All communication, since the dawn of language, starts as synchronous communication, and tends towards the asynchronous. Oral histories disappear from cultures once writing and literacy is common enough to allow it. Orders delivered though synchronous communication (verbal conversation) can run a tribe but not an empire. Voicemail, e-mail, and text messages replace phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Having to be in the same place at the same time, let’s face it, is inconvenient.
Some 3500 years ago, in one of the great and shining moments of human achievement (cue the monolith from 2001), the Phoenicians reprogrammed the human mind.
In the beginning, distinct sounds represented distinct thoughts. Words were the fundamental atomic nature of communication. I say “horse”, and the idea of the equine quadruped pops into your head. (Computer scientists still honor this tradition when talking about PC architecture. The smallest chunk of memory that can be addressed is referred to as a “word”. This is what “32-bit” refers to — a PC with 32-bit architecture can’t address pieces of memory smaller than 32-bits in length). As language became more complex, so did the words. The first forms of asynchronous communication to develop all over the world were pictographic in nature. Just like spoken language, a visual symbol is a placeholder for an idea. Simple ideas were simple pictograms, and simple words. Complex ideas became combinations of pictograms or words. If a language had a massive vocabulary, it also had, by necessity, a massive collection of pictograms to represent it. This is the state that the Egyptian heiroglyphics are in at the height of their civilization. Writing was an absolute necessity to govern an empire so large, but the writing was so complex, that only very few were truly literate, and only those that held power.
The Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture — merchants that traded all along the Mediterranean Sea. Asynchronous communication was even more essential to a seafaring populace, where geography and slow travel makes synchronous communication nearly impossible.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could be witness to the moment in history when it dawned on that first Phoenician thinker that the number of possible sounds made to form language was far more finite than the number of distinct words that form the vocabulary of that language? That with just a few dozen symbols, every “word” in thier language could be constructed in an easy to remeber visual shorthand? What an incredible shift in thinking! That conceptual leap, from direct symbolic representation, to another layer of abstraction is nothing short of miraculous — translating the “idea” into the “word”, then into component simple sounds! (The Phoenicians, of course, is what gives us the term “Phonetic”, if that wasn’t obvious by now).
The human mind is good at internalizing a vast vocabulary by binding sound to ideas. Our brains are wired for it. So that first moment of genius, where the sounds themselves were broken up into simpler building blocks was akin to the splitting of the conceptual atom. The words “horse” and “house” sound similar to the ear, but evoke vastly different ideas in the human mind, but the sound that “h” makes doesn’t evoke much of an idea at all. Who was the Phoenician mad man that first thought to build in that layer of abstraction, and encode distinct ideas (“words”) into a compressed and easily transmitted format? I am humbled by the insight that that moment in human history must have taken.
We have so altered the way that human consciousness works that the very idea of “words” being atomic to language seems alien to us. We can’t help but think that letters make up words, and words make up ideas. But in reality, this isn’t the case! Letters are wholly abstract, they are nothing more than an auditory shorthand that carries no meaning in-and-of-itself. Letters, as an idea, rest on top of words, not beneath them. The irony of trying to convey this notion, while using a phonetic alphabet isn’t lost on me.
Further tunelling down the rabit-hole, think about this… Right now, the letters on this page were conveyed to you in *even yet another* layer of abstraction. It only takes 8 little on/off switches (bits) to map to a number between 0 and 255, and those numbers are mapped to our phonetic alphabet, each number producing a specific letter on your screen right now. This is what the ASCII code is. (Of course, you’re probably reading this on a 32-bit computer, so each letter is wasting alot of memory space, because it takes only 8 bits to represent a letter, but your computer is using 32-bits to store each one since it can’t address anything smaller that a 32-bit “word”.
A phonetic alphabet is the basis for the earliest compression algorithms, and this paradigm shift in human language and thought is nothing short of a monumental development in human evolution.
Eric Reasons writes sporadically about Technology and Culture at blog.EricReasons.com. He doesn’t have any special dispensation or bona fides. He’s just an IT guy who likes to write.
This article was originally published in 2008 on blog.EricReasons.com.