Phonics - the lever of civilisation.

June 25, 2019

The evolution of oppositional thumbs and an erect stature have been fundamental developments in mankind, but when the ancients suggested that “speech is the difference of man” they were highlighting the one dominant factor that separates homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom; the quantum leap performed by humankind that truly divorces man from beast: language (McLuhan and Logan, 1977).



This ability to communicate specific ideas and detailed, diverse information almost certainly initially developed with gestural communication, the remnants of which humans still employ today (McNeil, 1992).  However, the need to communicate at greater distances and through a means that did not distract busy, tool-utilising hands, necessitated the involvement and improvisation of primates’ oral capacity (McNeil, 2000).  This necessitated a three-fold adaptation.  Firstly, within the structure of the throat; the hyoid bone on the underside of the chin in humans is uniquely ridged and supported by a series of finely-tuned muscles that connect to the tongue, the mouth floor, the pharynx and the epiglottis indicating adaptation for the unique purpose of speech (Rutherford, 2016).  Secondly, the human brain has a refined zone within it, the Broca’s (1864) area, adapted for the cognitive complexity of language and thirdly, humans have the communication gene FOXP2, present in all primates but in humans adapted with a unique protein sequence enabling speech (Rutherford, 2016).  As the development of speech is archaeologically invisible, it is almost impossible to date its induction into the primate communication paradigm except through this anatomical and genetic analysis.  Archaeological study of the advancement of the structures of the throat and lips suggests that diverse language was only possible from one hundred thousand years ago (Jablonski and Aiello, 1998).


This had a profound impact on the ability of humans to survive in a hostile environment for which they had few, if any, physical advantages, as it enabled a socio-centric, cooperative group dynamic to develop (Haidt, 2013).  Even more profound was the cognitive impact on humans.  Spoken language structures the way that man engages with the world both cognitively, perceptually and communicatively (Whorf and Caroll, 1956).  Thus, with the spoken word, humans were able to cultivate the concept of abstraction.  Althusser (2017, p51) saw language as ‘the first abstraction’: a fundamental hinge for humanity’s philosophical, and by implication cognitive, development.  A word, he argued, possesses the existence of abstraction because its non-figurative sound is an intellection of its association with the actual entity it designates. Thus, through this abstraction from object or thought to sound and the oral communication of that entity, the ability to speak developed into the foremost means of interaction, enabling a profound advance in cognitive development for humankind. 


Nonetheless, oral communication fades instantly (Schmandt-Besserat, 1996), is limited to the capacity and retrieval accuracy of the brain’s long-term memory and is hampered by an inability to record ideas, concepts and information and transmit these over temporal and geographical distances.  The next great quantum leap in human development occurred with the development of writing which, as Breasted (1926) noted, ‘had a greater influence on uplifting the human race than any other intellectual achievement in the career of man’.  When poet Fancisco de Quevedo (2017) wrote that books enabled him to have ‘a conversation with the deceased, and listen to the dead with my eyes,’ he articulated the power of the written word to record, preserve and share human intellectual ideas and endeavours.  Indeed, the boundary between history and prehistory is defined by the existence, or otherwise, of written artefacts (Rutherford, 2006). This power to ‘transmit language at a distance in space or time’ (Istrin, 1953, p109) enhanced man’s capacity for abstract thinking as it involved what Althusser (2017, p52) referred to as a ‘double abstraction’ which occurred when encoding an entity to sound and sound to symbol and the reverse process of abstractions when decoding.  Writing, as Schmandt-Besserat (1996, p1) pronounced, ‘changed the human condition.’


Oral communication developed over an evolutionary period of millions of years and is biologically primary (Geary, 2007) in that it requires no didactic instruction.  Writing, on the other hand, according to Geary (2007) is biologically secondary, that is to say it cannot be learned through cognitive osmosis, must be taught and studied and was cultivated and refined over a relatively short period of five thousand years.  The implication is therefore that the human brain did not evolve to write but that writing has evolved to the constraints of the evolved human brain (Dehaene, 2014).


Writing systems and the corresponding ability to decode those systems and thus decipher meaning was developed by different civilisations at different times, in different places and for different reasons.  The manner of the recorded communication was crucial to societal, administrative and military expansion.  Innis (1953) argued that writing upon stone and clay facilitated the control of communication over time, thus enabling bureaucratic systems to develop, whereas the invention of parchment and paper added geographical control to this temporal command with the ease of transportation of records and communicated thoughts resulting in profound military advantages (McLuhan and Logan, 1977).


Nonetheless, the specific individual writing systems that developed had a profound effect upon those individual civilisations, their development, their societies and their influence both in terms of the contemporaneous power they were able to exert but also in terms of their intellectual, philosophical, economic and social legacy.  Furthermore, the complexities and sophistications within those coded systems and the associated and specific resultant cognitive demands afforded significant cultural leverage within and across civilisations both in terms of time and space (Havelock, 1976).  The extent of this leverage was further dependent on the complexity and universality of the coding and decoding paradigm exclusive to specific systems.  One system in particular enabled such economic and political advantage that it bequeathed the descendants of those who developed it and adapted it the dominant world position for three millennia.  The effects of this advantage still resonate today.


Before writing systems developed, humans cultivated the ability to characterise objects in their literal configuration through representational graphic forms (Dehaene, 2014).  The first evidence we have of these are the cave paintings in Chauvet in southern France which date from 33,000 years ago.  These images reveal an already sophisticated ability in our ancestors to represent objects and animals with a few significant marks.  They exhibit an advance from the need for laborious three-dimensional representation of animals and objects by employing an economy of marks to reproduce the holistic experience (Dehaene, 2014).  Although not a fully formed abstraction (Althusser, 2017), it was this shift in communication from descriptive art to an ideographic representation of an object that was seen by Leroi-Gourhan (1993) as one of the great advances towards a written code.  The first evidence of Althusser’s (2017) abstraction appears in sites in Mesopotamia dating back to 8000 BC, not as symbols of language but as mathematical notation (Schmandt-Besserat, 1996) in the form of abstract calculi representing numerical units and arithmetic bases.  This development from literal representation through the use of ‘tokens’ (Schmand-Besserat, 1996) to mathematical abstractions is seemingly a vital stage in the evolution of a written code as the birth of the Mayan writing system in South America, completely independent of any other writing system, also has its conception in calculation and calendric systems (Leroi-Gourhan, 1993). 


All writing systems began as ideographic systems where the idea of an entity, whether tangible or intangible, is characterized by a symbol (McLuhan and Logan, 1977) with these symbols originating initially as highly representational resemblances.  Nonetheless, whilst symbols held inherent representation of the entity there existed the conundrum of interpretation with the resulting mutation of the symbol and the proliferation of different versions of the symbol.  This led to stylisation, a move away from pictography and the acceptance of the symbol into convention and a developed single orthography (Dehaene, 2016).  The problem of drawing pictures of abstract ideas and intangible concepts further undermined the efficacy and sustainability of pictograms.  In fact, pictograms and logographs never developed beyond accounting systems and never fully evolved into complex writing systems as a result of these terminal shortcomings.


The first evidence of a recordable code for language suggests it was developed by the Sumer civilisation in the fourth millennia BC in Mesopotamia (Daniels and Bright, 1996).  Initially this was an entirely logographic encoding system focusing exclusively on meaning.  However, as the number of pictograms and logographs increased they discovered a fatal flaw in the representational code: the capacity of the human memory.  Humans have an evolved genetic disposition for language (Rutherford, 2013) but an upper limit for the memorisation of representations of about two thousand individual symbols (Willingham, 2009).  With about fifty thousand words in common usage, a logographic code with one-to-one word to symbol correspondence was clearly not serviceable.  Undaunted, the Sumerians economised the code (Kramer, 1963) with logographs representing groups of words and related words along with symbols for categories of meanings, but no matter how efficiently they employed their logographs they kept sidling over the limits of human memory.


Something clearly had to give and it was at this juncture that the ancient Sumerian scholars underwent a dramatic damascene moment: what if symbols represented sounds? This profound epiphany could have led to the Sumerian civilisation and its descendants dominating world culture for millennia.  Sadly,  for them, they took a calamitous wrong turn, for instead of applying symbols to the smallest individual sounds, they applied them to the smallest unit of sound: the syllable (Kramer, 1963).  Nonetheless, this enabled them to create a far more efficient coding system, for they discovered that their language had far fewer syllables than words which thus required far fewer symbols and kept them well within the limits of the human memory.  This could have enabled the first efficient syllabic coding system to have evolved but the Sumerians were cursed by their logographic past for they now had a mixed, and contradictory, code that included syllabic symbols for sound as well as historic logographic symbols and was so complex that only the few select academic elite could possible master it (Crystal, , 1995).  Universal literacy was thus never a possibility.


Almost a thousand years later and thousands of miles removed, the Chinese developed a coding system based on almost identical concepts and adaptions as the Sumerians.  Starting with logographic representations, their code developed a syllabic structure resulting in the categorisation of around two thousand three hundred tonal syllables and their assigned symbols Stevenson et al., 1982).  However, the frequency of homophones required further refinement for differentiation with the resulting use of around two hundred classifiers that are forged with the syllable sign for the writing of words.  Chinese is thus learnable (with a good memory) with considerable schooling and practice, but it is highly complex and why Chinese students are still learning to read and write well into their teenage years (Dehaene, 2014).  It is perhaps this inconsistent complexity that, despite huge historical technological advantages, prevented the eastern civilisations dominating science and culture on a worldwide scale.


At the same time that the Sumerians were developing their writing system, Egyptian writing was evolving along similar lines but with even more erratic complexity (Bridge, 2003). Their hieroglyphic script employed pictograms, logographs, category determiners and sound-based symbols which they integrated with such random abandon as to ensure that only the very few were able to access it.  The privileging of the aesthetic over the practical guaranteed these ‘few’ high status, regular employment and economic stability and longevity; the archetypal hegemony and habitus four thousand years in advance of Gramsci (2014) and Bordieu (Silva and Warde, 2012).


These sentries of entitlement complicated Egyptian writing even further.  With Egypt’s extensive trading links, the writing code was forced to expand to encrypt numerous foreign names and places that could not be accommodated by their system either logographically or syllabically.  A further code was designed to accommodate these irregularities.  The only way the scholars could absorb the irregular foreign languages was to assign a symbol to an individual sound (Diringer, 1968).  This new code required twenty-two symbols that represented the twenty-two individual sounds that could be combined to codify the foreign names.  Unbeknown to them, the scholars were within touching distance of making a quantum leap in the encoding of language. 


They had invented the first rudimentary alphabet. Unfortunately for their civilisation and its legacy, they were completely unaware of the potential of the seismic discovery upon which they had stumbled.


Others were not so wasteful.  The Seirites, a Semitic tribe that mined copper in the Sanai desert for the Egyptians, adopted the twenty-two consonant symbols and used it to codify their own language (Coulmas, 1993).  As a trading people, their code was exposed to numerous partners in the Levant and its efficacy and economy meant it soon spread through the middle-east via the Hebrews and Phoenicians and as far as the Indian sub-continent.  It was eventually adopted by the foremost economic, military and intellectual powerhouse in Europe: the Greek's. They added the final piece to the alphabetic jigsaw.


The twenty-two symbol Semitic code included only consonants which ensured that not all sounds could be codified.  In 700BC the Greeks added vowels to the code and created the fully phonetic alphabet (Dehaene, 2013).  This was the Copernican moment for encoding sound and thus enriched, the alphabet spread to other cultures and was the basis of all western alphabets including the one we use today.  The Greeks had invented the most sophisticated writing programme ever devised (McLuhan and Logan, 1977).  They were now able to transcribe unambiguously and accurately the spoken words of any language using fewer than thirty symbols.  What was even more profound, was that this system operated well within the confines of the human memory and was thus learnable by anyone with access to a proficient teacher.  Universal literacy was now a possibility.  The alphabet was invented only once in human history and has not been improved upon (Havelock, 1976).  


The Greeks reaped rich returns for their brilliant brainchild not least because of the intellectual gymnastics required and the resultant cognitive rewards (Diringer, 1968).  The encoding of language by use of the alphabet required a triple abstraction (Althusser, 2017).  The spoken word represented an entity; a single abstraction.  The written word denoted the spoken word which represented the entity; a double abstraction.  The individual letters signified the sounds that denoted the word that represented the entity; a triple abstraction.  The phonetic alphabet served as a paradigm for the process of abstraction.  The spoken word was broken into its constituent parts by semantically meaningless phonemes which were in turn represented by meaningless letters.  With these abstractions came literacy.  The Greeks saw that abstractions and abstract thought could bring order to their universe and with order came logic and with logic came reason (Havelock, 1963).  It is no coincidence that within three hundred years of the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the Greeks had shifted away from an oral tradition based on myths and had laid the foundations for logic, science, philosophy, psychology, history, political science and individualism (McLuhan and Logan, 1977). 


Within the Greek phonetic alphabet every word was separated into its smallest constituent sounds represented by letters thus providing the model for classification and analysis and the basis for logic.  The influence on science was similarly profound as the alphabet served as a wider model for separation and divisibility.  Havelock (1963) attributes Democritus’ theory of atomisation to its analogy with the alphabet; if language could be divided into its component parts, then material could be as well – the inception of the philosophy of materialism.  Furthermore, nature was regarded as separable and abstracted from man and his artefacts and therefore investigable.  This divisibility was extrapolated even further by the Greeks.  With writing, knowledge and ideas were estranged from the writer and took on an objective detachment.  The knower was no longer the possessor of that knowledge.  This concept of objectivity enabled the conception of the scientific method and philosophical rationality and the dichotomy with the subjectivity applied to art and poetry (Havelock, 1963).


Despite the East’s huge advantages in terms of technological progress – the invention of gunpowder, metallurgy, paper, ink, printing, moveable type - the effects of the phonetic alphabet and the abstract, rational and methodical thought that it encouraged explains why science began in the West (Diringer, 1968).  Phonetic writing was essential to the intellectual development of the West by catalysing burgeoning literacy and objective thinking.  No such development occurred in the East (McLuhan and Logan, 1977) where literacy was the exclusive reserve of the highly educated, and by implication privileged and where writing did not develop beyond a syllabic code.


The phonetic alphabet’s revelation of divisibility, classification, universality and abstraction along with widespread literacy and the recording and sharing of ideas promoted rationality (Breasted, 1926).  If all elements could be atomised then so could society.  Plato separated the individual from society (Havelock, 1963): Individualism was born.  All other world societies evolved socio-centric organisational models (Haidt, 2013).  Conversely, the West, that inherited its philosophy from the Greeks, privileged the individual over all else liberating logic, reason, rationality and enabling classification and abstraction in tandem: ‘cogito ergo sum’ (Descates, 2015). The result was the West’s economic, military, scientific, philosophical and cultural dominance of the world for three thousand years.


By enabling the encoding, recording, storing, decoding and sharing of information and ideas; by promoting atomisation, analysis and objectivity, the phonetic alphabet has been the single most influential innovation in the development of modern civilisation and its resonance continues to reverberate into the digital age (Cherry, 1982).  It is the lever of civilisation and the ‘mother of invention’ (McLuhan and Logan, 1977, p373).


Foniks iz krazie?  Phonics is power.




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