BMCR 1996.05.03

1996.5.3, Daniels/Bright, edd., World’s Writing Systems

, , The world's writing systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. xlv, 920 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780195079937

My first reaction on picking up this book was akin to the excitement of a child who has just been given an enormous chocolate rabbit. There was the delicious thought that it would provide days and days of reading on one of the world’s most fascinating subjects, followed by the delightful idea that, having read it, one would actually understand the principles behind writing systems. Alas, this rabbit is partially hollow: I doubt that many readers will understand a great deal more at the end of it than they understood at the beginning. It is still a wonderful book, however, and one’s enjoyment is not so much lost as curtailed by the thought of how much better it might have been.

The work aims to cover the world’s past and present writing systems, using a broad definition of the term ‘writing’ (printing, musical notation, and choreography are among the types of writing system included). It is divided into thirteen parts of unequal length: ‘Grammatology’ (the study of writing systems), ‘Ancient Near Eastern Writing Systems’ (cuneiform, Egyptian writing from hieroglyphic to demotic, Linear A and B, Cypriote, the alphabet before its transmission to the Greeks, etc.), ‘Decipherment’ (techniques and history of decipherment, followed by a detailed look at four scripts not yet fully understood: Proto-Elamite, Indus, Maya, and Rongorongo), then five parts covering scripts by region, in each case examining the writing systems from their origins (unless covered in part 2) until the present day: ‘East Asian Writing Systems’, ‘European Writing Systems’, ‘South Asian Writing Systems’, ‘Southeast Asian Writing Systems’, and ‘Middle Eastern Writing Systems’. Then follow parts on ‘Scripts Invented in Modern Times’ (Cherokee, Cree, etc.), ‘Use and Adaption of Scripts’ (including long sections on how the Roman, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic scripts have been adapted for various modern languages), ‘Sociolinguistics and Scripts’ (the social and political factors that currently influence the choice of writing systems in certain countries), ‘Secondary Notation Systems’ (including numerals, shorthand, musical notation, and choreography), and ‘Imprinting and Printing’.

This immense breadth of coverage inevitably means that no one topic is discussed in great detail; the aim is not to offer new contributions to scholarship on the writing systems concerned, but to provide a general reference work for linguists and other interested scholars. For each script a brief explanation of its history and geographical range is given, together with some information on the language or languages for which it is used; the bulk of each entry consists of a description of exactly how the script works (direction of writing, types of sound represented, use of diacritics and digraphs, etc). In most cases a chart of the script concerned and its standard transliteration is also given, and in almost every case there is a sample of actual text in the script. The text is usually accompanied not only by a translation, but also by a transliteration (in the format standard for that language), a phonetic transcription, and a word-by-word analysis. A particularly useful feature is the bibliography which, rather than being heaped in a formless mass at the end of the work, is given at the end of each chapter, classified by script and language. Thus each chapter should give a reader who is completely unfamiliar with the script under discussion enough information to enable him or her to find some of the most important recent literature on the subject (inevitably, the bibliographies are far from complete, but in general they are up-to-date) and to understand that literature.

Some improvements on the theoretical framework for the study of scripts are also promoted, and very welcome they are. The old tripartite classification of writing systems into logography, syllabary, and alphabet has given rise to silly (but, unfortunately, heated) squabbles over whether scripts like Devanagari and Hebrew ought to be called alphabets or syllabaries, and whether it is possible for a script to evolve in more than one direction along this classification. The problem is neatly solved by the addition of two more terms to the classification, abjad (for scripts like unvocalised Hebrew in which only consonants are represented) and abugida (for scripts like Devanagari in which signs denote consonants followed by a particular vowel; diacritics are added if no vowel or a different vowel follows). In general I would have welcomed more attention to theoretical issues in the individual chapters, in particular more emphasis on the features which are unique or unusual about a particular script, but perhaps such discussion would have been out of place in a book of this type.

Surveys of the world’s languages and of the world’s writings systems already exist, and this work is intended not so much to replace them (though in some cases they could indeed do with replacement) as to complement them by explaining how the scripts represent the languages for which they are used (p. xxxv). The aim is laudable and the need for such a work is real, but as one progresses through this book one can hardly help wondering if it was sensible to try to accomplish it in the format used here.

The thirteen parts are divided into 74 sections written by 79 contributors (most of whom are experts in the fields about which they write) and assembled by two editors into a massive tome which, all told, is just under 1000 pages long. One feels an enormous respect for the editors, whose task must have been horrific, but nevertheless an overall incoherence makes itself felt when one reads through the book from beginning to end. The organisation is peculiar: one might stop to debate whether Mycenaean Greece can properly be considered part of the ‘Ancient Near East’, but there is no question that Spain and Numidia are not, and never have been, parts of the Near East. If their inclusion in that chapter is based on the fact that their scripts may be Phoenician in origin, then classical Greece and Italy ought also to be included in the same chapter instead of under ‘European Writing Systems’. If classification is really based on date as opposed to location, then Demotic Egyptian script, occurring from the 7th century BCE to the 5th century CE (to use the ‘nonsectarian year designation’ of this book), and the Cypriote syllabary (in use until the second century BCE) ought really to be classified with classical Greek rather than with Linear B. The table of contents and index are both fairly detailed, however, so the system of organisation is more of an irritant than an obstacle.

The organisation also, however, has a tendency to break up topics which would benefit from a unified treatment. Thus the origins of the Phoenician alphabet are treated in one chapter; its transmission to the Greeks and thence to Italy, along with the modifications in letter forms of the written and printed Roman alphabet right up to the present day, may be found in a series of chapters starting 160 pages later (after intervening sections on Iberian, Berber, Linear B, Hieroglyphic Luvian, principles of decipherment, and Chinese); and the changes in the way the letters of the Roman alphabet represent sounds in various languages turn up in another chapter starting 300 pages beyond that (after discussions of all other European and Asian scripts and of recently-invented writing systems for Native American languages).

A more serious problem with the format is that the 79 contributors have given the book 79 different ways of organising chapters, 79 different sets of jargon, and very nearly 79 different systems of text analysis. The book as a whole would have been much easier to use if some overall system had been imposed. As it stands, there are even occasional contradictions between one chapter and another. For example, on p. 653 it is stated that ‘X and z received their current [English] pronunciations, differing from the Greek originals, in Latin’; this statement is false, since x was already pronounced [ks] in the West Greek dialect originally imported to Italy, and the facts are stated correctly on pp. 263, 272, and 301-2. Similarly on p. 789 it is stated that English y was derived from j at about the same time that i and j became separate letters, and that s and z‘form a confusing group, and it would be difficult to trace their wanderings through the alphabet’; in fact y was borrowed from Greek upsilon in the first century BCE (well over 1000 years before the separation of i and j), and the movements of the sibilants (even if the reasons for their initial displacement in going from Phoenician to Greek are not fully understood) are perfectly well attested (cf. pp. 265-6, 301). Compared with these problems, the distracting tendency for spellings to change from one chapter to another (e.g. Boghazköi p. 66, Bôgazköy p. 120) is a minor irritant.

The overall result is that the quality of the book varies greatly from chapter to chapter. Of those sections whose accuracy I am competent to judge, the best is Leslie Threatte’s contribution on the Greek alphabet, which is clear, correct, and as complete as is possible in ten pages. Much the same can be said of Larissa Bonfante’s chapter on Italic scripts, although the greater complexity of her task means that her 15-page chapter is less complete than the Greek section (and note that on p. 311 the author of Le iscrizioni sudpicene should be ‘Marinetti’, not ‘Marinelli’). Several of the Chinese chapters also seem very good, as do a number of others scattered through the book. The section on the transmission of the Phoenician script to the Greeks, by Pierre Swiggers, is generally accurate but ignores an important recent discovery that has placed the earliest example of Greek alphabetic writing not in Greece but in Italy (Gabii in Latium). The writing occurs on a pot fragment from an undisturbed tomb and is securely dated by its archaeological context to c. 770 BCE (see E. Peruzzi, ‘Cultura Greca a Gabii nel Secolo VIII’, Parola del Passato, 47 (1992): 459-68). This section should probably also have acknowledged the significant (if not universally accepted) arguments of Barry Powell in Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge 1991).

Emmett L. Bennett, in the chapter on Aegean scripts, faces the well-nigh impossible task of explaining Linear B, the Cypriote syllabary, Linear A, and the Phaistos disk, all in a total of nine pages. Although he very sensibly disposes of the latter two scripts in a paragraph each and concentrates on the ones about which we actually know something, the discussion is still far from complete. The spelling rules of Linear B are not fully explained, and the explanation which does appear is so compressed that I doubt whether it would be fully intelligible to anyone who did not already know something about the subject. The distinct improvements on those rules offered by Cypriote are scarcely mentioned, and Cyprus is divided into the Cypro-Minoan period (1500-1200 BCE) and the later period of 800-200 BCE without mention of the recent discovery of a number of spits, inscribed in the Cypriote syllabary with what is certainly Cypriote (not Mycenaean) Greek and dated to the eleventh century, which now provide a link between the two periods (see O. Masson, Les inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques (Paris 1983), p. 408). In addition, the bibliography for this section omits what is unquestionably the standard reference work on Linear B, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick’s Documents in Mycenaean Greek (Cambridge 1973). Scholars with no prior knowledge of Linear B might also have appreciated the inclusion of J.T. Hooker’s textbook Linear B: An Introduction (Bristol 1980). There are a number of minor errors and inconsistencies in the treatment of the sample of Cypriote text, as well as one in the first sample of Linear B.

Moving away from strictly Greco-Roman scripts, the chapters on cuneiform are generally good, although too short to do justice to the subject. The bibliography on Hittite might have benefited from the inclusion of the standard (if somewhat unhelpful) Hittite cuneiform textbook, J. Friedrich’s Hethitisches Keilschrift-Lesebuch (Heidelberg 1960). Also, the issue of sandhi phenomena (changes in pronunciation caused by proximity of one word to another, such as the alternation between OU), οὐκ, and οὐχ in Greek depending upon the initial sound of the following word) is treated erratically; in many languages sandhi changes are not normally reflected in spelling, but in others the detailed application of sandhi rules has a significant effect on the appearance of nearly every word. Sandhi is discussed in connection with a few scripts (e.g. pp. 454, 635), but it is not even mentioned in the chapter on Devanagari, the locus classicus for the phenomenon.

The credentials of the individual contributors lead one to believe that they are generally trustworthy, and in those sections of the work which I am competent to judge I did not find many errors in the languages and scripts discussed. The most serious such error is on p. 385, where the Devanagari signs for pe, pai, po, and pau are incorrectly identified as ke, kai, ko, and kau (this mistake is clearly accidental, as p is correctly identified elsewhere). The three Greek errors (κατᾶ for κατά, p. 66, (αιγύπτιος for αἰγύπτις, p. 287, and HKATON for ἑκατόν, p. 803) all occur outside the section on Greek. The only classical terminology error that I caught (‘Achaemenian’ for ‘Achaemenid’, p. 379) is in the South Asian section. The terse note on p. 582 that ‘no analysis of the Hwa Lisu text is available’, however, shows that not all contributors actually understood all the languages about which they wrote.

The editors have obviously made a great effort to make the book intelligible to non-linguists. Many elements of terminology are explained in the introduction, which also contains a number of helpful suggestions as to which of the books recommended will be intelligible to non-specialists. The decision not to explain phonetic terms (if you need to ask what a ‘voiceless postalveolar fricative’ is, this book may not be for you) is bound to frustrate some readers, but the editors are probably right in arguing that such explanation is beyond the scope of an already overburdened text. On the whole, the problem as regards intelligibility lies with the individual contributors, each of whom naturally uses not only linguistics jargon, but also the terminology peculiar to his or her own field; the language of this book thus has the potential (not always fulfilled) to change radically every ten pages or so. Part of the usefulness of this book, of course, is in introducing us to that terminology, and in the majority of cases terms are defined when first used; the minority, however, can cause acute frustration. Thus for example when one encounters on p. 451 the sentence ‘Dictionary order for rhymes is not as well established as for consonants’, one will search in vain for the specialised meaning of ‘rhyme’ (later defined as ‘the vowel-plus-tone portion of a syllable’; note that ‘rime’ on pp. 619-20 is the same thing) in the glossary, the index, and earlier in the chapter.

The biggest factor contributing to lack of intelligibility, however, is the decision to assign roughly the same amount of space to very different types of script. This means that all the adaptions of the Roman alphabet (which work in basically the same way except that the letters stand for different sounds) are described in detail, as are the different Brahmi-based scripts of India (most of which share the same basic principles, although these principles are repeated by each contributor). Yet very complex writing systems, such as cuneiform and some Asian scripts, are treated so superficially that even their most important and interesting features are obscured. It might have been better to make this a two-volume work, or to reduce its scope somewhat, in order to ensure that the more complicated scripts that are included received adequate coverage.

Certain features of this book may be offensive to classicists. Some contributors have a tendency to be abusive towards those who hold opposing views, and unfortunately their targets seem largely to be classicists (pp. 23-4, 27-8). I am afraid, in fact, that ‘ignorance and prejudice’ on p. 27 pretty much sums up one writer’s view of our profession. In context, the criticism is not entirely unjustified, but let me note in passing that the view being proposed at that point, that all types of script are approximately equally easy to write and to read, is just as silly as the view of the ‘perfect alphabet’ being refuted. Anyone who has done what the author suggests and learned cuneiform (as I have) knows full well that this writing system is much harder to learn than an alphabetic one and remains, even for experts, significantly more difficult to read; it is a well-known fact (and stated by a cuneiform expert on p. 55) that most cuneiform scripts were not, and were not intended to be, efficient or easy to read. For intelligibility problems with more recent scripts see e.g. p. 596.

Technologically, the printing of a book with so many different typefaces is very impressive, and Oxford University Press has also managed to produce a volume which despite its large number of pages is not unduly bulky, difficult to read, or likely to fall apart rapidly. There are few misprints (though there are some: ‘consonontal’ p. 73, ‘revelant’ p. 96, ‘purpase’ p. 148, and a bizarre tendency for the dots on i’s to be missing, e.g. ‘Yazilikaya’ p. 120), but this benefit is perhaps offset by a use of English that will set many classicists’ teeth on edge. People who object to ‘differently than’ (p. 46), dangling participles (p. 857), or sentence fragments (p. 219) will probably also find themselves alienated by the use of contractions such as ‘there’s’, ‘don’t’, and ‘won’t’ and of exclamation points. Linguists agree that ‘a more formal register of speech is appropriate in a more formal situation’ (p. 10), but clearly they disagree with most other humanities scholars on what constitutes formal language (or perhaps on whether an academic publication constitutes a formal situation).

Despite these quibbles, however, the book remains a valuable contribution to the study of writing and one which will be of great practical use. Even a hollow chocolate rabbit can still contain a lot of chocolate, and I for one am very grateful to the editors and contributors for providing us with this boon.