Conceptual clarity but cock-eyed Coptic in hard-to-follow script

A History of Writing
February 15, 2002

Nowadays it is fashionable to extend the meaning of "writing" to any system of visual communication - "the sole purpose of writing is to store information essential to the survival and development of a particular society" is how one confused version begins - as opposed to "privileging" the systems for recording language in full detail. But since some term is needed for the latter, it makes more sense to keep the traditional one for the traditional meaning (and to use "semiotic system", say, for the broader). Steven Roger Fischer's first chapter is excellent on this question.

But it is hard to find anything else to recommend in this book. There are eight more or less geographically organised chapters, and several dozen illustrations of scripts, most neither transliterated nor translated. The history is sketchy and assumes the correctness of the author's decipherments of Crete's Phaistos disc and Easter Island rongorongo , and other unproven ones such as Linear A as Greek.

Far too many paragraphs touching on the scripts of Semitic languages, and on the ancient Near East generally, are error-ridden - from the ridiculous, such as "Nabataen" passim for Nabataean (an Arab tribe whose script is the ancestor of Arabic), to misunderstandings such as that the ancient Egyptians used their 24 (not 26) monoconsonantal hieroglyphs as a "consonantal alphabet", and mistakes such as "two dialects" of Coptic (at least five existed), Akkadian and Hurr-ian as "two related languages", or the statement that Mesopotamian cuneiform was "cannibalised" for the Ugaritic script.

Factual inadequacy sometimes hides behind a pseudo-scholarly scattershot of apparatus. Five unexceptionable words, "Complete writing's crucible was accountancy", are attributed to all four volumes of J. D. Bernal's Science in History . Meanwhile, a sentiment diametrically opposed to mine - "All the writing systems of ancient Afro-Asia appear to relate to one another in some way, either by immediate borrowing and adaptation (conversion) or by indirect influence" - is credited to a chapter of mine in The World's Writing Systems , where my demonstration of the unlikelihood of a Mesopotamia-China stimulus is summarised.

It is flattering that the author has apparently studied WWS so carefully as to communicate some findings almost verbatim; and to adopt my not yet widely known typological terminology ( abjad / abugida , dyslexically rendered "abudiga" passim ) - although without proper acknowledgement. Conversely, he failed to learn the one lesson I most want to teach: that writing was (independently) invented in cultures sufficiently complex to warrant it only if the "words" of their language were just one syllable long (making feasible the rebus principle). Fischer's resort is to "some other dynamic".

A History of Writing isn't one.

Peter T. Daniels co-edited The World's Writing Systems (1996).

A History of Writing

Author - Steven Roger Fischer
ISBN - 1 86189 101 6
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95
Pages - 352

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