The Letter “A” and the Evolution of Digital Language

To playfully reenact the history of the exponential takeoff of human written language and the origin of both arbitrariness and digitalization as human modes of relation and communication, just turn the letter “A” upside down and recover the ancient pictogram (an icon–a sign that stands for its object on the basis of resemblance) of a horned animal.  Where once that pictogram stood for that animal (in, admittedly, a range of ways, from quarry to non-human person to deity), after that icon is inverted and thus severed (a predatory act of violence) from the object it resembles, the upside-down animal head (now our “A”) can be made to stand not for a tangible thing in a user’s environment (say that animal) but for a sound or a set of sounds, a set of arbitrary phonological objects not connected by resemblance or causality to the letter (no longer “A” [pun intended] pictogram) “A.”  These sounds, mere ghosts of the original iconic animal head, may be combined with the sounds represented by other letters and assembled into words or parts of words, a literal reader’s digest(ion).  Thus is it that the stiff pictogram with a narrow range of objects becomes the “infinitely flexible everything,” that is, everything from the grammatical indefinite article “a” to the cognitive marker “ah” to “applesauce.”  And what we write is no longer obvious to the uninitiated, to those who didn’t turn everything (at least the animal head of language) upside down.  In conclusion, “I A[not animal]M A[not animal] REA[not animal]L Robert LA[not animal]NGDON.


Wm John Coletta, PhD, CEO

Wm. John Coletta, Ph.D.  is a proefessor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and is a member of the Editorial Board of the American Journal of Semiotics. He has served as President and Vice President of the Semiotic Society of America and was a system fellow at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.