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The Idea of Writing: Play and Complexity.

The Idea of Writing: Play and Complexity. Edited by ALEX Dl VOOGT and IRVING FINKEL, with an introduction by ALEX DE VOCAT.. Leiden: BRILL, 2010. Pp. ix + 396. $169.

From their very inception, writing systems have proved remarkably versatile and adaptable. This property has been of crucial importance to their utility, enabling them to adapt to changes in spoken language across time and space, as well as to the written representation of additional languages, including ones typologically far removed from each other. Such flexibility brings with it both the burden of added complexity and the joy of manipulating that complexity toward aesthetic or ludic ends. Versatility, complexity, and play in writing systems of the world are the objects of inquiry in this edited volume of eighteen articles. The articles are grouped into four sections, which reflect the themes of the four Idea of Writing symposia from which the contributions are drawn: "Play in Writing," "Loanwords," "Polysemy," and "Towards Another Script." For the interested reader, these fascinating articles provide a wealth of information about variability and complexity in writing systems from around the world. both ancient and modern.

Three articles concerning Egyptian writing by Joachim Friedrich Quack and three articles concerning Maya writing by Erik Boot can he said to constitute the center of gravity of the book. These six fine pieces are among the best found in the collection, providing both descriptive and theoretical insight. The articles on Mayan will be particularly welcome to many readers who may be less familiar with the nature of this writing system and with the breakthroughs in its decipherment of recent decades. Indeed, Boot's writing should serve as a model for how to introduce a complex writing system to scholars in other fields. The articles begin with clear, concise introductions to the structure and function of the elements of the writing system and to the notational conventions employed, and are distinguished throughout by the use of clear visuals.

Boot's first contribution, "Substitution, Substitution, Substitution: The Many Faces of Maya Writing," in the "Play in Writing" section, begins with a seven-page introduction to Maya script (pp. 43-49) before embarking on an examination of "substitution" in the attested written variants of the name phrases of certain kings. Substitution, the "conditioned interchange of graphically different signs with the same value," has not only provided key clues for the decipherment of Maya writing, it also illustrates the way that the inherent flexibility of the writing system allows for what can loosely be called "play" (p. 50). Through manipulation of this flexibility, the scribe can simultaneously convey aesthetic and semantic connotations while also demonstrating erudition and command of the writing system. The iconographic, anthropomorphic, and zoographic possibilities inherent in the graphic structure of the script lend an "energetic and interactive" quality to Maya writing that Boot argues is perhaps unique in the world (p. 66). Boot's second contribution, found in the "Loanwords" section, is "Loanwords, 'Foreign Words,' and Foreign Signs in Maya Writing." In terms of theoretical contribution to the understanding of writing systems, it is the third topic mentioned in the title that is of greatest interest. Boot posits that some of the graphs on the Tikal Marcador (a monument dedicated in the year 416) are non-Maya signs writing (originally) non-Mayan names; because of their origin, these graphs lack phonetic elements that would allow their pronunciation to be determined. A remaining mystery, then, is whether they represented Maya loanwords, or were read as Mayan synonyms of the foreign words that the signs originally represented. In approaching such problems, Boot reminds us that loanwords and borrowed signs must be considered together, and can only be understood in sociocultural context: "Maya writing, as any writing system, cannot be seen out of the context of the civilization that invented (or adopted), developed, and used it" (p. 171). In the section on "Polysemy" the article "Maya Writing: Synonyms and Homonyms, Polyvalency and Polysemy" explores again the possibilities inherent in a polyvalent logographic writing system, explicating processes and representations that are also relevant to the way we conceptualize early developments in Egyptian, Cuneiform, and Chinese writing.

Quack's three contributions are in the "Loanwords," "Polysemy," and "Towards Another Script" sections. The second of these, "Difficult Hieroglyphs and Unreadable Demotic? How the Ancient Egyptians Dealt with the Complexities of Their Script," describes the interesting development of a new category of glyphs in the demotic Egyptian script, a category that has no equivalent in hieroglyphs: the "group sign," which "subsumes the earlier distinct categories of two-consonantal signs, three-consonantal signs, and word-signs" (pp. 245-46). Because Egyptologists have a tendency to view demotic as something of an afterthought, classification of demotic signs has been neglected, relying on the projection of hieroglyphic categories in a way that Quack deems synchronically inappropriate. Quack's analysis is preceded by a very useful general introduction to principles of the Egyptian writing system and a detailed explanation of the cursive development of the demotic script. As he points out, the cursivization of the graphic forms and the development of the "group sign" category led to a high degree of potential confusion and ambiguity in the demotic writing system, but contextual use of the writing is generally sufficient to surmount any problems: "As long as one looks at the complete word, most ambiguities are solved and there is only one possible interpretation" (p. 249).

Two articles in the collection, one by Henning Kloter and one by Wolfgang Behr, make particularly significant theoretical contributions. Kloter's article, "What is Being Borrowed? Language and Script Contact in Taiwan," aims to develop a framework for analyzing language contact that can adequately account for graphic borrowing as a significant factor, since language contact often occurs through the medium of writing. Such a new framework is necessary because "[t]he effects of 'multiscripturalism' on writing behavior and the interplay between language and script contact have largely been neglected. ... this neglect has, in turn, led to terminological insufficiency whenever the analysis of loanwords is integrated with issues of loanword writing" (p. 93). Kloter emphasizes that when considering borrowing, "graphic representation must be distinguished from the linguistic form as a third aspect [along with sound and meaning]. The question 'what is being borrowed' thus refers to form, meaning and graphs of loanwords" (p. 103). To illustrate the utility of this kind of analytical approach, Kloter examines nineteenth- and twentieth-century linguistic interactions in Taiwan, which involve four principal languages: Japanese, Taiwan Mandarin, Taiwan Southern Min, and English. Through well-chosen examples, Kloter shows that graphic elements can influence the way form and meaning are adapted during the borrowing process. Kloter's analysis is based on a three-dimensional classification of borrowing processes [+ or -] form [+ or -] meaning, [+ or -] graph]; of the eight theoretically possible configurations, five are illustrated, while the possibility of other subtypes occurring (possibly in quite different language contact contexts) is left open for future exploration.

Behr's article, "In the Interstices of Representation: Ludic Writing and the Locus of Polysemy in the Chinese Sign," moves beyond traditional analyses of Chinese character structure--which even today are influenced and constrained by the native Chinese analytical tradition dating back over two thousand years--to present a new, highly sophisticated classification of the internal structure of Chinese characters, one which may well prove to have broader application beyond Chinese. This analysis is informed by an understanding of diachronic morphological and phonological processes, which for script users can lead to opacity of the role of character elements and/or to reanalysis and repurposing of those elements. Behr shows how the conscious manipulation of such processes can be applied by sophisticated script users for purposes of "play," sometimes in extremely intricate and complex ways.

Nearly all the remaining articles in the collection have something of interest to offer. One may briefly mention in this regard Wilfred H. van Soldt's article presenting a straightforward and valuable explanation of how the Cuneiform syllabary (with its Akkadian values) was adapted to the phonemic systems of a number of different languages; Claude Rilly's article detailing the development of the Meroitic script (deciphered in 1911); van Soldt's second article, on the fascinating techniques that Ugaritic scribes used to "play" with Cuneiform by drawing on their knowledge of the Sumerian and Akkadian values of the graphs; Alex de Voogt's article on the Caroline Islands script and the ways that the goals of linguists may or may not serve the interests of the native users of a script; and Joukje Kolft's article on dance notation, which although lacking a theoretical framework presents inherently fascinating material.

Unfortunately, quite a kw articles in the collection are marred by insufficient editing, low-quality graphic images, descriptions that will be unclear to non-experts, and typographic errors. Surprisingly, a few of the articles do not provide any illustrations of the graphic forms under discussion. This not only is an impediment to understanding but also reduces the element of "play" for the reader, for whom perusal of unfamiliar graphs or novel applications of graphs is one of the expected joys of a book on writing. Other articles describe features of writing systems or diachronic developments without providing illustrative examples. Set against these deficiencies, the lovely presentation of Meroitic glyphs in Rilly's "Reducing Polyvalency in Writing Systems: From Egyptian to Meriotic" (despite the technological challenge presented by their current absence from the Unicode standard) may be raised as a positive example of the power of the apropos graphic illustration.

The editors make it clear that these articles are not meant to provide basic introductory information: "Explanations of the writing systems are only presented as far as it is necessary to comprehend the general argument of the examples in the text" (p. 4). Nevertheless, incomplete or inaccurate presentations in some of the articles impede understanding of concepts and examples. Reading the volume, one wished at times for a more forceful editorial hand, ranging at the minimum from the correction of embarrassing typographical errors (e.g., "loose" for "lose") to the imposition of consistency in spelling ("loanword" vs. "loan-word"), nomenclature ("ideographic" vs. "logographic"; "consonantary" vs. "abjad" vs. "alphabet with no vowels"), transcriptional notation, and bibliographic citation format, to the emendation of grammatically awkward or incoherent passages. Ultimately, this collection of articles is not as coherent as one might hope; variations in quality, nomenclature, transcriptional practice, and accessibility may be a barrier to some readers.

The book contains a brief introduction by Alexander de Voogt that discusses the main themes of the work, a handy author index that allows the reader to locate all references to the work of a particular scholar regardless of which individual bibliographies they appear in, a language and script index, and a comprehensive subject index.

The comparative study of writing systems is an area of research with important implications for a diverse number of fields, including history, sociology, linguistics, and literature, to name a few. Yet there is no natural home for such research within the current structure of Western academia. Indeed, even a conventional English term for such a field of study is lacking. "Grammatology" is the closest we have, but one is hard pressed to find a scholar who self-identifies principally as a "grammatologist." In this context, the symposium series, the "Idea of Writing," by bringing together specialists from different academic disciplines with expertise in different writing systems, is performing a much-needed function. As the diverse articles in the present volume show, complexity and play, despite variations in matters of detail, have been universal features of writing systems and the cultures that employ them. They bridge time and space, connecting ancient writing with that of our preSent day. This fact is brought home by the examples given by Behr (pp. 308-9) of Chinese "riddle presentation poetry" (which apparently dates back to the twelfth century), which bear a surprising resemblance to the popular contemporary British puzzle form known as "cryptic crosswords." The symposium series is ongoing: it is hoped that we can look forward to more stimulating collections in the future.

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Author:Handel, Zen
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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