The Alphabet Effect

Did the alphabet uniquely advantage Western civilization by providing the foundation for intellectual achievements unavailable to non-alphabetic cultures? This is the core premise of the “alphabet effect theory.” Paul Grosswiler (“Dispelling the Alphabet Effect”, 2004) provides a useful overview of this controversy by documenting the long line of scholars who advanced this effect (Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Jack Goody to name just a few).

These scholars asserted that alphabetic literacy, unlike other writing systems (i.e. pictographs, ideograms), enabled Western civilization to advance in areas such as abstraction, logic, and rationality, and was the precondition for the rise of science and technological innovation. As Grosswiler notes, subsequent scholars (Jacques Gernet and Derk Bode) have demonstrated that Chinese, a non-alphabetic notation system, did not preclude the development of advanced systems and abstract thought (although it is arguable that these occurred in different timeframes than in Western societies).

Grosswiler charts the demise of the alphabetic effect as a dominant theory but also suggests that there is still evidence for a “writing effect.” It was not the alphabet that transformed these cultures but the effect of writing systems more generally. Alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems enabled their cultures to advance, in different ways, in different periods and timeframes. In The Psychology of Literacy (1981), Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole document their research with the Vai people of western Liberia and illustrate that something quite different is happening: that literacy itself did not bring about higher order skills and abilities (although formal schooling did).

How does all this influence our understanding of post-literacy? Perhaps the impact is best summarized by David Olson (The World on Paper, 1994): “is it possible that literacy is over-rated?


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