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The Alphabet as a Mirror of Human Civilization


Information and Alphabet
Lately, we use the word 'information' without thinking what it means. Information has become as fundamental a concept as 'matter', sometimes even a substitute for it.

Information comes to us in the stream of news and different types of communication. The medium of transmission can be any subject of the human senses: images, sounds, letters, etc.

Written language and each letter in itself carries with it a load of information necessary for human communication. At the end of the 20th century more attention is paid to what we call the disciplines of communication, which study the general structure of the basic systems of the exchange and storage of information. We can include here semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), the principles of which were first described by C. Pierce and F. De Sossieur, the theory of text (the study of the interconnection of signs, symbols and the information field), hermeneutics (the science of the understanding and interpretation of texts), etc.

There is, however, a science that will attract interest in the future. This is grammatology (or graphemics), the scientific study of systems of writing. In our country, practically no one has been working in the area of grammatology.

Grammatology regards the alphabet as a reflection of the world of nature. The Ukrainian philosopher and humanist G.Skovoroda considered all the world of creation as the inter-connectionship between three worlds: "microcosmos" (man), "macrocosmos" (nature) and the world of symbols (Bible). The alphabet - the third cosmos - interacts (connected in a special way) with the micro- and macro-cosmos. That is why the invention of the alphabet is as much a mystery as the emergence of different forms from matter. The creative process of inventing symbolic forms (called 'semiosism' in grammotological terms) is always influenced by the suffering and personal tragedy of the inventor. This process is given expression in the mythology of Odin and the runes. The ancient Scandinavian god Odin, wanting to comprehend the written symbols (runes), pierced himself with spears and hung from the worldly tree Igdrasil for nine days, until in the absolute darkness the runes appeared. He caught them and came tumbling down to the earth. All creators of national written languages experienced the woes of creativity, whether it be the Armenian monk Mesrop Mashtots, the Georgian king Parnavas, Saint Cyrill or the Chinese emperor Fu Si.

Modern grammatology is more than just a science of writing. Researchers also find the connection between the outer form of writing and the psychology of the people, their use, culture and system of language.

Why then do we need a science of writing? Because lately the flood of information has become more powerful and diverse. To this flood is added communication from new governments, having a distinctive culture of writing. Some native peoples now have their own publishing base and sets of characters, differing from both Latin and Cyrillic. Therefore study of scripts can serve as a key to the comprehension of another national culture.

The alphabet can be considered a reflection of the psycho-physiology of a people, religious conceptions, and sometimes the ideology of the government. This is how the three world systems of writing were formed, each being closely associated with a world religion. Latin as a script is associated with Christianity (the modern typefaces Antigua with Catholicism, gothic with Protestantism). The Arabic script is exclusively connected with the Islamic world (the two movements of Islam, Shiism and Sunnism have their own variations of written Arabic). The Indo-script, consisting of many different forms, is associated with Buddhism and Hinduism. Speaking generally, the Latin script reflects the ideology of the West and individualism. The stereotype has been formed that the Latin script is "the script of progress and economic success". Some countries and peoples desiring to become part of the western European values with surprising ease have switched to the Latin alphabet, although for religious reasons they gravitate to other types of alphabets (for example, Orthodox Romania, Islamic Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, Vietnam).

Cyrillic tried to become another ideological alphabet. After the failure of the 'world revolution' and the return to the idea of nationalism, Cyrillic became the official alphabet of the communist camp, as we called it, the "October Alphabet". After universal latinization in the USSR, the universal process of re-introducing Cyrillic began on a similar scale in 1938. This process affected the Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus, on the Volga and in Central Asia, and also the peoples following Buddhism (Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvinians and Mongolians). In 1945, communist Mongolia converted to Cyrillic writing, and in the same year the native alphabets of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia were driven out by the Russian alphabet. In 1955, China prepared to switch to a Cyrillic base. The too close connection of Cyrillic and the communist idea lead to bitterness about and attacks on the Cyrillic alphabet in 1991, after the collapse of the communist system. In some of the remote national areas of the former USSR Cyrillic was perceived as "the last bastion of communism" and even as a tool of national oppression.


Latin and Non-Latin Sets of Characters in the Modern World
Now, many think that the Latin alphabet; is predominant everywhere. However, you can see from the table that the Latin alphabet comprises about one half of the written languages of the world, irregardless of whether it is considered on the basis of the general number of countries, territory, or population.

America and Australia are the real citadels of the Latin alphabet. Namely from these centers is generated the process of latinization of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and East Africa (the information field in Europe is noticeably weaker). Another center for the spreading of the Latin alphabet is Turkey, to which the governments of the CIS which have Turkish-related languages oriented after 1991 (Turkey is considered by the Arabic world as a "renouncer"; its crossing over to the Latin alphabet in 1928 shocked Islamic circles. It was the same as if Germany has suddenly started using Cyrillic.)

The information field of the Cyrillic alphabet, it seems, will be substantially reduced because of the Turkish and Mongolian peoples. The former, probably, will model their set of characters after the Latin alphabet, the latter will come back to the old Mongolian vertical alphabet (the Mongolians are the only people in the world who managed to change their character set radically seven times in the last 600 years. It might be, that they do it once again).

Even if in the Volga region, central Asia and the Northern Caucasus the Latin alphabet is established it will be "unstable", that is, there will be possible influence either from the side of the Cyrillic alphabet or from the side of the Arabic alphabet. In Tajikistan in the 1990s there was a serious attempt to change to the Arabic alphabet, apparently because of the information field of Shiite Iran. (The set of characters in Iran was and still is in many ways noteworthy, as it has connections with some genetically isolated alphabets (such as Armenian and Georgian). The Arabic alphabet in Iran was changed beyond recognition - in this is seen a certain challenge, a hidden protest to the traditional Arabic world, splashed out in the graphic sphere. It is quite possible that here will emerge in the future a tendency of transformation, not only of the Arabic alphabet, but of Islam itself.)

Interestingly, the Latin alphabet in Asia gained a specific feature. It has been recommended for the use of peoples with undeveloped culture, such as the wild mountain tribes in India, Burma and China (Chin, Cachin, Kaya, Khasi, Miri, Naga, etc.). And countries which have switched to the Latin alphabet in this day are far from advanced (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam), while the modern economic giants are countries primarily of non-Latin alphabets (Japan, Korea, Thailand).

Moreover, the Latin alphabet not only has a certain influence on other writing systems, but can itself undergo deformation from the side of related systems of writing. Russian writing underwent this type of change when it acquired "limited syllabic character" (some of its letters stand for two sounds).

Sets of characters other than Latin are constantly having to prove their right to exist. The mass introduction of computers, the multiple increase of print runs of newspapers and the expansion of international cultural connections has made the problem of the existence of non-Latin characters even worse. The processing of text written in a non-Latin alphabet by computer is difficult. This applies mostly to Arabic, Indian languages and especially to Chinese hieroglyphs.

In China they used to say not long ago that hieroglyphs were in the way of computerization and scientific-technical progress. But soon these obstacles were overcome: The hieroglyphic typewriter was invented as well as a way to input hieroglyphs into the computer. The Latin characters were used only as an auxiliary means for achieving this purpose.

In China, as distinct from Russia, there is an astonishing pluralism of character sets: Korean, Thai, Arabian, Mongolian alphabets differ not only in form, but in their structure. In China they abandoned a long time ago the principle of an "ideal base", when the "state" alphabet was used as an ideal standard which had to be imposed on all nations of the country. In the USSR the Latin alphabet was at first considered as ideal, then Cyrillic, which supplanted Arabic. But in Pakistan the opposite process happened: The Indo-alphabets were supplanted by Arabic, which was considered ideal. Burma methodically adjusted the ethnic alphabets to the Burmese alphabet. In Georgia, in 1938, there was an attempt to change the Cyrillic alphabets of Abkhazians and Ossetians to Georgian.

The syllabic systems of writing in India are comparatively uniform — they all come from one prototype. In Indonesia the diversity of systems of writing of ethnic minorities is not encouraged by the government. In Georgia and Tibet, while there is one official system of writing, there exists a multitude of variations of it which sometimes are extremely different from each other. In Japan, four typologically different alphabets exist officially: one hieroglyphic, two syllabic (Hiragana and Katakana), and Latin (Romazi). It is interesting that these four alphabets can be used simultaneously (four writing systems at once for one language!).

Today, there is an insoluble contradiction between universal unification of informational communication (creation of a universal alphabet) and the fear of some countries to lose cultural distinction due to the decreased importance of national alphabets. Besides this, there is no guarantee that some countries or people won't want to have unique and irreplaceable national alphabets, like Armenians or Georgians. For example, in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the question arose of changing from Latin to Glagolic alphabet. In some countries of West Africa on the wave of nationalism, there were attempts to create purely African writing systems.

All this means that the Latin alphabet would have difficulties assuming the tasks of a universal alphabet and further zeal in this area could provoke an unexpected response which probably would not be conducive to the international exchange of information. The situation can occur that the Latin alphabet will be equated with the negative sides of universal informatization — technophobia, stresses, crisis of national culture.

The debbates about advantages and disadvantages of all-pervasive informatization for national culture and independence can become more heated. Change from one system of writing to another, irregardless of the validity of the reasons for it, is always a psychological trauma. The task of written language is to be some kind of "psychotherapy", it can be not only a means of communication but a means of self-expression. A national system of writing should have both informational and aesthetic functions.

Grammatology is one of the promising fields of contemporary science. Here, the theory of written language is intertwined with psychology, mathematical topology, and vector geometry (it was noted that the direction of writing - left to right, right to left, bottom to top, top to bottom - has qualitative influence on the writing itself). Any writing system contains both the traces of the archaic and the new.

The whole world appeared to us reduced
to a pattern of letters before amazed gaze
The universe through a grid of lines
Unfolds as it is in a mime of characters
Whose clear order is so immovably rigid
And so monotonously uniform.
(H. Hesse)

In conclusion I want to identify one question that needs more detailed examination: Is the capacity for written language an essential attribute of intelligence or can there be civilizations without written language?

Ivan Karasev






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