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The Alphabetic Labyrinth: Letters in History and Imagination Hardcover – 1 Apr 1995
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Historical personalities suffer from factual errors too. There are too many to mention them all but a typical example is Drucker telling the reader that Charlemagne's "illiteracy" is a "well established fact"; whereas his contemporary biographer, Alcuin of York, did say that Charlemagne never mastered his letters, but he also said Charlemagne could "speak Latin and read Greek": Dyslexic maybe, but illiterate; an opinion at best and most certainly not a well established fact.
Drucker doesn't double check her sources so their mistakes become hers, and as a result everything she says must be taken with a large dose of scepticism. This is a pity, not only because of the book's first class typography and excellent illustrations, but also because of the sections on the more esoteric and occult uses of alphabets are very interesting indeed, and Drucker is a good writer who's enthusiasm is put across with clarity and wit. In spite of its failings it is a very good and entertaining read, and worth buying for that alone - but alas not to be trusted in its conclusions, facts, or used as an authoritive reference work.Read more ›
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Those who wish a more sober account of the alphabet's history, and tracing the family tree of the various alphabetic scripts, will get more mileage out of David Diringer's -The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind-. The information presented in this book, however, is interesting, if only for the fanciful ideas various people have devised around the alphabet.
My copy seems to have a number of typographical errors and other mistakes in it. A long passage discusses the thought of "Marcos the Gnostic." From the context I am reasonably certain that Marcion, not "Marcos," was intended. The people of Mount Seir in the Bible are identified in the book with Kenites and Midianites; if my memory serves me, the inhabitants of Mount Seir were Edomites and Horites. These mistakes tend to make me less inclined to trust the many passages that present data that is entirely new to me.
chapter of Johanna Drucker's The Alphabetic
Labyrinth: The Letters in History and
Imagination is enough to convince any reader
that Drucker's work is aptly named. For
instance, Chapter 5 focuses first on the
script of Medieval documents, then on the
decorated letters of the same period, and on
to runes, alchemical alphabets, and the "Ars
Combinatoria." This is no easy journey, and
the twists, turns, and switchbacks are enough
to stagger even the most fearless of
polymaths. It is indeed a labyrinth--but one
worth the effort. The illustrations
(albeit all in black and white and/or blue)
make this book worthy of attention. But
leafing through the book only to look at the
illustrations would be to miss Drucker's
point--the alphabet is a sinuous vine,
twisting its way around the entire history of
civilization, and it continues to wind its
way into human imagination in the present.
In Chapter 5 (or would "V" be more
appropriate?), Drucker begins by reminding us
that ". . . in the centuries following the
decline of the Roman Empire . . . [t]he
activity of writing shifted emphasis--from the
carving of monumental inscriptions,writing
of classical poetry, and recording of legal
and biblical texts--to the copying of
religious and classical texts within the
province of religious communities" (94).
This is an example of the subtle way in
which Drucker encourages her readers to
remember that "Imagination" is part of the
title of her book--upon reading those
words I was immediately reminded of Eco's
NAME OF THE ROSE, and I'm sure many of
Drucker's statements inspire such thoughts
in the minds of other readers. After
discussing several scripts (or "hands") of
the Middle Ages, Drucker then walks readers
through the different styles of letter
decoration as illustrated by several
beautiful examples of medieval documents.
Drucker then leads the reader into a brief
discussion of runes and ogham which began as
legitimate forms of writing but came to have
"magical properties" (116), as have other
forms of alphabet throughout history. Drucker
then briefly discusses missionary and
alchemical alphabets, missionary alphabets
having been developed to transcribe holy texts
into the languages spoken by peoples with whom
the missionary worked and alchemical alphabets
being ". . . a code to order elements in
alchemical operations and . . . to conceal
the knowledge of secret processes in an
unreadable and arcane form" (120).
Next, Drucker performs one of the many
switchbacks she negotiates in her text by
discussing ancient and celestial alphabets,
celestial alphabets being "derived from
observation of configurations of stars in the
heavens which can be `read' as a form of
sacred writing" (125). Her final discussion
in Chapter 5 is reserved for the 13th Century
Catalan Raymond Llull, whose work later
resulted in the "Ars Combinatoria," a
systematization of systems so that they
functioned as an abstract network of
knowledge and process" (127).
Drucker has an unfortunate habit of using
difficult terminology several times before
defining/explaining it for her less erudite
reader (for instance, the word uncial is
used several times before it is finally
defined on page 94); however, this
compendium of alphabet history--Eurocentric
though it is--exhibits awareness of the
alphabets of non-Western cultures and exhibits
the depth of Drucker's understanding of her
subject. She invites the reader to explore
arcane subject areas connected with alphabets
and, in many cases, provides the material for
wonderful flights of the imagination.
The path the author uses to unravel the history of the search for the origins of the alphabet in this chapter is devoid of the discussions of symbolism that are the focus of the book's subsequent chapters. The chapters that follow Chapter II are concerned with values and meanings that have been attributed to letters of the alphabet based upon their visual shape. It is in these subsequent chapters that the author examines both the philosophical and cosmological beliefs and the mystic or ritual powers that have been assigned to letters of the alphabet. While these discussions are the main purpose of this book, Drucker uses Chapter II to piece together the history of the alphabet from the evidence of archaeological excavations and the study of linguistics.
Drucker states at the beginning of this chapter that the origins of alphabets have been a source of dispute since at least Classical Greek times. To give evidence of the early disputes, the author cites both Herodotus' statement that the alphabet of the Greeks developed as a result of cross cultural borrowing from the Phoenicians and Plato's belief that the Phoenician letters could be traced to the Egyptian god Thoth. Thus the dispute falls between those who thought the alphabet a man made technology and those who thought that the alphabet was a gift from a divine source.
Drucker presents a view of the ancient world and the development of the written alphabet that moves us past our western belief that "all that was Greek was great" to an appreciation of the fact that the Greeks only modified an extant Semitic writing form, the Phoenician alphabet, in order to meet the phonemes of their spoken language. Drucker goes on to provide information that allows the reader to see that the Phoenician alphabet was itself a distillation of written forms from several cultures in the general Sinai region including Egypt and Sumeria. This chapter also explains that although the hieroglyphs of Egypt were pictograms, most of the pictograms did not represent words, as was once believed. Most hieroglyphs actually represent distinct sounds of ancient Egyptian speech, and thus, were phonemes. Nor were hieroglyphs the only form of Egyptian writing; the Egyptians had also developed cursive writing forms that existed alongside hieroglyphics and served different writing purposes.
Drucker sees the Phoenician alphabet as the most direct source of all the alphabets in use today and her final illustration in this chapter (p.48) is a chart that depicts her rendition of the linguistic development of alphabets. This chart gives visual scope to the spread and variety of the alphabets through history. The strongest evidence that Greek, and thus most western alphabets, owe their origins to the Semitic languages that eventually evolve into Phoenician is the fact that the names of Greek letters are actually the names of Semitic letters and have no meaning in Greek.
Drucker's path through history is not straight and she discusses the dead ends into which theory has led us as well as many theories that have been determined to be incorrect. In taking this approach, Drucker gives us an insight into both the creation of knowledge and the importance of our own personal lenses in that creation. Drucker ends her historical journey where she began in ancient history, but she uses the archaeological evidence from 19th and 20th century excavations and developments in linguistics to move past speculation on the origins of the alphabet to an archeologically and linguistically supported view of the complex development of alphabets.
Drucker's illustrations do much to support the text, but are often difficult to decipher due to their diminutive size; it is not that illustrations on a larger scale would have made Phoenician or Hebrew script any more decipherable to the lay reader, but it might have been easier to discern some of the points discussed in the text. I also feel that expanded captions would have made it easier to relate the illustrations to the text. Many of the illustrations are charts that scholars of the alphabet used in order to show their personal rationale of the relationships between different alphabets. While these charts are very interesting, those of us who are not experts in linguistics or alphabet history might have benefited from captions that give the reader a clue as to which of the charts represent relationships believed to be valid and which represent theories that have been proven incorrect.
While this book appears to be written for a scholarly audience and often requires the use of a dictionary for those of us not well versed in the subject, this chapter is worth the effort for anyone with even just a passing interest in the history of the development of the world's alphabets.
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