The true character of writing

Alpha Beta - Chinese - Unlocking the Secrets of Ancient Writing
September 1, 2000

The British Museum series Reading the Past, since it began in 1987, has established a reputation for introducing ancient scripts such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan Linear B and Mayan glyphs, not to speak of the early alphabet, to the general reader. With the publication of Chinese by Oliver Moore, a former curator in the museum's department of oriental antiquities now at the University of Leiden, Reading the Past has almost reached its conclusion.

To introduce Chinese from scratch in a mere 80 pages was probably the toughest challenge in the series. Not only is the Chinese writing system (and especially its offshoot, the Japanese script) the most complex ever invented, it also suffers from two basic misconceptions in the minds of most people outside China. First, the script is not some magic wand that enables Chinese people from different parts of China who speak different "dialects" - some 30 per cent of Chinese do not speak Mandarin as their first language - to communicate through written signs independent of spoken language. Second, although the Chinese script does indeed contain many thousands of characters, each of which represents an individual word, in direct contrast to alphabets with their 20-40 letters combining to make words, the Chinese characters are not, as a rule, "ideographic": they do not represent an object or concept in a recognisable form, ie a pictogram, and they generally contain a phonetic as well as a semantic component. Thus a Chinese person seeing an unfamiliar character is not totally at a loss as to its pronunciation and meaning (no one could learn, and write fluently in, a system which offered no clues at all).

Moore beards these two myths. In chapter one, he points out that if you are a speaker of a southern regional language such as Cantonese (Yue) or Shanghainese (Wu), you need to learn Mandarin, or Standard Modern Chinese (SMC) as it is increasingly known, and its script, if you wish to read anything printed in Beijing. "Although obvious links between these Chinese languages exist, they differ considerably in their pronunciation, syntactical features and many basic items of vocabulary." And in chapter two, he states that "each character conveys both sound and meaning". Thus the character for "sheep", yáng , in which a is pronounced with a rising tone, is different from four other characters for "pretend", "ocean", "melt" and "beetle" also pronounced yáng with the same tone. Each of the four characters contains the same phonetic component as in "sheep" but a different semantic component; the four semantic components are associated with the concepts of "man", "water", "fire" and "insect", respectively.

The rest of the book looks at historical inscriptions, from the "oracle bones" of the Shang dynasty (the earliest Chinese writing of c. 1200 BC), through the Zhou, Qin and Han dynasty inscriptions right up to the modern simplifications introduced by the Communist government in 1955, 1964 and 1977 - the last of which was rescinded in the same year because it went a step too far and led to ambiguity of meaning. On the way, we encounter some beautiful examples of calligraphy in the "seal", "tadpole" and "bird" scripts, culminating in the "regular" script, which became the norm after the introduction of printing in the 9th century or perhaps earlier. Throughout, the examples are both appealing and illuminating, with several vitally necessary comparative charts showing the development of characters over time, and the exposition is always clear and accessible. No previous Sinologist has managed to distil the essentials of the Chinese script for the non-specialist as ably as Moore.

Unlocking the Secrets of Ancient Writing deals with Europe and Central America. This is a brief, rather charming catalogue for an exhibition held this year at the University of Texas at Austin to commemorate (in the words of its subtitle) "The parallel lives of Michael Ventris and Linda Schele and the decipherment of Mycenaean and Mayan writing". Ventris, an English architect, was the brilliant decipherer of Linear B in 1953, and many papers relating to this decipherment are held at Austin under the direction of Thomas Palaima, the instigator of the exhibition. Schele, less known, who died in 1998, was a professor at the university who, though not a pioneer like Ventris, made important contributions to the decipherment of Mayan glyphs and who was celebrated for annually leading the Workshops in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing that attracted hundreds of enthusiasts from all over the United States.

Although it would be hard to think of two people less obviously alike than Ventris and Schele, there is a definite parallel in that both were outsiders to the academic establishment and both were convinced of the importance of collaboration with others, including of course academic specialists. This is well brought out in the catalogue, especially in Palaima's scholarly yet lively account of how Ventris worked with the Americans Alice Kober and Emmett Bennett Jr. In the end, Ventris succeeded in "cracking the code" because, unlike the professionals, he was willing to speculate. Although his initial hypothesis was wrong, his later one - that Linear B wrote an early form of Greek -was spot on.

The origin of the alphabet has been a source of speculation since the time of Herodotus, as the travel writer and historian John Man discusses in Alpha Beta . How, where and when did this seminal idea that spoken languages could be represented by a small number of phonetic symbols rather than by large numbers of symbols standing for whole words (as in Chinese) arise? And what is its connection, if any, to the efflorescence of literature, philosophy and mathematics in ancient Greece?

Alpha Beta offers no new answers and little new material, except for its discussion of the recent discoveries of the archaeologists John and Deborah Darnell in the Egyptian desert. John Darnell has found what may be the very first alphabetic inscriptions, dating from perhaps 2000 BC. If he is right - and the evidence is insufficient at present - it appears that the Semitic alphabet, and hence the Greek and Roman alphabets, derive mainly from the simplest signs used in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. The alphabet would therefore have been invented in Egypt, rather than in Sinai or Palestine as previously thought. The pharaohs could have used an alphabet too, but their scribes preferred the prestige conferred by hieroglyphic script.

Readable though it mostly is, if under-illustrated, Alpha Beta is marred by sloppiness: both intellectual, especially in its Etruscan chapter and in its comparison of the alphabetic idea to the fanciful "meme" concept suggested by Richard Dawkins; and factual, with serious errors such as a "base-ten" numbering system in Central America, Hammurabi as an "Assyrian" ruler and Egyptians not "having" vowels.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES , and author of The Story of Writing .

Alpha Beta: How our Alphabet Shaped the Western World

Author - John Man
ISBN - 0 7472 7136 4
Publisher - Headline
Price - £14.99
Pages - 312

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