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Johanna Drucker: The ABCs of “Inventing the Alphabet”

By Joanie Harmon
Johanna Drucker, Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies

New book by Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies explores the the alphabet’s many versions in the world and throughout history. 

Johanna Drucker’s newest book, “Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters From Antiquity to the Present,” has been lauded by Science Magazine as just, “… not another history – it is a historiography, addressing the intellectual history of this crucial topic for the first time.” The author, who is Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, aims to dispel the misconceptions surrounding the existence of more than one alphabet – the myriad of letter forms throughout the world are actually considered as script – as well as the links between the original alphabet that was created around 1700 BCE and the alphanumeric notation that provides the infrastructure for the internet.

Drucker, a scholar whose research includes digital humanities and the history of the book, was honored with the 2021 Steven Heller Award for Cultural Commentary from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Her recent books include “Visualization and Interpretation: Humanistic Approaches to Display,” and “Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist.” 

Professor Drucker will speak in conversation with graphic designer Louise Sandhaus at a book launch for “Inventing the Alphabet” on Saturday, August 13 at Hauser & Wirth LA Bookstore. 

To attend this event and for more information, visit Eventbrite

Why is the alphabet such an important invention?

The one thing that is important for people to understand is that the alphabet was only invented once in the ancient Near East, in a cultural exchange between cuneiform writing in the north and hieroglyphic writing in the south and amongst speakers of Semitic languages, sometime around 1700 to 1400 BCE.

When people think about different alphabets they'll say, “Like Arabic? That can’t be the same as our alphabet, right?” They are confusing alphabet and script. Script is the different letter forms. If you think about Cyrillic writing for Russian, that’s a script. But the sequence of letters, the names of letters, and what we call the powers of letters – that is, the sound that’s associated with them – are the same across all alphabetic scripts. 

The first letter in Arabic [script] is the alif, and that is the same as the alef [in Hebrew] which is the same as the “a.” The letters look really different. Part of that has to do with the way that the letter forms are made, what the technologies were, and so forth, and also, modifications over time. But there is only one alphabet.

What is mindboggling to me is that the alphabet that was invented around 1700 BCE undergirds the entire global communication system of the internet. That gives me chills. Alphanumeric notation - and that does include the Arabic numerals which were a later invention - that is what global communication depends on. 

The only other writing systems that are still in use today are character-based systems: Chinese, Korean, Japanese. and then a tiny little handful of idiosyncratic inventions that were made for a particular group at a particular moment. Chief Sequoyah saw that writing was power and so he  invented, a set of graphic signs for the Cherokee language that worked well to represent the sound [of their words] But that's a 19th Century invention. It’s very late, and it’s not widespread in use, so alphabetic scripts and character-based scripts are all the writing in the world. 

Character-based scripts are very complex in terms of the number of characters and how they represent, though you can show characters on the [computer] screen. Increasingly, we can use characters for search functions and so forth on the global Internet - http protocols, all code - that's all in alphanumeric numeric notation. Again, it gives me the chills to think about those little scribbles in the desert in 1700 BCE being the basis of contemporary life and communication.

Where does punctuation come in?

Punctuation has its history as time goes on, [but] doesn't exist in the very early stages – there was not even word spacing. But there were various signs. The Semitic languages do not require explicit notation of vowels. Its consonants and consonant combinations, but they often have markings that indicate breath and sound. And so, as with many other modifications, punctuation came later. 

By the Middle Ages in the West, punctuation starts to be fully developed. The great Malcolm Parkes, a wonderful medievalist, wrote a book called “Pause and Effect,” that has a lot of the scholarship on those transformations. We could have a whole philosophical discussion about this - punctuation doesn't really have semantic value, but it has structural import that becomes meaning-producing.

How does the book address the alphabet from a global variety of cultures and traditions?

It’s such an important point, it's worth going over it again, I think, because of the confusion between alphabet and script. You know what a pair of pants is. You know it can be loose and wide-legged, it can be as tight as skin, it can buckle at the knees, it can go up to your waist or hang on your hips. So, think about scripts as style, and think about the letters as the set of categories of things. 

If I’m using the clothing analogy to get someone dressed, I might want to know how many categories I need. I might have headgear or what is worn on the torso, you can make the classification any number of things. You might use more vernacular: shirts, hats, underwear, pants, socks, shoes, right? If you wanted to dress somebody as an 18th Century buccaneer, those categories would be linked to a library, and what would come onstage would be the buccaneer who is dressed in this kind of pants, this kind of socks, this kind of shoes. So, the scripts are styles of letters. 

Now, some scripts have more characters, and some scripts have less. Again, that has to do with adaptations that are necessary for different languages. Some languages have different sounds and one of the amazing things about the alphabet and its creation is that it depends upon the capacity to distinguish sounds in speech, knowing how many there are, and which ones are meaningful. 

To me, this is an amazing intellectual achievement. If I said to you, “As a speaker, you know nothing about linguistics. I want you to analyze English as you use it and tell me how many sounds there are.” You couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. Could you, listening to a native Japanese speaker, know how many sounds though there were in that language that are meaningful? So, what happens in the ancient Near East around 1700 BCE is that there is a sufficient understanding of the sound structure of language to begin make a set of signs to represent those sounds.

This is why the history of the alphabet ends with Unicode, because Unicode is a meta-level description of the number of kinds of things (glyphs, not sounds, in this case) that you need to distinguish, in order to register any script for communication. It’s an information issue [that] gets really fascinating because Unicode inventories libraries of scripts. 

How do magical and angelic alphabets relate to an understanding of the more commonly recognizable alphabets?

This is such a fascinating subcategory. There are a lot of script forms that we think first emerged around the beginning of the Common Era that were used for incantations. And when the ancient Near East was beginning to be excavated by people like Henry Layard and other explorers, in the ruins of Nineveh and ancient Assyrian palaces and libraries they find incantation bowls [with] really interesting signs on them that are not associated necessarily with the actual alphabet. And then, it turns out they kind of are.

They’re magical alphabets called ring letters. Imagine if you had the letter “a” and on its feet you had open circles, and on its top too. It turns out that these ring letters are associated with magical properties, and by the Middle Ages, there's a whole mythology that says these ring letters are actually copied from constellations of stars which shows that the origin of letters was a gift from God, because these are natural signs in the heavens that have been used as the basis of letters.

And then there are all kinds of alphabets that have idiosyncratic histories. There’s one called Adam’s Alphabet and it was supposedly given to Adam by God. One is associated with Noah. One was supposedly given to Abraham by the Angel Raphael as he entered Canaan. 

There is a very limited set of these magical and angelic alphabets. They have a stable graphic form, but they're never used for writing texts, so they exist as exemplars. This is incredible because most of what we know about scripts comes from the fact that they are in use for documents, labels, texts, and inscriptions. Imagine that you have a set of 26 or 28 signs and they stay stable across hundreds of years just transmitted as images. These magical and angelic alphabets just get passed down as visual graphic examples. 

The ring letters are really part of Jewish Kabbalah tradition and they show up in that particular world. But the angelic alphabets show up in Christian cabala as well, and in medieval lore. There’s a mythic explorer named Aethicus Ister who supposedly traveled to the East and came back with this incredible alphabet that shows up in manuscripts all over Europe in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th Centuries. It showed up in Germany and in the British Isles, incredible. Think about what it means to have had a copy of that in medieval Europe. 

What about the runic alphabets?

Runes are an alphabetic form. They were invented in the early centuries of the Common Era and their form is taken from carving in wood, so they're very simple straight lines.

But the Germanic Futhark, like the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, both runic alphabets, follows the alphabetic letter order. There is fantastic scholarship on runes by a man named René Derolez, who wrote the definitive inventory of all runic manuscripts and their relationship to each other. Runes are fascinating, but they're part of the alphabet family. There are a couple of variants of runic alphabets – again, we would say runic scripts rather than alphabets. 

Runes are also related to ogham, which is an Irish innovation. What’s interesting is ideas can be transmitted, as well as forms. The idea of the alphabet, the idea of writing gets transmitted, so in some ways, the Futhark is building on the idea, but it does have an alphabet structure. 

How do you hope to open your readers’ eyes to the origins of the alphabet and the importance of this history? 

The book is also a history of knowledge [about] the alphabet. There are fantastic scholars of Semitic epigraphy, which is the study of inscriptions in Semitic languages, incredible archaeologists who recover remains [of language]. They can find some little scrap of ceramic that has one and a half signs on it, and they can identify the place, the date, the source of this particular pair of signs [to] help reorient the history of the alphabet. It’s like finding some little piece of DNA that says, “Between this chimp and this orangutan, there was this piece in between.” 

Incredible scholarship, but what no one has done is to trace the intellectual history. In other words, it would be like if you studied the history of education and you knew that there were principles that had to do with child-centered education, child psychology, development, and learning abilities. You had all the principles of education, but you never heard of Paulo Freire, you never heard of John Dewey. It’s as if the knowledge of the field has been lifted out of its history. 

What I’ve done is to go back and look at that whole, and all these intellectual lineages of knowledge, production and transmission. That’s why it took 40 years. (laughs) The amount of research just finding the references is so intense that I had been some of them tracking for years and years and years. What I said to a friend earlier today was that when I found the two-volume work by Isaac Taylor from 1899 on the shelf in Doe Library at Berkeley titled “The Alphabet.” I thought, “The one thing I want to do in my life as a scholar is to be sure that this intellectual lineage is brought forward to another generation, because it’s just all lost.” 

No one knew who Isaac Taylor was when I was working at the Beineke Library a couple years ago at the tail end of the research for this project. A very sophisticated knowledgeable curator of 18th Century studies who was working there had never heard of Thomas Astle. He was the Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London, and he wrote an amazing book, “The Origin and Progress of Writing,” and he’s another example of a figure whose work deserves to be known.

These are my intellectual forbears, this is my intellectual lineage. I want their work to be brought to light and passed forward. There’s a big emotional part of it for me in that sense. 


Visit these links for reviews of “Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters From Antiquity to the Present,” in Science Magazine and BBC History Magazine.