In Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf points out that the genius behind the invention of the Greek alphabet* was to figure out the correspondence between words, sounds and characters. Unlike a syllabary, which links characters to syllables (e.g. Sumerian or Chinese), the alphabet links characters to the discrete speech sounds of a given language (also known as phonemes). Because such a character set is much smaller than that of a syllabary, alphabets are much easier and more efficient to master. This may at least partly explain the influx of original thought in Greek civilisation as opposed to earlier civilisations.
Wolf reminds us that not all Greeks were in favour of the rise of writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the invention’s most prominent detractor, Socrates, lectures Phaedrus on the “propriety and impropriety of writing”, citing a tale from ancient Egypt to hammer down his point that writing is a bane to society.
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (From Plato, Phaedrus, translated by Benjamin Jowett and available at the Online Library of Liberty)
Socrates cautions us that writing comes at a price, namely the individual’s growing dependence on an external medium, and Wolf rightly points out that Socrates’ concerns are nowadways more pressing than ever.
On another occasion, Socrates complains that writing acts as though it were intelligent although it is in fact dead: it does not respond to our questions and inquiries, and resists our attempts to probe further to get at the “essence” of the words’ meaning. Oral language is superior, Socrates holds, because it is dynamic, allowing us engage with our partner, defining, shaping, reconsidering and reshaping words and ideas as we converse. Socrates’ argument doesn’t carry quite as much weight now as it did back in Athens; after all, soon after Socrates, writing became so widespread that it developed into a mode of dialogue in its own right.
Nonetheless, we should be wary not to neglect the skill of conversation when teaching new readers how to read. I, for one, being a lonesome wolf and not much of a conversationalist, find that I too willingly let the text control the conversation. I absorb or consume the text rather than engage in a conversation with it, and I would readily attribute that lack of engagement to my lack of conversational skills.
*The Greek alphabet was conceived around 800-700 BCE, the era of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Greeks based their characters on Phoenician and Canaaite scripts, which explains why the Greek alpha corresponds to the Hebrew aleph. In addition, the Greeks introduced vowels and thus made the full leap to a written language based on phonemic representation.