel presented samples of twelve scripts he had collected during his travels from Paris through the regions of the Levant and Near East. The section summarizes the introduction to the twelve languages Postel’s book provided, including pronunciation guides as well as settings of the Lord’s Prayer in each of the scripts. The book was a breakthrough for several reasons. Postel had copies made of Hasmonean coins (from the 1st century of the Common Era) and also presented a specimen of Samaritan, an alphabet that was competing with Hebrew to be considered the “first” human writing. Postel’s convictions about a coming religious war and return of the Messiah guided his work. But as the text notes, he participated in major debates of the period suggesting the “oldest” of human tongues was Hebrew. He traced the differences in existing languages to the dispersal of the sons of Noah after the Flood and subsequent Confusion of Tongues at Babel.

Page 99 contains crucial elements of Inventing the Alphabet. Though an obscure reference to some, Guillaume Postel’s work exerted considerable influence in the 16th and 17th centuries when Biblical narratives served as historical explanations and mystical letterforms found their place among samples of living scripts. Postel’s efforts to assemble historical knowledge of the alphabet from evidence available to him at the time exemplifies the appreciation of living and lost intellectual traditions that inform the book as a long overview.

Inventing the Alphabet is concerned with intellectual history and with tracking the shifting frameworks of scholarship according to which the origins of the alphabet have been understood. For Postel, the Cabalist, the notion of a divine origin of the letters from the stars was fully justified. Other early scholars, notably the Greek historian Herodotus, had only textual means to describe their understanding. Lacking any visual record, we can only speculate on what Herodotus had been seeing when he described the earliest inscriptions in letters brought from the East. The book traces the relations between knowledge technologies—texts, images, compendia, tables, epigraphy, and archaeology—and the shifting concept of alphabet origins and development. For instance, while biblical timelines are no longer used to define historical understanding of the geological and archaeological record, the work of Herodotus continues to be useful for assessing the age and variety of archaic Greek scripts. Likewise, the discoveries of ancient inscriptions in the Near East, lands featured in biblical accounts, have provided some evidence of the historical accuracy (however qualified) of events narrated in the Old Testament.

Page 99 touches on all of these issues. While some intellectual positions have fallen out of favor—such as Postel’s Cabalistic belief in the celestial origin of the alphabet—they were fully legitimate within their own historical moment. As new evidence and empirical models of studying the past have emerged, we need to remember that they, too, are shaped on assumptions that may be subject to change. We can now map the development of all alphabetic scripts in use today (Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Berber, Tamil etc.) emerged from a single proto-Canaanite tap root between about 1800-1500 BCE in the ancient Levant. Most remarkably, that set of alphabetic signs invented by nomadic Semitic speakers in the deserts of Canaan and Sinai undergirds our current international Internet communication systems.
Visit Johanna Drucker's website.

--Marshal Zeringue