The answer to this question asked by They Might Be Giants, according to Michael Rosen is: We, the people. He wrote a book about the history, development and changes of what seems to be everlasting to most of us: Alphabetical: How every letter tells a story. Just read an interview with Rosen about it and a hugely enjoyable review of the book by Carlos Lozada for the Washington Post.
I’ll give you two short excerpts from the latter:
Rosen is an alphabet anarchist. He regards rules of spelling and usage as arrangements of convenience and temporary ones at that. At any given moment in time, a writing system is asked, by the people who know how to use it, to perform tasks, Rosen writes. If any of these tasks break down because the symbols dont work or are thought to be insufficient or redundant, then it will follow that people will invent new symbols and processes for writing and reading. (…)
Rosen can easily imagine a world without the alphabet or at least a world in which its importance is greatly diminished. The power of alphabetical order, with us at least since Zenodotus organized the Library of Alexandria in the late third century B.C., has eroded in the age of Google and Wikipedia, Rosen argues. When we use search engines, he writes, we dont run our thumbs down any real, virtual or metaphorical alphabet. And if the alphabet ceases to be the way we classify human knowledge, why should the alphabetical order of letters survive? Besides, Rosen reminds us, the Chinese have not felt the need to develop an alphabet, and the Chinese are doing just fine.
That’s enough to make me buy the book immediately. I’m a little old school, when it comes to orthography. That doesn’t mean, I am in any way perfect at it. I just am arguing, that the new way of teaching it, which seems to be not teaching any, is wrong. A friend’s family in Bochum might serve as a good sample. Both kids were taught to write without any spelling training. They were asked to write as they pleased during the first couple of years. Which they did. I wasn’t able to make sense of what they were trying to say most of the time, as I didn’t know the kids that well. To this day (the older one is about to take her A levels this year), whatever I gather from her written language on social networks is strewn with spelling mistakes. But maybe it’s just me not being capable of understanding young folks way of communicating any more. Which makes me an outdated person. The only thing I know, is, that at work, I still need to have staff, who know how to write a couple of sentences without grave mistakes.
But maybe I have to reconsider. Written language changed significantly, even during my lifetime. Besides the spelling changes witnessed over the last decades along with the acceptance of many, mostly English loanwords into German, even the lettering itself changed. I remember my grandparents still used Gothic handwriting in everyday life. I also remember, we had a class during the first couple of years at school, called “Schönschrift”. Learning how to write the old letters first with a pencil, later with ink and pinfeather. Much care was taken to explain the difference between upstroke and downstroke and how to proportion the letters correctly. I liked the exercises a lot. All of a sudden, I was able to decipher the exercise books of my grandparents I found in their attic. Same as old notes and letters stored there. And the older documents, my dad had. He also was taught to write the old way, when he was at school and retrained later on. To this day, his handwriting, although in longhand, still reminds me of my “Schönschrift” classes. It looks just perfect, every letter in line, all slings perfectly proportioned. Although I struggle today, to decipher Gothic handwriting, I am still able to make out most of it. And in print, I am doing absolutely fine. I still own books from my childhood, printed in Sütterlin. So maybe in a couple more years I’ll be able to take a liking to the flexible way, some people treat, what I consider correct orthography, today.