The Building of Cultures

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From this center of origin at the eastern end of the Mediterranean the alphabet diffused along four main lines. Following first the western or European branch, we find the Greeks taking over the Phoenician form some time prior to the seventh century B.C. In so doing they made relatively little change in the forms of the letters, but owing to the accidental difference in the phonetic character of their language were forced to develop signs for the vowels. This they did by utilizing some of the letters whose original sounds did not occur in Greek. We have here, then, a definite modification taking place in the trait as a result of diffusion into a different culture and environment. From Greece, before the new trait became fully standardized, one variety of the alphabet spread to Italy, in which process further changes were made. From Italy the Roman form passed into central and western Europe with still further changes, including the development of capitals and of decorative forms like the Gothic, which survives in use in Germany until today. The Slavic peoples, in the main, derived their alphabets from the Greek forms between the seventh and tenth centuries. So two quite different derivatives of the Greek alphabet were developed by adjacent peoples.

An interesting side line in this diffusion was the invention of the Ogham script by the Celtic peoples in the third century. This is a wholly different kind of character, in no way directly derived from the alphabet in any of its many forms, but suggested by it. In this peculiar form the characters are all straight lines, the vowels being indicated by a series of from one to five dots on the line, and consonants by one to five short lines standing out at an angle, either on the right or left of the main line. The Ogham script is thus a striking instance of marginal specialization in which the trait itself did not pass, but only served as a stimulus for the invention of a wholly new means of carrying out the original idea.

From the Aramaic, a form related to the Phoenician alphabet, there developed the typical quadratic Hebrew with greater changes in form of the letters than took place throughout the whole development of the European branch. Thus here we have a case where, in the very home of the trait, the changes undergone were greater than those due to long diffusion and several changes of culture and environment. But the changes were local, they applied locally only, and the modifications developed at the trait nucleus did not diffuse from there toward the outlying areas. At first the new local form (Hebrew) had still no indication of the vowels, but in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. these came to be supplied by the use of "points" or diacritical marks.

While the Hebrew was becoming more and more angular and boxlike in the forms of its letters, another branch of the same Aramaic from which it had grown, was developing a more cursive, curvilinear type, which ultimately became known as the Syriac. In the fifth century A.D. this started to differentiate into two forms as a result of religious differences which at the time divided the Christian Church, the Nestorians in Persia using one form, while the western Syrians, who were under Roman rule, used the other. This well illustrates how a material trait may be strongly influenced by nonmaterial factors in culture, as well as the way in which a trait may rapidly develop local forms. The Nestorian form of the alphabet, which early developed "points" or vowel marks, served as the source for the Zend or Old Persian and the Kharosthi, a form used for a time in Turkestan and northern India. Carried by missionaries throughout inner Asia, it there developed the Old Turkish, the Mongol, and the Manchu forms. In each case changes and modifications took place which were often cumulative, culminating in the case of the Manchu, where, as a result of the influence of the Chinese custom of writing in vertical columns, the alphabet characters were turned through an angle of 90 degrees and written from top to bottom as appendages to a vertical line. Here, again, we have an extreme marginal specialization due to the influence of a neighboring culture pattern.

From the Nabataean form of the Syriac, in use by the nomads of Sinai and northern Arabia, came in the second and third centuries A.D. Arabic, very cursive and with elaboration of special forms of characters according as they were initial, medial, or terminal. This is, in principle, allied to the development of capital letters in Europe, only the principle is carried out logically to its conclusion. With the spread of Islam, this form spread rapidly and wisely, giving rise later to the modern Persian and modern Turkish. In these, and Persian in particular, the decorative element was very greatly stressed, so that calligraphy became really an art, and very elaborate and complicated forms of the characters were developed for purely ornamental purposes. Here we have again a partial parallel to the European decorative forms, such as the Gothic, only in Persian the ornamental factor was carried even further. From Persia the earlier forms of Arabic spread farther eastward to Afghanistan, India, and the Malay world; on the other hand, from Arabia itself the Arabic spread westward over portions of Africa.

Fully as early as the diffusion to the Greeks took place, and apparently from the same source, the early Semitic alphabet made its way to India, where it underwent a drastic series of changes, developing there practically into a syllabary, since each consonant was regarded as having associated with it an "A" vowel. If it was to be understood as without the vowel sound, this was indicated by a special sign, the "virama." Here we have two interesting features, a reversion, as it were, from the true alphabet to the more primitive syllabary form, and the use of diacritical marks in a negative rather than positive sense. Many additional characters were also added to the series as received, compound consonant characters were invented, and the whole systematized in a very elaborate manner. It is easy to see that in India we have a far greater degree of modification and specialization taking place than anywhere in Europe, let us say, and not only this, but the rate of change was apparently very rapid, for the whole gamut was run in India before the later developments out of the Roman forms had taken place in Europe.

From this Brahmi, as the older Indian form was called, came a long list of other alphabets—Sanskrit, Tibetan, all the Dravidian alphabets of southern India, and Pall in Ceylon. From this latter with the spread of Buddism came the Burmese, Cambodian, Siamese, Javanese, Sumatran, and all the Philippine forms, and finally Korean. Here, as in the neighboring Manchu alphabet already spoken of, the letters were written in vertical columns from top to bottom under the influence of the Chinese culture pattern. Thus in Korean and Manchu we have the meeting of two separate streams of diffusion, the one coming from Syria by way of India and Ceylon, the other also from Syria, but by way of Persia and Central Asia. Each at this ultimate point succumbed to the culture pattern of the Chinese—a pattern originating in the ancient custom of writing on long strips of bamboo, which custom of vertical writing was then still retained after paper had come into use.

The last line of diffusion came from the southern Semitic forms of the alphabet. This gave rise to the ancient Sabaean and other southern Arabian forms, the Sabaean spreading in the beginning of the Christian era to Abyssinia, where it gave rise to the Ethiopic. Here a new type of specialization arose, in that a new means of indicating vowels was devised, various elements being added directly to the characters representing consonants.

This hasty outline of the diffusion of the alphabet reinforces at many points the conclusions drawn from the previous examples, and serves to bring out strikingly, features which the available data in other instances do not supply. It serves to emphasize again that the center of origin for the trait (the eastern Mediterranean) is by no means central geographically in the total area over which it has diffused. It repeats the evidence already given by the other examples, that the center of origin is not a source from which the latter specializations flow. On the contrary, the areas of increasing specialization and development are mainly marginal, where the advancing trait meets new environments and new cultural types and patterns, to which it has to conform in order to be accepted. It shows that the widest changes, the most striking specializations take place as a rule at the very end of the diffusion stream; it affords, in detail, the most precise evidence of the cumulative character of the changes undergone in protracted diffusion, and shows that the marginal forms of the trait (Ogham, Manchu, Korean, Pali, Ethiopic) do not in any sense represent the primitive form.

It enables us to get in many cases definite historical data as to time, and shows that diffusion in one direction may be very much more rapid than in another, as in the diffusion to India at the same time that it was just reaching Greece. It shows, further, that not only do all sorts of complex cross-currents of diffusion occur (as in the development of Armenian from Greek, rather than from the nearer Syriac), but that adjacent peoples may receive the same trait by very different ways, as in the instance of Korean and Manchu. It demonstrates the influence of purely physical features of environment in the changes in form of characters produced by the different mediums upon which and with which writing was done (inscription on stone or wax tablets, scratching on leaf, painting with brush, writing with pen, etc.). In short, there is hardly an aspect of the whole process of secondary diffusion which the diffusion and development of the alphabet does not exemplify, giving us, moreover, the opportunity to determine time relations, which few if any other traits supply.1

While the alphabet we s thus a legacy to Europe from the Near East, China, in the Far East, which has never adopted the alphabet but retains its picture characters, has made a number of important contributions to Europe, consisting of the mariner’s compass, gunpowder, block printing, rag paper, paper money, silk, porcelain, tea, playing cards, etc., though a number of these traits eventually reached Europe by the way of Islamic populations by whom they had been adopted and improved.

The progress of printing and paper from China to Europe indicates the time involved in the transition of given traits from the source of origin, the elements of chance and indirection, and the dependence of the penetrating power of given traits upon the previous emergence of other traits.2

Chinese block printing had its approximate origin between 712 and 756, the period covering the reign of Ming Huan of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The early emperors of this dynasty were patrons of learning, literature, art, and religion, and encouraged or tolerated the importation and circulation of all values of this character. Before the middle of the seventh century a library was erected at the capital containing six hundred thousand volumes; Christian and Islamic missionaries, Mazdean priests, and the Manichean doctrine were welcomed; Buddhism was making propaganda side by side with the native Confucianism; and in this situation the art of printing was developed. The motive involved was the desirability of multiplying and circulating copies of sacred writings and pictures of sacred persons. In addition to the propagation of the doctrine this was regarded as a means of attaining individual merit, somewhat as almsgiving and good works operated in the early Christian church.

In this connection, a number of devices were developed by the Confucians and Taoists, and more prominently in the Buddhist monasteries. These were rubbings from inscriptions, stencils, pounces (pencil stencils made by pin pricks), seal impressions, and innumerable stamped figures of Buddha. The steps toward the block printing of books are obscure and many of the records were destroyed during later religious persecutions, notably between 845 and 859, when 4,600 Buddhist temples were demolished. The earliest known printed book in China therefore dates from 868, but that this was far from the beginning is made plain by the fact that the Empress Shotoku completed a large printing project in Japan about the year 770. The Japanese had been active in the adoption of Chinese culture, including Buddhism, for about two centuries, and the empress, a convert to Buddhism, ordered the printing on paper from wooden blocks of a million Buddhistic charms to be deposited in a million small pagodas.

Between the years 932 and 1063 the Chinese printed the Buddhist Tripitika, in 130,000 pages, and their dynastic histories. Between 1041 and 1049 movable type of earthenware, tin, and wood was developed. The use of wooden type was extended as far as Turkestan by the year 1300, as shown by a font of type of about this date. In 1390 a metal type foundry was established by the king of Korea, producing type in type molds, and the earliest extant book printed in Korea in movable metal type is dated 1409.

In comparison with this, block printing began in Europe toward the end of the fourteenth century in the form of playing cards and printed images, and the earliest European block books appeared between 1440 and 1450. Gutenberg’s activity, including the development of the type mold, dates about 1450, when printing from movable type made in type molds had been active for about half a century in Korea.

It is practically certain that a knowledge of Chinese printing had reached Europe between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries. The Chinese had used printed paper money profusely from about 1100, and this was described by Marco Polo in 1297 and within a century by seven other European writers. Printing had also been carried on at points nearer to Europe, for example at Tabriz in Persia, since about 1221 and in the Faiyum since the tenth century.

Playing cards are another source from which a knowledge of printing may have reached Europe. Invented by the Chinese about 969 as a printed form of dice, and termed originally "sheet dice" (their form probably influenced by the form and designs of paper money), they spread westward to the Mongols and were presumably carried by them on their invasion of Europe. It is also probable that the Mongol armies in Europe were paid in printed money. It is, however, not certain that European printing was influenced from these sources. It is certain that the European steps were later, but conceivably they were independent.

It was the type mold which made printing a success on a large scale in Europe. There is no indication that information about this had reached Gutenberg or Europe, and it would seem that no suggestion along this line was necessary. To one working at the problem of printing in a language possessing an alphabet this step, in addition to movable type, was relatively simple and eventually inevitable. The remarkable point is that the idea of movable type should have been applied in China and Korea, where because of the great number of characters it is relatively unsuitable, and where movable types are consequently not at present commonly used.

1Dixon, R.B.n/an/an/an/a, , 136–141 (Charles Scribner’s Sons. By permission).

2 The following sketch of the history of printing and paper follows closely, Carter, T. F., The Invention of Printing in China and Ire Spread Westward (Columbia University Press).

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Chicago: The Building of Cultures in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . The Building of Cultures, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , The Building of Cultures. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from