A-Z, abjad or even abugida

Writing Systems

November 26, 2004

It is a commonplace that all writing began with pictures. This seems to be true of the Old World, and the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphic system from Central America makes it likely that we are dealing with a fundamental property of the human mind. However, pictures are limited in what they can convey: in particular, it is difficult to embody abstract or subjective concepts or fussy but useful things such as grammatical elements.

It is arguable that only two ideas have ever been put forward to solve these problems. One is the pun, and the other is the cartoon. In the first, pictures are used to represent other words or parts of words with similar or identical sounds. This method, reduced to the minimum, leads to the alphabet, where the phonetics of the signs are paramount and the pictorial content is, in effect, lost. The cartoon, which is a less common device, combines ideas without reference to phonetics. An example is the Chinese character for “truth”, which juxtaposes the signs for “man” and “speech”, since truth can be construed as a man standing by his word. From such simple techniques, almost the entire complexity of human thought has sooner or later found expression.

Henry Rogers’ Writing Systems is structured as a textbook, with exercises at the end of chapters. However, its real strength is as a reference work, extending over almost all the world’s scripts, including some modern synthetic ones that make for interesting comparisons with their more natural cousins. The book’s coverage of Far Eastern writing systems is exceptionally detailed, with interesting material on the evolution of phonetics and the emergence of the Chinese tones. The treatment of the Japanese syllabaries (syllabaries in this book are subsumed under moraic writing systems) increases one’s respect for those who have succeeded in mastering this language.

The growth of the alphabet (here known by the Arabic term abjad or the Indian abugida ), from what may have been a single origin to the profusion that is seen in the modern world, is explained in detail but with no loss of clarity. There is an excellent discussion of the greatest undeciphered puzzle, the writing of the Indus Valley and its possible linguistic links. At the modern end of the spectrum, the various 19th and 20th-century scripts developed for Amerindian languages are also featured.

There are occasional errors of transcription, and the clay tablet of Fig. 8.6 is Cypro-Minoan, and not Cypriot Greek as stated. These are unavoidable in a work of such scope and complexity.
Political correctness makes an earnest appearance in the book, inasmuch as the anodyne CE and BCE for the traditional AD and BC are themselves thought controversial; hence they are replaced by NEW and OLD respectively. Perhaps, but one wonders whether the implied ageism of this distinction will lead to yet further refining before long. This apart, the book will prove a useful and impressive introduction to a fascinating field of study.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, Cambridge University.

Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. First edition

Author - Henry Rogers
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 322
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 631 23463 2 and 23464 0

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.