Premodern Letters and Textual Consciousness
From the Pre-Socratics to the First Grammatical Treatise
Modern linguistics textbooks devote little, if any, space to writing systems. Shifting our attention from naming precursors or proto-theories to reading earlier language study and linguistics as theorizing and description, the present paper explores ancient and early medieval concepts of the letter in terms of the semiotics of written language and the emergence of textual consciousness in manuscript culture. Early concepts and uses of the letter in alphabetic writing were ambiguous, multilayered, and occasionally contested, but they were not confused. Ancient and early medieval concepts of the letter were based on a semiotics of language and writing which connected spoken and visual signs as multimodal textual activity. Theories of the letter included: (a) the written character (gramma, littera) is a visual sign signifying a particular sound or group of sounds; (b) letters can function as arbitrary second-order signifying systems, such as numbers or diacritics; (c) different alphabets are rooted in the history of peoples although the Roman alphabet is a plastic medium for inscribing the emerging European vernaculars; (d) letters are material substances; (e) the written character is a mute sign; (f) the written character is imperfect or incomplete when detached from sound and the practice of reading aloud.
Published online: 17 November 2010
Abbon de Fleury
Ars grammatica. PL 101: 849–902.
Preface to Pastoral Care”. An Anglo-Saxon Reader ed. by James W. Bright 26 29
Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records
Anonymus ad Cuimnanum
Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari
Dobrovolsky, Michael & William O’Grady
Fragments of Attic Comedy
Gordon, A. E.
The Hisperica Famina
De institutione clericorum. PL 107.293–420.
De universo. PL 111.9–614B.
Excerptio de arte grammatica Prisciani. PL 111.613A–78.
Isidore of Seville
Joseph, John E.
Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina
Robinson, Fred C.
Saussure, Ferdinand de