In his book “Letter Perfect: the Marvelous History of our Alphabet,” David Sacks describes the specific origin of each letter from A to Z. Prior to the assignment of sounds, people used pictures to communicate. By 2000 BC, the Egyptians invented a writing system composed of symbols that represented the sounds of words. For example, the letter “A” was initially turned sideways to represent the head of an Ox and gave us the “aah” sound. Over time, these symbols evolved into the alphabet we know today.
Recently, I was struck by the fact that modern instruction manuals are generally pictorial, often including very little text. For example, one can bake an entire cake without reading a single word. A series of simple diagrams leads the baker though each of the required steps. Does our modern alphabet, adapted from the Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, and Roman lettering, have a place in the modern world? Those of you that use smartphones know that there is an emoticon to describe every mood or activity.
Handwriting has been removed from the curriculum in most kindergarten classrooms. Cursive writing has long since gone away. If we fail to teach basic printing skills to children, how will we communicate? Will we have to go back to using pictures? The alphabet, according to Mr. Sacks, is an invention that had an impact comparable to that of the wheel. For centuries, the ability to read and write was considered to be a luxury deemed fit only for the wealthy. The written word could only be delivered to remaining population following the invention of the printing press in 1440.
Our “ABC”s have evolved over 2000 years to what we know today. Yet, we have now come full circle back to pictures. It is well known that the ability to handwrite promotes effective compo
sition. If primary communication devolves even more toward pictures, what will be the effect on visual perceptual and brain function?
In my practice as a pediatric occupational therapist, I have already observed a striking lack of hand skills in children, along with reduced application of intrinsic musculature of the hands to hold a pencil. When I attended occupational therapy school, we learned that one of the wrist flexor muscles (palmaris longis) was being “phased out” in evolution, the only showing up in about 30% of the population.
If our population continues to become increasingly technology dependent, relying less and less on handwriting and use of alphabetic symbols, will the intrinsic muscles of our hands share the same fate? What about the visual processing centers in our brains? The more we rely on visual images for communications, the less skilled we become in the art of the written word. Will we, as adults, be locked into the world of children, able only to comprehend simple images but unable to access the richness of language and literature?