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Lectures & Salons

Inventing the Alphabet: Origin Stories to Forensic Evidence

with Johanna Drucker

This vividly illustrated in-person talk explores the origin and development of the alphabet.

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Accounts of the origins of the alphabet contribute to the broad history of ideas. Many vivid intellectual traditions have flourished, and some have been set aside, discredited by “modern” scientific methods of archaeology and forensic science. Turning our attention to these varied lineages, we see not only a history of the alphabet, but also different modes of knowledge production and transmission.

The alphabet was invented by Semitic speakers in the ancient Near East around four thousand years ago, and then spread worldwide. But the first text that says anything about its history comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, and his description of the letters—a gift from the Phoenician Cadmus—contains no images. How can we know what letterforms Herodotus saw in these inscriptions? Similarly, Biblical scholars seeking the “original” letters in the Tablets received by Moses had no physical remains to examine. Antiquarians sought long and hard before archaeologists in the 19th century discovered remains of the earliest alphabetic marks. Along the way, erudite studies of magical alphabets and exotic scripts also found their way into the study of the origins of letters.

Letterform Lectures are a public aspect of the Type West postgraduate program. The series is co-presented by the San Francisco Public Library, where events are free and open to all.

Johanna Drucker

Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She is internationally known for her work in the history of graphic design, typography, experimental poetry, fine art, and digital humanities. Her most recent publications include Information and Visualization (MIT Press, 2020), Iliazd: Meta-Biography of a Modernist (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), The Digital Humanities Coursebook (Routledge, 2021), and Inventing the Alphabet (University of Chicago Press, 2022). In addition to her academic contributions, she has produced artist’s books and projects that were the subject of a travelling retrospective, “Druckworks: 40 Years of Books and Projects.” Her artwork is represented in special collections in museums and libraries in North American and Europe and has been exhibited widely. She is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been the recipient of Fulbright, Getty, NEH, and Mellon Fellowships. In 2019 she was in residence as the inaugural Distinguished Senior Fellow at Yale University. Her work has been translated into Korean, Catalan, Chinese, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Swedish, Danish, and Portuguese.

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