"This is a widely acknowledged feature of consonantal writing (and one that is commonly observed among readers of Arabic even today), but its irreducible property as a stumbling block goes unremarked. One obvious result is clearly illustrated by the evidence of the past. As Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed in a seminal article that appeared in 1963, it’s clear from what survives that early writing was used almost exclusively as an aid to memory, such as in tax records or storage manifests, or to write down familiar stories and sayings.6The Law Code of Hammurabi, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Hebrew Bible—one way or another, early writing recorded stuff that was already out there in the oral culture. In other words, a memory device.
Vowels reversed the old way of reading. The significance of this reversal—a true revolution in reading—has also gone unnoticed, yet it had the most profound consequences for communication. Now you could read written language first, automatically, even if you had no idea what it meant. Then you could go on to figure out the meaning. You could even re-read the language of a difficult and unfamiliar passage over again, as many times as needed, until you understood the meaning, which was not possible before without guesswork. In bread terms, that tiny pinch of yeast yielded a more palatable balance of crunch and chew.
Like earlier writing systems, the alphabet could serve as a memory device, to be sure, and a very good one, but it also turned out to be something unprecedented: an innovation device. The alphabet revolution opened the door to the new. The true dividing line in human cultural evolution lies not between the spoken word and the written word, as is commonly assumed. It lies instead between memory and novelty—that is, between two very different devices: the architect’s and the stonecutter’s."