Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Patricia Crain reviews Inventing the Alphabet

Johanna Drucker. Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 380 pp.

Review by Patricia Crain

9 March 2023

The rudimentary technology of the ABCs, laboriously internalized and seemingly naturalized by countless users across some four millennia, has an origin story most people only vaguely grasp, if they wonder about it at all. A pendant or a bookend to Johanna Drucker’s wonderful visually focused The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination (1995), this book asks “who knew what when about the alphabet,” proposing a historiography—“the study of production of knowledge”—of the alphabet, distinguishing its origins from the longer story of the history of writing (pp. 1, 5). Bracingly corrective of fuzzy or tendentious accounts, Drucker describes the work of over two hundred writers, ancient and modern, historians and philosophers, classicists and alchemists, theologians, antiquarians, diplomatists, travelers, linguists, epigraphers, paleographers, and archeologists from the fifth century BCE to the present.  She grants these figures, sometimes prescient and sometimes, in every sense, fabulous, their places in the cultural history of imagining, mythifying, and locating the place, the time, and the peoples at the alphabet’s source.

Like today’s contentious politics of literacy, the historiography of the alphabet’s origins reveals high-stakes commitments and biases.  Drucker’s first chapter asks “When did the alphabet become ‘Greek’?” and the answer echoes throughout her project. “The Afro-Asiatic roots of Western culture are well preserved in the classical authors,” who treated the alphabet as a valuable import, not a local invention. In Herodotus’ Histories the letters were “a gift from Cadmus and the Phoenicians” and Plato assigned their invention to the Egyptian god Thoth (pp. 32, 7). Nineteenth-century classicists nonetheless promoted a spurious Greek genesis that attracted twentieth-century antisemites eager to deny the alphabet’s Semitic, African, and Asiatic origins. Alphabet scholarship thus maps onto genealogies of national chauvinisms and millennia-long constructions of race and racism, in spite of the actual “cultural mixing from which the alphabet sprang” (p. 32).

Alphabet studies offer a companion history of the scholarly disciplines and of their “technologies of knowledge distribution” (p. 192). Ancient and medieval writers relied on traditional textual and scriptural evidence. Ancient sacred histories and Jewish Kabbalah treated the letters as a “Divine gift” to figures in the Hebrew Bible—not only to Moses with the receipt of the Decalogue but also variously to Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Solomon, the angel Raphael, and Adam’s son Seth (p. 36).  Later medieval and Renaissance manuscript and printed charts and tables visually traced changes, made comparisons, and channeled angelic and mystical alphabets. With a fashionable interest in national and linguistic origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, scholarly travelers sought antiquities, objects with exotic if uncertain attribution that might be slotted into existing, often biblical, timelines.  At the same period, diplomatists, tasked with authenticating legal documents, turned their protopaleographic skills and historical and geographic expertise to such artifacts. These empirical studies informed the development of paleography, epigraphy, and the scrutiny of material artifacts in situ foundational to archeology from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Strikingly designed by Rae Ganci Hammers, Inventing the Alphabet mimes the scholarly genres it describes in its nine roughly chronological chapters: it’s a compendium of alphabets, like those it cites; it delights in baroque charts like James Bonaventure Hepburn’s massive 1616 Virga Aurea; its glossy pages gorgeously reproduce the images of its forebears; it is insistently empirical like the latest archeological or linguistic discovery. And it inspires in its reader the same suspenseful yearning to crack the code that all of its sources share. The received wisdom of the ancients is largely vindicated by modern archeology, which “reinvented the alphabet” (p. 190). To wit: “The alphabet was formed in the context of cultural exchanges between Semitic-speaking people from the Levant and communities in Egypt after or around 1800 BCE” (p. 188).  The “inscriptions drawn on bricks or ostraca” (pottery shards), which “at first seemed too insignificant to warrant notice,” revealed that the alphabet “emerged from marginal, modest, small-scale marks and signs” made by ordinary people in the midst of life (pp. 189, 294).  I found myself supplementing Drucker’s compelling descriptions of the key archeological sites dotted across “the Levant, a term used to identify ancient Syria-Palestine and the modern countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Syria, and western Iraq,” with a historical atlas and online maps to hand (p. 190).

Largely even-handed, and sympathetic to alluring flights like a 1667 image of a divine homology between the letter-shapes and the speech organs, Drucker reserves her critique for last century’s antisemites and expresses her frustration with the wide influence of McLuhan-esque technodeterminism.  If the alphabet’s tale skews triumphalist, it’s true that Roman letters, like global English, have shared in the violent colonizing of peoples and cultures. For ill and for good, our world remains profoundly alphabetized, from classroom rosters, to bureaucratic systems, to the labeling of our very genetic essence, even if random access, not ABC order, has become our everyday search mode. As Drucker somewhat shockingly reminds us in her closing chapters, the ancient analog alphabet forms the substrate of our digital world.