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The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication.

The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication. Edited by JOHN BAINES; JOHN BENNET; and STEPHEN HOUSTON. London: EQUINOX PUBLISHING, 2008. Pp. xviii + 378, illus. $95. [Distributed in North America by David Brown Book Co., Oakville, Co.]

There are two basic approaches to the study of the history of writing, which can be broadly labeled as "evolutionary" and "sociological." The first approach, dominant in the research of the early- and mid-twentieth century, finds its cumulative expression in A Study of Writing by Ignace J. Gelb (2nd ed., Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963). That author poses a rhetorical question: "Ms writing progressing as it passes along the course of evolution marked by the logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic stages?" and answers enthusiastically "Yes, it is progressing!" Pursuing the logical implications of this claim, one can affirm, for example, that Mesopotamian cuneiform fell out of use because the competing alphabetic systems were easier to learn, easier to write, and probably easier to read as well.

In the last years, however, the tide has shifted in favor of the "sociological" approach, which emphasizes external factors affecting the evolution of writing. The reasons for this shift were both the changing cultural setting and the availability of new empirical evidence. On the one hand, much of the earlier "evolutionary" discourse was couched in supremacist phraseology, which has become unacceptable for modern anthropologists. On the other hand, the account in terms of competition among writing systems proved to be explanatorily inadequate in a number of cases. For example, the decipherment of Maya glyphics brought the realization that this indigenous writing system of Mesoamerica had begun to disintegrate long before the conquistadors introduced the alphabetic Roman script to the area.

The paper that sets up the methodological framework for the book under review is "The Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica" by Stephen Houston, John Baines, and Jerrold Cooper (Comparative Studies in Society and History 45 [2003]:430-79). This joint paper systematically pursues the comparison between the obsolescence of scripts and language death. Just as modern linguists refrain from qualitative judgments about languages in conflict, so Houston et al. do not discuss the intrinsic properties of ancient scripts that might lead to their obsolescence. They introduce instead three external parameters to be applied to the analysis of moribund writing systems: 1 ) prestige status, 2) sphere of use, and 3) demography of transmission. As one can see from the name of the paper, their pilot study was limited to three geographic areas.

The volume under review, which arose out of a conference held in Oxford, March 26-28,2004, extends the analysis according to the same parameters to a much larger number of obsolescent scripts. The contributors discuss the last stages of Linear A (J. Bennet), Anatolian hieroglyphics (J. D. Hawkins), Elamite cuneiform (J. Black), Mesopotamian cuneiform (D. Brown with a postscript by J. Cooper), non-Roman alphabets of Italy (K. Lomas), Kharoth[] (R. Salomon), Egyptian writing (M. A. Stadler), the Meroitic syllabary (C. Rilly), alphabets of Southern Arabia (M, C. A. Macdonald), Maya glyphics (S. D. Houston), and Manchu writing (G. Stary). In addition, separate contributions tackle the demise of (likely) non-linguistic semiotic systems, such as Mesoamerican pictography (E. H. Boone) and Andean khipus (F. Salomon), as well as the precarious lives of revelatory scripts (J. Monaghan). C. Cosden addresses the general issue of the preservation and loss of traditions in illiterate societies, while J. Baines presents a summary of the conference findings. The volume as a whole represents the first book-length publication focusing on the disappearance of writing systems.

One conclusion that emerges out of comparison of different contributions is that ancient scripts were never abolished from above in a situation of economic, political, and linguistic stability. Normally the disappearance of writing systems goes hand-in-hand with the disintegration of complex societies, dynastic change caused by a foreign invasion, language shift, or a combination of these factors (p. 149). Good examples of economically driven script obsolescence are the gradual demise of Maya writing triggered by the collapse of Classical Maya city-states and the abrupt disappearance of Linear B linked to the violent destruction of Mycenaean palatial centers. The quick disappearance of Anatolian hieroglyphic writing in the Neo-Hittite states annexed to the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the sudden break in the transmission of Kharosthi in the area of modern Afghanistan in the wake of its Sasanian conquest show that scripts could vanish for political reasons. By contrast, the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform survived the downfall of the polities in which they served as means of nationalistic self-expression. Only centuries later did they succumb to the pressure of writing systems associated with socially dominant languages of the respective areas.

Even if the script obsolescence was linguistically driven, it is impossible to predict whether it would precede or follow the extinction of the respective written language. The first scenario, which is probably more common, can be observed in Roman Italy, where the local communities frequently shifted to the Roman alphabet before they adopted Latin for their inscriptions (pp. 119-20, 124). The same is true for Egypt, where the extinction of indigenous writing systems was accomplished by the fifth century A.D., whereas Coptic written texts continue to be produced today. By contrast, the Akkadian language appears to have died in writing together with the obsolescence of the cuneiform script. The occasional transcriptions of Late Babylonian texts in Greek letters apparently served the sole purpose of facilitating the reading of the cuneiform, and were not meant as its replacement (Houston et al. 2003: 454-56). A clear instance of the second scenario, which is not discussed in the volume under review, is the preservation of the slightly modified Greek alphabet for writing Bactrian after the Kushan king Kanishka gave up Greek as the official written language in the region.

A feature that unites many moribund languages and obsolescent scripts is the non-standard use of both systems in the last period of their existence. Thus, many Maya stelae of the terminal Classic period show simplification and reduction of sign shapes, omission of required phonetic complements, and confusion between similar signs (pp. 242-45). The latest astronomical-astrological texts recorded in cuneiform show many instances of abbreviated and confused Surnerograms (p. 90). On the other hand, the demotic papyri of the Roman period followed the pattern of hieroglyphic inscriptions and began to feature frequent "unetymological writings," presumably used in order to add another level of meaning to the words (pp. 170-74). One can add that the KARATEPE stele, probably the latest Anatolian hieroglyphic text known to date, introduces a number of syllabic signs that do not occur elsewhere. All these cases reflect the spurious use of logo-phonetic (hierarchical) scripts and bear witness to the fragmentation of the respective epigraphic communities on the eve of their final demise. In some of them the scribes appear to have been more interested in showing their art than in achieving effective communication.

The "sociological" approach to the development of script appears to have replaced the question "why" with a narrower question "how." It has succeeded in demonstrating the non-linear character of the evolution of writing and its tight connection with the political, economic, and ethnic history of individual regions. It has highlighted a number of cases where particular communities made sub-optimal choices among the available writing systems, such as the adoption of the Nabataean alphabet for writing Arabic (pp. 216-20). It has opened the field to sociolinguists by describing similarities between speech and script communities. But the extension of the linguistic uniformitarian hypothesis to writing is, in my opinion, counterproductive. Script, unlike language, is not a universal property of human beings but a cultural artifact. If we are prepared to assume that some number systems or calendars are more adequate than others, it is only natural to adopt the same approach in the case of writing systems.

This observation brings us back to the issue of "progress" in the development of writing. The linguistic metaphor does not seem to hold when we turn to alphabets or syllabic scripts. Learning a system of fifteen to one hundred signs requires relatively little effort, while its non-standard use may facilitate rather than complicate the understanding of the relevant texts by semi-literates (if it represents a deviation from historical orthography in favor of the phonetic principle). This explains both the extended sphere of use of many phonetic scripts and their remarkable resilience. Mesopotamian scribes would rarely resort to carving their names and thoughts on random objects, the way literate South Arabian nomads did for several centuries (p. 213). The hierarchical scripts, involving both phonetic signs and logograms/heterograms, were eventually replaced with phonetic renderings of Greek, Egyptian, and Persian, but I cannot think of a single case where the opposite replacement took place within an ethnic group.

J. Baines writes in the final chapter of the volume under review: "Writing now tends to be seen as a self-evident good, with universal literacy as a goal to which the world as a whole should aspire; in the West, such aspirations are unreflectingly linked to alphabetical writing and phonetic representation of languages. The small extent to which today's discourse takes into account the culturally and politically hegemonic character of such an assumption is striking" (p. 350). I would argue that the perception of the historical advantage of phonetic scripts follows not from our Eurocentric presumptions but precisely from studying transformations of writing systems. Approximately one-half of the ancient scripts discussed in the volume under review belong to the hierarchical type, but Japanese kanji+kana is the only widely used system displaying the same properties nowadays. The creation of the Meroitic syllabary provides a good example of how outward shapes of the prestigious hieroglyphic script were adapted to the new low-maintenance system in Africa with no pressure from the outside (pp. 186-88). I am again unaware of any opposite examples, where the raw material of a phonetic script would be used in a different culture for the creation of a logographic or hierarchical system.

Despite this methodological, or perhaps ideological, disagreement, I am happy to acknowledge that The Disappearance of Writing Systems is a carefully crafted collective volume, which should be recommended to all those interested in the evolution of writing systems. Its individual chapters were contributed by the leading specialists in their fields and are all accompanied by up-to-date bibliographies. Browsing through them, I failed to notice any factual mistakes or obsolete readings. The volume as a whole displays a high degree of internal coherence, while its non-technical language makes it appropriate for an educated audience of non-specialists. It is fair to say that it represents a worthy antithesis to the evolutionary account presented by Gelb in A Study of Writing. What one needs now is the synthesis of the two views.

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Author:Yakubovich, Ilya
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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