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No. 35: Sep-Oct 1984

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Sinister Development In Ancient Greece

The unprecedented genius of Ancient Greece remains unexplained. Why the sudden surge of "civilized" activities: drama, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, and even science? It was all because the Ancient Greeks developed an alphabet that included vowels in addition to the consonants. The Greek language became a full phonetic representation of language. The left side of our brain, it seems, is much more capable than the right in matters phonetic. In contrast, other forms of writing in the ancient world, such as hieroglyphics and vowelless alphabets, are better handled by the right side of the brain.

(As an aside, it is interesting that, in the modern world, Japanese and Chinese are better processed by the right side of the brain, while the phonetic representations of language, such as English, are handled better sinistrally.)

Back in Ancient Greece, the new alphabet shifted language activities to the left side of the brain. According to J.R. Skoyles, this "unlocked" left-brain competences that had previously been analogous right-brain competences. The newly liberated competences involved rational, analytical, and logical faculties. Thus from the addition of a few vowels sprang Ancient Greece and, in time, modern civilization.

(Another aside: Each side of the brain seems to have the potential for performing all necessary functions, but the left side is better at some than the right, and vice versa. Sometimes one side produces better answers than the other. Skoyle's point is that the Greek invention of a phonetic language unlocked or made dominant the left side with its superior civilizing capabilities!

(Skoyles, John R.; "Alphabet and the Western Mind," Nature, 309:409, 1984.)

Comment. There is still a question of whether "rational, logical" thought is good for the survival of a species. See the later comment on marsupial pouches.

From Science Frontiers #35, SEP-OCT 1984. 1984-2000 William R. Corliss