Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.24

Barry B. Powell, Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.  Pp. xx, 276.  ISBN 9781405162562.  $99.95.  

Reviewed by L. R. Siddall, School of Oriental and African Studies, The University of London (

The advent of writing was one of the most significant phenomena in human civilization. Yet, the origin and development of writing is poorly understood. In Writing, Barry B. Powell has set out to produce an introduction to the evasive topic of what writing is and how it developed in antiquity. Powell assesses the theory of writing in the light of a wide range of writing systems from across the ancient world: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean, the Levant, China, Mesoamerica and Greece. Key to Powell's work is overcoming three popular misapprehensions: that the purpose, origin, and function of writing is to represent speech; that writing comes from pictures; and that writing evolves toward a goal of finer phonetic representation. Powell also places an emphasis on overcoming the "alphabetic bias" prevalent in scholarship and removing the inaccurate and misleading terminology used in the study of writing. In doing so, he presents in clear terms how the different writing systems functioned and how those systems represent language. A feature of the book is the use of the ancient scripts in the text with numerous illustrations to familiarise the reader with the different writing systems. The result is a readable and enlightening study of a complex topic.

Powell's study is in many ways a refinement of I. J. Gelb's now dated A Study of Writing, which is regularly discussed. Since this book in an introduction, Powell has provided a description of each society's writing system so that if the reader is not familiar with a particular language, such as the reviewer's ignorance of classical Chinese, the discussion is not daunting. However, because this book is an introduction Powell does not detail the debates that surround much of the material discussed. Those matters are noted only in the section on further reading (pp. 263-269). A side effect of the absence of secondary literature in the main text of the book is that parts of his discussions come across as assertions rather than evidence-based arguments.

The introduction and the first four chapters identify and analyse what writing is, the internal structures of writing and how those structures functioned using historical examples. In the first chapter Powell sets out his theory of what writing is and how it relates to language and speech. For Powell, writing is "a system of markings with a conventional reference that communicates information" (p. 13). Importantly Powell makes the point that the changes in scripts from society to society and over time should not be understood as evolutionary. Rather, different systems of writing are a reflection of how those societies represented their language in material terms. An important distinction is made between speech and writing. For Powell, speech and writing are different systems of language. In this way, writing does not necessarily represent speech and a study of non-alphabetic scripts reveals that there is often a gap between the two. Such an argument has significant consequences for semiotics of which Powell is acutely aware (p. 18).

In the second to fourth chapters Powell outlines his terminology for the study of writing. Chapter two introduces the term "semasiography". Semasiography relates to writing that is not linked to speech, but communicates meaning which is directly linked to the written sign. Examples of semasiographic writing are road signs, pictures in instruction manuals, music notation, mathematical equation, computer icons and even some forms of primitive art. The term "lexigraphy" is introduced in chapter 3. Lexigraphy is writing that is attached to speech and was probably created in Mesopotamia towards the end of the fourth millennium. Powell argues that lexigraphy developed though the working of the "rebus" principle, which separated the graphic mark or sign from its semasiographic meaning and left only a sound. That intellectual shift was a crucial step towards producing a writing system that could closely represent language and produce sophisticated texts. Lexigraphic writing has two forms: logography, which is the use of signs to represent words attached to speech, and phonography, which are sounds that make up words when used in a sequence. Phonography can be written syllabically or alphabetically. There is also an aspect of writing which is largely foreign to alphabet users called sematograms (more commonly "determinatives"), which clarify meaning of the accompanying word. Powell likens the use of these signs to diacritics and capitalization in Roman script. The terminology for the categories of writing is set out in a chart on the page facing the title page for easy reference. The fourth chapter looks at three general issues with writing in both ancient and modern contexts. The first is the way logography functions and can be used with phonographic writing. The second shows how writing can be used in an unconventional way, but still communicate information, drawing on the examples of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, the obscurantist hieroglyphs from the Ptolemaic period and the Greek technopaignia. The last issue is how to distinguish art from ancient writing. Powell uses an Old Kingdom funerary stele to demonstrate how the two can be distinguished, even in Egyptian hieroglyph: writing communicates information, while art is an observed form.

The study of the ancient writing systems begins with two chapters on Mesopotamian cuneiform. Chapter five considers the controversial material from Mesopotamia: the proto-cuneiform texts and the counting tokens. Powell uses the proto-cuneiform tablets from the fourth millennium as evidence that writing did not evolve from pictures. A large number of signs, such as UDU for "sheep," do not bear a resemblance to the object to which they relate and therefore are evidence against the thesis that ancient writing developed purely from pictures. The writing found on early tablets remains elusive and it is currently impossible to discern whether the writing is semasiographic or lexigraphic. The counting tokens which are from an earlier period (c. 8000 BCE) are discussed largely in relation to the work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat, who sees the counting tokens as the direct predecessors to proto-cuneiform writing.1 Powell is sympathetic to Schmandt-Besserat's thesis, but notes the limitations of the evidence. The sixth chapter surveys the lexigraphic nature of Mesopotamian cuneiform, which was used mainly to write two languages, Sumerian and Akkadian. The Sumerian cuneiform texts are our earliest attestation of the rebus principle, which used a "logosyllabic" system. That is, the writing system consisted of both logography and syllabography. The advent of Akkadian to the cuneiform writing system saw a movement towards phonography, but not simplicity, for the Akkadian scribes continued to use the logosyllabic system through to the end of its use in the late-first millennium BCE.

Four chapters are devoted to Egypt. In chapter seven, Powell surveys the European interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs from Classical times to the nineteenth century to show how Neo-Platonism had affected and inhibited decipherment of the script. That philosophical milieu led to an allegorical interpretation of the hieroglyphs as direct sources of divine knowledge, which was most extensively presented in Horapollo's Hieroglyphica. The publication of Horapollo's treatise in the sixteenth century enabled the continuation of the allegorical interpretation in Europe until Champollion recognised the phonographic aspects of the script. Chapters eight and nine describe the Hieroglyphic writing system, which, like the cuneiform writing system is logosyllabic. However, unlike cuneiform, Egyptian Hieroglyphs contain uniliteral signs. Chapter 10 provides an overview of the tools and social position of Egyptian scribes.

Chapter 11 looks at the Aegean writing systems, in particular the scripts from Crete and Cyprus attested from the mid-second millennium on. Of the five known writing systems used on the islands, only two have been deciphered: Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary. Despite the poor understanding of the other writing systems (Cretan Hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Cypro-Minoan) scholars have recognised that all the scripts are syllabic.

Three chapters deal with a major crux of the study: the West Semitic consonantal syllabaries. Chapter 12 examines the West Semitic consonantal syllabaries from Ugarit (c. 1400) and the Phoenician coast (c. 1000). Those writings systems were created during an intellectual shift that came about in the second millennium, which saw a movement from logosyllabaries to syllabaries. That shift is represented in both the Near East (Anatolia, North Syria and Elam) and in the Aegean (chapter 11). In the case of the Near Eastern writing systems, there is a simplification of the writing system borrowed from Mesopotamia. However, Powell argues that the idea for simplifying the systems did not come from Mesopotamia, but Egypt, in particular the Egyptian uniliterals. It is in that context, that the West Semitic scribes revolutionized their writing systems by creating a "consonantal syllabary" best evidenced from Ugarit and the Phoenician coast. In chapter 13, Powell justifies his thesis that the Phoenician writing system was not an alphabet. He presents exceptional evidence for the nature of spoken language, which was analyzed by means of a spectrograph. The spectrograph showed that speech makes a continuous sound wave, which can be broken down into syllables only, not phonetic particles. The significance of that finding is that the Greek division of words into consonants and vowels was a creative achievement that presents language in an unnatural way. This explains the tendency for pre-Greek lexigraphic writing systems to use a syllabic structure for the script. Chapter 14 examines the controversial topic of the origin of West Semitic writing. Powell provides an overview of a number of inscriptions from the Levant and the Sinai from the second millennium that have been viewed as precursors to the West Semitic writing system, in particular those texts considered to be proto-Canaanite. Powell also points out that most of the letters of the consonantal syllabary do not bear an association with any particular object, and thus there is little evidence to support the "acrophonic principle" for the creation of a script.

Chapters 15 and 16 examine two complex writing systems that developed outside the writing tradition that began in Mesopotamia: China and Mesoamerica. Chinese writing is the most complex system attested and presents the widest gap between writing and speech. The Chinese characters, despite popular belief, are further evidence that writing did not develop from pictures. The earliest evidence from the Neolithic period (c. 6500 BCE) shows that if pictures were the origin of Chinese writing, then the writing system had already abandoned semasiograhpy by an extremely early stage - before Mesopotamia. Chinese writing is logographic and 90% of the 50,000 characters are 'complex', that is, combine a sematogram (or "radical") and a sign that holds a phonetic value. However, there is great difficulty in identifying the meaning and pronunciation of any given sign on the basis of its form. The gap between speech and the writing system is so vast that the Chinese education system teaches grammar based on written style rather than spoken Chinese. In this way Chinese writing reflects a theoretic language and not any of the spoken dialects/languages, which reinforces the distinction Powell makes between language and speech in chapter 1.

Chapter 16 looks at a recently deciphered script of Mesoamerica, Mayan hieroglyphs. The evidence for Mayan hieroglyphs is meagre in comparison with the other writing systems studied in this book. Consequently, firm conclusions about its function and purpose are difficult to make. The writing system is logosyllabic, but is plagued by homophony and polyphony. Powell argues that the writing system is so confusing that it seems not to have been created to communicate information, but to conceal it. In this way, is unlike the other writing systems studied in this book.

The last chapter turns to Greece and the invention of the alphabet. Ancient Greek tradition identifies two possible candidates for the introduction of the alphabet: the Phoenicians and Palamedes. According to Powell neither was responsible, for the Greek alphabet is structured differently from the Phoenician consonantal syllabary. While the script is largely transferred directly from the Phoenicia to Greece, the Greek "adaptor" did not merely add vowels to the existing consonants, but reformed the writing system in two fundamental ways: first, the phonetic signs were divided into two groups (consonants and vowels); second, he created a spelling rule that a consonant must always be accompanied by a vowel. It is the latter rule that enabled the Greek writing system to represent speech closer than any of its predecessors. The earliest evidence for the use of the Greek alphabet is dated to c. 775 BCE, prompting Powell to place the introduction of the writing system to c. 800 BCE. With the exception of the phasing out of the boustrophedon writing style, very little change has occurred in writing systems since. Powell succinctly reiterates his view first published in 1991,2 that the inspiration for reforming the Phoenician writing system was the desire to record as closely as possible the phonetic outline of the poetic verse of the Homeric epics.

The book closes with a summary of the main findings, a handy glossary and a bibliography for further reading with short notes on each reference.

A book that studies the writing systems of multiple cultures is bound to suffer from some minor inaccuracies. However, one particular point should be addressed. In the aptly titled section on Mesopotamian cuneiform, "Transliteration Nightmares" (pp. 79-80), Powell could have been more careful in his demonstration of the complexity of the script. Powell uses the AN and MU signs to demonstrate the how any given cuneiform sign can stand for a range of syllables, logograms and semantograms. The overall information is not wrong, but the given examples should be ignored. The MU sign does not have a logographic value "a", nor does the sign mean "water". The confusion probably lies with the word for water in Akkadian, which is , written syllabically as mu-u and logographically as A.MESH. Figure 6.2 on p. 72 indicates the latter. The other major problem is that the examples do not conform to the syllabic structure of Akkadian writing. Using the phonemes "an" and "a", Powell attempts to show how syllabic spellings and phonetic complements work. Again the examples are inaccurate. The Akkadian preposition "ana" was not written an-a, but a-na or even ana (with the DISH sign). Similarly the word for god (acc.), "ila," was not written il-a, but i-la. Akkadian scribes employed a strict system for the syllabification of the language, and it is thus largely predictable. These errors mar the good information contained in this section.

Has Powell achieved his goal? In this reviewer's mind he has. Writing is a good introduction to the topic, which sets out clear and useful terminology for the study of writing. His argument that writing did not develop from pictures is plausible and the evidence he presents for the link between speech as a continuous wave of sound and its syllabic representation is compelling. All who read this volume will benefit, whether or not they disagree with aspects of the argument.


1.   D. Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing, 2 volumes (Austin, 1992), and How Writing Came About (Austin 1996). For a significant rebuttal see J.-J. Glassner, The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer (Baltimore, 2003).
2.   B. B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, 1991).

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 13:06:08, Wednesday, 14 April 2010