Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of writing systems – logographic and alphabetic.
A logographic system is one in which the basic units of the written language are symbols that represent words and syllables. Examples of logographic scripts are Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, Sumerian and Vietnamese Han tu – all obsolete now. There are, however, many living languages which still feature a logographic system – for example, Chinese Hanzi, Japanese Kanji and Korean Hanja.
Alphabetic script has a system of writing where the words are composed of symbols that represent both vowel and consonant sounds and are combined to form full words. Amongst alphabetic languages are many ancient scripts like Avestan – which was the script and language used in Zoroastrian scripture. Many African languages are alphabetic, as are Arabic, Egyptian Coptic, Cyrillic (which forms the basis of Russian and most languages of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia like Mongolia), Latin and Greek (giving us most European languages), Hindi and ancient defunct languages like Etruscan and Ogham.
OK – that’s all very interesting, I hear you say, but who cares? What difference does it make?
Well, there is a theory called, the Alphabet Effect, that argues that the type of script you use promotes certain skills over others.
The Toronto School of Communication – Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter Ong and Robert K. Logan, believe that the use of alphabetic scripts have promoted certain skills – such as abstract thought, deductive logic, encoding, decoding, analysis and classification – in the West. They suggest that cultures with logographic scripts – like the Chinese – tend to be more holistic and practical in their inventions, while cultures with alphabetic scripts tend to be more abstract.
An autocatalytic process is one that catalyzes itself into a positive feedback loop so that once the process starts, even as a fluctuation, it begins to accelerate and build so that a new phenomenon emerges. The emergence of language and conceptual thought is an example of an autocatalytic process. A set of words work together to create a structure of meaning and thought. Each word shades the meaning of the next thought and the next words. Words and thoughts are both catalysts and products of thoughts and words. Language and conceptual thought is an emergent phenomena. It bootstraps itself into existence. (1)
It is, of course, a much disputed hypothesis, as it carries with it the idea that one type of development – or script – is superior to another. While, I don’t claim to be an expert in the Alphabet Effect (or indeed any sustem of written language), it does strike me that perhaps the dominance of Western societies in science and technology has a lot to do with maths as well as language.
The idea of zero and mathematics as we know it was invented by Hindu and Buddhist mathematicians over two thousand years ago and developed by Islamic scholars (all alphabetic script cultures admittedly). It strikes me that linear and abstract though it is, maths is similar to a logographic script in that it is formed of symbols and formulas ($, +, % – for example) that carry a complete meaning and are universally understood.
Western societies had the developmental benefit of training in abstract thought, deductive logic and analysis courtesy of their alphabet and they then were able to combine this with a logographic mathematical system.
Which would seem to me to have trained both sides of their brains more effectively and therefore allowed for more growth and development.
Or maybe not – that’s just my conclusion having read about these theories. What do you think?
(1) Robert K. Logan, The Extended Mind Model of the Origin of Language and Culture. – http://www.physics.utoronto.ca/people/homepages/logan/gontier3.htm