The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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Orality, Literacy and the Tradition
Thomas F. Bertonneau (MA 45:2, Spring 2003) - 11/04/08

I want to discuss what I take to be the basic, or the deep, justification of the traditional curriculum. By “the traditional curriculum,” I mean the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and items from modern and national literatures. I would be perfectly happy to endorse the list in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1997). But I also mean by “the traditional curriculum” the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind.

It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a very recent development in the half million years or so of incontestable human presence. The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia. Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done I shall try to indicate in what follows. That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western tradition, is not a thought that most of us are used to thinking. (On the contrary, we take the alphabet for granted.) Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABC’s anew.

Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element of human experience—speech—and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective. Our confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of, our confrontation with, what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait: language. I will begin, then, at the beginning.



Barry B. Powell, in his Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991), postulates an individual whom he calls the adapter. A Euboean Greek of the early eighth century b.c., the adapter, in Powell’s words, “took from a Phoenician informant an abecedarium and created from it his own system” of writing.1The adapter learned from his informant that each regular stipple of the Phoenician consonantal alphabet represented a particular recurrent syllable of the Phoen-ician language. Powell imagines the adapter as patiently asking the informant how one would write this or that Greek word, beginning with the names of persons and places. The pairings-up of stipples and sounds so generated through the collaboration corresponded with imperfect exactness, of course; and the adapter likely found himself further handicapped in not understanding his col-laborator’s language and so in not hearing it with any great accuracy. The Greek ear, Powell argues, would have been “ill-attuned to the different phonemes of Semitic speech.”2

The adapter’s appropriation of Phoenician characters to represent the sounds of spoken Greek entailed, then, many small inconsistencies. Indeed, when he had found rough correlation between the foreign characters and the consonants of Greek, he noticed that several marks remained—so he decided to employ five of them to indicate the Greek vowels. That was the stroke, as Powell reminds us, that made the Greek alphabet the first genuine alphabet, and so established the alphabetic—that is to say, the phonetic—principle as the basis of Western literacy. The alphabet rapidly made reading and writing available to large numbers of people. Unlike earlier systems of recording language graphically, the alphabet required only the minimum of study, and it could be used to represent any language, as its swift adoption by the Etruscans and then by the Latin-speaking neighbors of the Etruscans shows.

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By This Author
LeMay, Curtis

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