Writing, like human language, is engendered not only within the human community but between the human community and the animate landscape, born of the interplay and contact between the human and the more-than-human world. The earthly terrain in which we find ourselves, and upon which we depend for all our nourishment, is shot through with suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert, to the black slash burned by lightning into the trunk of an old elm. The swooping flight of birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind; it is this script that was studied by the ancient augurs, who could read therein the course of the future. Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves they consume. Wolves urinate on specific stumps and stones to mark off their territory. And today you read these printed words as tribal hunters once read the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed in the soil of the forest floor. Archaeological evidence suggests that for more than a million years the subsistence of humankind has depended upon the acuity of such hunters, upon their ability to read the traces-a bit of scat here, a broken twig there-of these animal Others. These letters print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other.

Our first writing, clearly, was our own tracks, our footprints, our handprints in mud or ash pressed upon the rock . Later, perhaps, we found that by copying the distinctive prints and scratches made by other animals we could gain a new power; here was a method of identifying with the other animal, taking on its expressive magic in order to learn of its whereabouts, to draw it near, to make it appear. Tracing the impression left by a deer’s body in the snow, or transferring that outline onto the wall of the cave: these are ways of placing oneself in distant contact with the Other, whether to invoke its influence or to exert one’s own. Perhaps by multiplying its images on the cavern wall we sought to ensure that the deer itself would multiply, be bountiful in the coming season . . . .

All of the early writing systems of our species remain tied to the mysteries of a more-than-human world . The petroglyphs of pre-Columbian North America abound with images of prey animals, of rain clouds and lightning, of eagle and snake, of the paw prints of bear. On rocks, canyon walls, and caves these figures mingle with human shapes, or shapes part human and part Other (part insect, or owl , or elk.)

The efficacy of these pictorially derived systems necessarily entails a shift of sensory participation away from the voices and gestures of the surrounding landscape toward our own human-made images. However, the glyphs which constitute the bulk of these ancient scripts continually remind  he reading body of its inherence in a more-than-human field of meanings. As signatures not only of the human form but of other animals, trees, sun, moon, and landforms, they continually refer our senses beyond the strictly human sphere.

With the advent of the aleph-beth, a new distance opens between human culture and the rest of nature. To be sure, pictographic and ideographic writing already involved a displacement of our sensory participation from the depths of the animate environment to the flat surface of our walls, of clay tablets, of the sheet of papyrus. However, as we noted above, the written images themselves often related us back to the other animals and the environing earth. The pictographic glyph or character still referred, implicitly, to the animate phenomenon of which it was the static image; it was that worldly phenomenon, in turn, that provoked from us the sound of its name. The sensible phenomenon and its spoken name were, in a sense, still participant with one another-the name a sort of emanation of the sensible entity. With the phonetic aleph-beth, however, the written character no longer refers us to any sensible phenomenon out in the world, or even to the name of such a phenomenon (as with the rebus), but solely to a gesture to be made by the human mouth. There is a concerted shift of attention away from any outward or worldly reference of the pictorial image, away from the sensible phenomenon that had previously called forth  the spoken utterance, to the shape of the utterance itself, now invoked directly by the written character. A direct association is established between the pictorial sign and the vocal gesture, for the first time completely bypassing the thing pictured. The evocative phenomena-the entities imaged-are no longer a necessary part of the equation. Human utterances are now elicited, directly, by human-made signs; the larger, more- than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system.

Or is it ? When we ponder the early Semitic aleph-beth, we readily recognize its pictographic inheritance. Aleph, the first letter, is written thus.

Aleph is also the ancient Hebrew word for “ox.” The shape of the letter, we can see, was that of an ox’s head with horns; turned over, it became our own letter A. The name of the Semitic letter mem is also the Hebrew word for “water”; the letter, which later became our own letter M, was drawn as a series of waves. The letter ayin, which also means “eye” in Hebrew, was drawn as a simple circle, the picture of an eye; it is this letter, made over into a vowel by the Greek scribes, that eventually became our letter 0. The Hebrew letter qoph , which is also the Hebrew term for “monkey,” was drawn as a circle intersected by a long, dangling, tail. Our letter Q retains a sense of this simple picture.

These are a few examples. By thus comparing the names of the letters with their various shapes, we discern that the letters of the early aleph-beth are still implicitly tied to the more-than-human field of phenomena. But these ties to other animals, to natural elements like water and waves, and even to the body itself, are far more tenuous than in the earlier, predominantly nonphonetic scripts. These traces of sensible nature linger in the new script only as vestigial holdovers from the old-they are no longer necessary participants in the transfer of linguistic knowledge. The other animals, the plants, and the natural elements-sun, moon, stars, waves-are beginning to lose their own voices. In the Hebrew Genesis, the animals do not speak their own names to Adam; rather, they are given their names by this first man. Language, for the Hebrews, was becoming a purely human gift, a human power.

It was only, however, with the transfer of phonetic writing to Greece, and the consequent transformation of the Semitic aleph-beth into the Greek “alphabet,” that the progressive abstraction of linguistic meaning from the enveloping life-world reached a type of completion. The Greek scribes took on , with slight modifications, both the shapes of the Semitic letters and their Semitic names. Thus aleph-the name of the first letter, and the Hebrew word for “ox”-became alpha; beth-the name of the second letter, as well as the word for “house” -became beta; gimel-the third letter, and the word for “camel,” became gamma, etc. But while the Semitic names had older, nongrammatological meanings for those who spoke a Semitic tongue, the Greek versions of those names had no nongrammatological meaning whatsoever for the Greeks. That is, while the Semitic name for the letter was also the name of the sensorial entity commonly imaged by or associated with the letter, the Greek name had no sensorial reference at all. While the Semitic name had served as a reminder of the worldy origin of the letter, the Greek name served only to designate the human-made letter itself. The pictorial (or iconic) significance of many of the Semitic letters, which was memorialized in their spoken names, was now readily lost. The indebtedness of human language to the more-than-human perceptual field, an indebtedness preserved in the names and shapes of the Semitic letters, could now be entirely forgotten.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World


  1. I recognized which book that came from before I got to the end. It’s been a long while since I read it, though.

    It reminds me of the study of cave paintings, from David Lewis Williams to Genevieve von Petzinger. Or there is the theory of how language emerged from human perception of sound in the world. Or there is the relationship of language to psychedelics.

    Liked by 1 person

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