Capital, Letter, Empire: The Alphabet Event in Global History

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM
Columbia 11 (Washington Hilton)
Ulug Kuzuoglu, Columbia University
In 1855, the infamous Orientalist Max Müller declared in London that missionaries across the world in colonies needed a “Physiological Alphabet” to transcribe native sounds. Each produced sound, opined Müller, was after all a physiological combination of different vocal organs. Reading, writing, and transmission of knowledge could be economized if the “physiological value” of bodily produced sounds could be represented by a letter each. 
In 1862, Münif Pasha, the head of the Society of Ottoman Sciences, declared in Constantinople that the Ottoman Empire was in need of a new writing system. The Arabic letters that had been in use for centuries, opined Münif Pasha, were no longer efficient enough to fulfill the demands of a new economy. The lack of vowels in writing Ottoman Turkish with Arabic letters caused “mental confusion” and “waste of thought.” The representation of each sound with a separate letter was a dire need.
In 1896, Shen Xue, an aspiring medical student, declared in Shanghai that the Qing Empire needed a phonetic alphabet. Millenia-old logographic Chinese writing system was too complicated, required too much time to learn, erected too many obstacles for telegraphic communication, and clogged the arteries in the brain. Without an alphabet, opined Shen, Chinese minds were doomed.

What were the historical conditions that drove Max Müller, Münif Pasha, and Shen Xue, scholars who were not aware of each other’s works, to call for an alphabet? “Physiological Alphabet” and the anxieties about mental waste and work were part of a global moment when the infrastructures of knowledge and capitalist political economy valorized speech and language, and by extension, the human mind. This paper identifies nineteenth-century capitalism, industrialization, expanding governmental apparatuses, bureaucratic administrations, global telegraphic networks, and increased circulation of print knowledge as the infrastructural and political economic drive for alphabetization.

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