Richard Sproat (Linguistics/ECE, r w s at uiuc dot edu)
Jerry Packard (EALC/Linguistics, j - packard at uiuc dot edu)
|Dates:||9/7, 9/21, 10/5, 10/19, 11/2, 11/16, 11/30|
While Hannas' thesis will seem surprising to many, the idea that writing - and more generally language - can affect thought and ultimately culture is one with a long pedigree. One strand goes back to the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, famous for his hypothesis that the grammar of one's language affects the way one thinks about the world; Whorf's hypothesis is enjoying a renaissance of sorts among researchers, such as Levinson (2003), who study how semantic categories, such as space, are expressed in genetically unrelated and geographically separated languages.
The other strand, more particular to writing itself, can be traced through earlier works, such as de Kerckhove and Lumsden (1988), which presents the thesis that the birth of Western science and technology was a direct result of the development of the Greek alphabet.
Why should the form of one's writing system have anything to do with something as seemingly unrelated as creativity? The answer lies in the assumption that true alphabets, such as the Greek or Latin alphabet, which encode phonemes (segments), require a substantial amount of analysis on the part of the learner. Whereas syllables are thought to be natural units of sound, graspable even by illiterates, segments require special training, and it is this training that engenders creative thinking. Chinese writing, unlike Western alphabets, is a "morphosyllabic" system, where the individual characters basically represent whole syllables, with additional semantic information in many cases. Learning this system, Hannas argues, requires little analysis on the part of the learner, and thus readers of Chinese and Chinese-derived scripts are missing a crucial intellectual exercise which all Western readers are exposed to.
The goal of this reading group is to explore this hypothesis. Specifically, we will cover selections from literature outlined in the references section below.
The plan is to start with Hannas' own writings (1997, 2003), which will set the frame for the remainder of the readings. We will then delve back into the work of Whorf (1956), and examine some of the work of Levinson (2003), to see variants of the Whorfian hypothesis as it applies to language more generally.
Next we will examine the relation between alphabets and other writing systems, the linguistic information they encode, and the supposed effect of those encodings on other cognitive processes; this will include the works of de Kerckhove and Lumsden (1988), Faber (1992) and Scribner and Cole (1981).
There is an assumption underlying Hannas' thesis, namely that Asians do lack scientific and technological creativity, and thus that there is something to be explained. Hannas defends this idea by arguing, in his first few chapters, that the history of technological development in East Asia is a history of blatant copying of Western ideas. We will examine Hannas' arguments with a view to squaring his claims with apparent instances of highly creative activities in East Asian countries, such as the recent reports of human cloning by Korean scientists.
The first meeting will be an organizational meeting where the organizers will give a synopsis of Hannas' views, and copies of Hannas' book will be distributed. The subsequent meetings will involve detailed discussion among participants of Hannas' arguments. We will also be reading and discussing selected works from the references list below.
de Kerckhove, Derrick and Charles Lumsden, editors, 1988. The Alphabet and the Brain. Berlin: Springer.
Faber, Alice. 1992. "Phonemic segmentation as epiphenomenon. Evidence from the history of alphabetic writing." In Pamela Downing, Susan Lima, and Michael Noonan, editors, The Linguistics of Literacy, pages 111--34, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hannas, William. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Hannas, William. 2003. The writing on the wall: How Asian orthography curbs creativity. By William C. Hannas. Encounters with Asia. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Levinson, Stephen. 2003. Space in language and cognition: Explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scribner, Sylvia and Michael Cole. 1981. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
Sproat, Richard. 2004. "Review of William C. Hannas, The writing on the wall: How Asian orthography curbs creativity." Language, to appear.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956.