The Story Of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms, by Andrew Robinson
Having read some of the author’s work before, I did not find this book or its approach particularly surprising. It is striking to me, and more than a little bit disconcerting, just how political matters of orthography are. The sort of letters we use when writing speak to a high degree about our own viewpoints of cultural imperialism, and to support alphabetization of languages around the world is, in some ways, to wish to make the world in our own image as users of a moderately effective Latin-based alphabet ourselves. A great many writing systems have gone out of use, some are threatened (like Japanese kanji) by computers and the desire to make writing systems more rational and egalitarian, and still others have what should be fairly obvious acceptance threatened by political questions over which regime supports them (as is the case with the indigenous alphabet of the Koreans). If all of this amounts to a great deal that I already know in new packaging, it is likely only because I have long been interested in languages, from ancient scripts to contemporary logograms, and the way in which many systems of writing require a fair bit of context to understand. Most other readers will likely find this book far more original.
This particular book of a bit more than 200 pages is divided into 13 chapters, after a short introduction and before the inevitable suggestions for further reading and index. The first part of the book examines how writing works, with chapters on reading the Rosetta stone (1), the relationship between sound, symbol, and script (2), and some examples of proto-writing in ice age symbols and various tallies and tokens and pictograms that may end up being seen as more full writing if more samples are discovered (3). After that the author moves to extinct writing in the second part of the book, with chapters on cuneiform (4), Egyptian hieroglyphs (5), Linear B (6), Mayan glyphs (7), as well as a host of undeciphered scripts ranging from the Indus script, Etruscan, Proto-Elamite, Linear A, the Phaistos disk, and Rongorongo (8). Finally, the book ends with a discussion of living writing in its third part, with chapters on the first alphabet of the Phoenicians (9), the way that new alphabets come from old ones, like the Greek and Latin letters from the Phoenician ones, the Arabic and Indian scripts, runes, and the Cherokee syllabary (10), as well as Chinese (11) and Japanese (12) writings and the return of logograms in the contemporary world (13).
As long as we attempt to understand and communicate with the world around us as human beings it is likely that writing will be a major aspect of this. To be sure, writing has always presented various difficulties, including the problem of differentiating between sounds and the ambiguities that result from homophones and homonyms and often inconsistent pronunciation. That said, there are clearly some forms of writing that are far easier to master than others, and a great deal of conflict that exists in the contemporary world because of what is viewed as cultural imperialism on one side or another. Scripts become popular due to prestige–the rise of the Latin script was first due to the prestige of the Latin language within the European world and then the prestige of Europe within the world as a whole, even in the inspiration of other scripts that, like the Cherokee syllabary, were caused by the prestige of having writing and the desire on the part of Sequoia to create such a tool for his own language. And this book reminds us that the struggle to record things in writing for the sake of posterity and communication and recording goes back a long way and is likely to be a considerable issue going forward as well.