Dr. Johanna Drucker Traces the Origins of the Alphabet

August 30, 2022 By Eric Ely-Ledesma. PhD Candidate

Free Public Lecture – 4:30 P.M. Tuesday, September 20 at the Chazen Museum of Art Auditorium

“A B C D E F G…Now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me?” If you grew up in the United States, chances are you are familiar with the alphabet song. Apart from learning your ABCs as a child, how much further thought have you given to the foundation of our communication system?

Cover of Dr. Drucker’s latest book, Inventing the Alphabet,  (University of Chicago Press, 2022)

The alphabet is so fundamental it is easy to take for granted, but it has a rich story. Dr. Johanna Drucker, the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, traces the history of the alphabet and our contemporary understanding of its origins and development in her new book, Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present (University of Chicago Press, Jul 26, 2022).

The Friends of UW-Madison Libraries are pleased to welcome Dr. Drucker – whose research interests lay at the confluence of printmaking, visual arts, design, and book history – to campus for a talk Tuesday, September 20 at the Chazen Museum of Art Auditorium. Her remarks will begin at 4:30, with a reception at 5:30 that includes refreshments and book-signing opportunities.

Inventing the Alphabet is the product of decades-long work stemming from Dr. Drucker’s time in the stacks at Doe Library while she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1980s. Drucker explains, “The freedom to access these stacks was an unparalleled opportunity. I learned by reading through whole neighborhoods of call numbers. A single card catalogue reference could introduce me to an entire field of study once I arrived in front of the shelves.” Dr. Drucker rates libraries’ abundance of resources and the ability to explore collections as among the most significant foundational elements in her scholarly formation.

Throughout her professional career, Dr. Drucker has had the privilege to build on her initial experiences as a student at Doe Library as she conducted research within libraries at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Virginia, and UCLA. In addition to the wonders her privileged access to libraries afforded, Dr. Drucker also indicates her experiences have made clear the sheer abundance of resources housed in libraries across the country and the world: “This field [historical bibliographical studies] is so vast, and combines so many disciplines, that I could continue to research for the rest of my life without exhausting the riches to be revealed.”

Charles Forster, The One Primeval Alphabet, (London: 1851)
Willem Goeree, Voor-bereidselen tot de bybelsche wysheid […], (Amsterdam: 1690), Coptic Alphabet; engraved by Jan Van Luyken. 

In examining the historical development of the alphabet, Dr. Drucker considers the ways in which scholars’ understanding has changed given advances in archaeological and epigraphical (study of inscriptions) methods. As a part of the narrative Dr. Drucker constructs, she discusses the political aspect of this history, pointing out the Semitic origins of the modern alphabet, “are often ignored in favor of asserting that the Greeks created the alphabet as a superior form of writing and that this gave rise to philosophy, democracy, literature, and other classical contributions to Western culture.”

In Inventing the Alphabet, Dr. Drucker shares some of this wealth as she produces a narrative that traces the ways knowledge and belief shaped the understanding of writing since the invention of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet by Semitic speaking people in the ancient Near East nearly four thousand years ago. This alpha-numeric system is the foundation of language groups in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas and, except for character-based scripts (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, & Korean) nearly all writing in use today derives from that single source.

This narrative brings Dr. Drucker full circle to her beginning days as a graduate student in Doe Library in 1980: “The books I found there on the history of the alphabet revealed to me a complex history – not just of the alphabet itself, but of the intellectual traditions through which that history was transmitted.” In Inventing the Alphabet, Dr. Drucker completes her decades long mission to, “expose and codify the largely forgotten lineage of extensive scholarship that tracks back in Western culture to antiquity and the ancient Near East.”

Students follow along with the lecture on their laptop computers in Chemistry 103 in Agricultural Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the first morning of classes for the Fall semester on Sept. 8, 2021.(Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW-Madison)

But Inventing the Alphabet does not look exclusively in the past: The alpha-numeric notation [the alphabet] is the basis of the global internet communication system that we use every day. In the twenty-first century, we are the recipients and users of an alphabet developed over millennia. Dr. Drucker delights is demonstrating that “everywhere, the legacy of this history and of scholarship in the field remains. This is living history fed by the riches of the archive as well as the physical objects still being discovered.”

Please join the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries in welcoming Dr. Johanna Drucker to campus on September 20 at 4:30 P.M. at the Chazen Art Museum Auditorium, 750 University Avenue in Madison. The in-person talk will also be recorded.

R.S.V.P. here to receive an event reminder and the recording link.