Alphabet need not have the last word

by Terence MacNamee

It is interesting to follow the evolution of computer culture in the Sinocentric world, where folks remain attached to their traditional way of writing, surely one of the great cultural achievements of humanity. To be sure, this way of writing was developed by and for the Imperial élite, not for the masses, but it is clear that it can be and is being learned in the elementary classroom.

On the eve of the computer revolution, Walter Ong declared that Chinese writing would obviously have to go, because it couldn’t be fit on a typewriter keyboard. Well, in the meantime, it turns out that there are plenty of ways you can type Chinese on a computer keyboard, including input methods based on the shape of the character. They are even developing ways to write it “calligraphically” on a touch screen. (There is obviously more incentive to work on handwriting recognition applications in the East than in the West!) Anyway, it seems unfair to condemn a writing system because it does not immediately fit in with technologies developed for the Western alphabet.

The Asian developments in fact represent an opportunity to rethink our whole Western dependence on the alphabet, and our insistence on thinking of everything under the sun in terms of alphabetic metaphors. Scholars like the late Anne-Marie Christin have been questioning whether the alphabet is really the summit of human achievement as Western writers have invariably supposed. This is a line of thinking that started with Derrida and his criticism of the “logocentric” bias of the West.

These days, young Chinese are able to read popular fiction on their cell phones precisely because the Chinese text containing one character per word is more compact. This may sound trivial, but it is an example of Chinese characters being more suitable to a particular technology than the Western alphabet is.

As regards writing on a computer, using the modern input systems Chinese speakers are able to use more characters than they would otherwise remember, though this has a downside: it seems they need to make an effort to keep up their calligraphy skills – unlike Westerners who have cheerfully abandoned handwriting although this may not be good for their brains in the long run.

To sum up: the encounter between Western technology and Eastern writing culture, far from meaning the ultimate “triumph of the alphabet”, is an opportunity to rethink the issues involved and to develop new ways for the writer and the reader to handle written language.