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Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 566-567 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0036

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The importance of writing for human history is difficult to exaggerate; in the book reviewed here, it is called “the most important technology in the history of the human species, except how to make a fire” (11). As one would expect, there is an enormous body of literature on the history and development of writing, but in Powell’s view, previous studies of the topic have severe weaknesses and can mislead the unwary reader. This book is intended to rectify this situation, by rebutting some popular misconceptions (e.g., “the common supposition that writing comes from pictures” [1]) and by “providing a scientific nomenclature for understanding writing built on a coherent model of the different internal structures that govern all writing” (1). The focus is on lexigraphic writing, i.e., “writing attached to speech” (3), although one chapter is on semasiography, i.e., “writing not attached to speech” (4). To summarize some of Powell’s main points briefly: writing was invented around 3400 b.c.; it was invented independently only twice (or perhaps three times), once in Mesopotamia and once in Mesoamerica (it was possibly also invented in China, although the possibility that writing was transmitted along trade routes from Mesopotamia to China cannot be ruled out); and all alphabets are somehow related to the Greek alphabet (212).

The book consists of sixteen thematic chapters, bookended by introductory and concluding chapters. The introductory chapter lays out the goals of the book and argues for a distinction between language and speech. (According to Powell, failure to distinguish between these two ideas has plagued the study of writing.) Four general chapters follow, which focus on the definition of writing; the use of “material signs with a conventional reference” (19), e.g. musical notation and computer icons; the transition from semasiography to lexigraphic writing (via the rebus) and the divisions of lexigraphic writing; and the formation of lexigraphic writing systems, respectively. The next two chapters are devoted to Mesopotamia. The first skillfully rebuts the idea that writing developed from pictures, and evaluates Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s theory that writing originated in Mesopotamia out of a system of token exchange. The second concentrates on the decipherment of cuneiform, the messiness of transliterating the system, and changes in cuneiform.

These chapters are followed by four wide-ranging chapters on Egypt. These chapters cover issues like the effects of Neo-Platonism on the interpretation of the hieroglyphs, the role of Coptic and the Rosetta Stone in their decipherment, the forms of the hieroglyphs, and the role of the scribe in Ancient Egypt. Readers of this journal will particularly appreciate the next chapter, on “Syllabic Scripts of the Aegean”: “Cretan hieroglyphs” (a term always used with scare quotes, as “the shapes of the signs have nothing to do with Egyptian signs” [130]), Linear A, Linear B, and the Cypriote syllabary.

The next three chapters are on West Semitic. Powell argues that the “invention of the West Semitic writing was the second great moment in the history of writing, or in the history of civilization” (153), and backs this bold statement up with extensive discussion of the system’s origins and development. (Chapter 13 also tangentially addresses the Greek alphabet; in Powell’s view, our common way of thinking about speech sounds as “vowels” and “consonants” and also as “phonemes,” results directly from the Greek alphabet: speech is a continuous stream, not a set of discrete sounds, as even a casual glance at a spectrogram reveals.) Chapters 15 and 16 then take the reader much farther afield; chapter 15 deals with the Chinese tradition of writing, and chapter 16 is devoted to the Mayan hieroglyphs.

The final thematic chapter deals with the Greek alphabet, with discussion of inscriptions like that on the Nestor cup. Powell suggests that the Greek alphabet was born out of “the need to record Greek hexameter verse” (242). The concluding chapter summarizes the book.

There is much to admire in this book. The arguments are lucid and persuasive, the examples are judicious and well-chosen, and the numerous illustrations only add to the work’s value. Some of the book will simply be too dense for beginners, but most of the work is very...

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