The Alphabet: Simplified, but Is It Really Simple?

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"It is easy to see why pre-Greek systems never got further than the syllable.  This 'piece' of linguistic sound is actually pronounceable and so empirically perceptible.  The consonants by strict definition are by themselves 'dumb,' 'mute,' 'unpronounceable'...The Greek system got beyond empiricism, by abstracting the nonpronounceable, nonperceptible elements contained in the syllables.  We not style these elements 'con-sonants'...Their creation separated out an unpronounceable component of linguistic sound and gave it visual identity...In so doing they for the first time supplied our species with a visual representation of linguistic noise that was both economical and exhaustive: a table of atomic elements which by grouping themselves in an inexhaustible variety of combinations can with reasonable accuracy represent any actual linguistic noise.  The invention also supplied the first and last instrument perfectly constructed to reproduce the range of previous orality."

--From page 60 Eric A. Havelock's chapter 7, "Speech Put in Storage," of his book The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present


I thought that this quote from Havelock's book is very interesting because it touches a lot upon ideas we have discussed in class so far, as well as upon ideas that deal with my future career as an Elementary teacher.  First, it is amazing to think about the actual creation of writing.  I am sure it, like many inventions, was a product of necessity, but the above development of the written word by the Greeks is even more amazing because of the difficulty in creating a written language that would economically but accurately emulate speech. 

However, when you consider how arbitrarily a symbol could be applied to a sound, and how symbols could never fully recreate the sound, one can understand Plato's Socrates' disdain for the written word.  In an excerpt of Plato's Phaedrus in Tribble and Trubek's Writing Material, Socrates says, "you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth...they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality" (362).  Although Socrates is referring to the loss of memory and true learning when the context is taken into account, these specific words also show that Socrates'/Plato's beliefs or commentary could be applied to the lack of the sensory experience that is available in oral discussion but not in print.  Although Havelock points out that the Greek alphabet was a great advancement that has helped in the transmission of very important works and information from the ancient past to people today, as well as has influenced our own alphabet, it still cannot independently provide the experience of the spoken word.  

Although the effects of the Greek alphabet are important and necessary to the way we communicate today, we have to admit that there are characteristics of our alphabet that make it difficult to learn.  Think about how long it takes to learn how to read.  Even at the college level, we often mispronounce words or do not know the meanings of them.  Our alphabet may be efficient, but as Socrates points out, it does somewhat limit what we know.  

Because of this difficulty, as well as many others that I will not address here, word memorization is less relied upon in the teaching field as a means of teaching reading.  Phonemic and phonic awareness is more important.  Some programs have even been created that does not follow the traditional English alphabet.  One of these programs (I unfortunately cannot remember the name and could not find an example of the alphabet online without the specific name of the program) uses an alphabet that is phonetically designed.  This alphabet contains more than the normal 26 letters.  For instance, it includes an "hw" sound, because this is the proper way to pronounce words like "whale," as well as other similar looking letters.  The alphabet picture card has all of these letters with pictures underneath.  This is almost a return to some of the pre-Greek systems, but many professional educators use this program.  Another program is called Direct Instruction and is often used in Special Education.  This program, especially when students begin to learn to read sentences and phrases, features pictorial clues such as dots, arrows, and connected letters (for instance the "th" is connected at first) as well as verbal cues like taping or clicking to illicit the response and cue phrases like "Get ready" to prepare the student for reading.  Both of these programs complicate the simplified alphabetic style that was created by the Greeks, but they do so to facilitate learning and both are eventually, and ideally, phased out to allow for popularized print. 

I think that the use of these sorts of programs, as well as Socrates' remarks about the written word, show us that writing, although efficient, is also has some problems.  Not only can the real oral word not be truly expressed only in writing, but the simplified print makes it difficult to learn to read because there is so much distance between the abstract symbol in a flat world and the oral word in a sensory world.


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