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  • Writing systems: An introduction to their linguistic analysis by Florian Coulmas
  • Peter Unseth
Writing systems: An introduction to their linguistic analysis. By Florian Coulmas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xix, 270. ISBN 0521787378. $22.

Coulmas has given us not just a review of the development of writing systems, but a serious and thorough exploration of their linguistic and sociolinguistic significance. Few are as qualified as C to undertake such a broad task, quoting everyone from Noam Chomsky to Joshua Fishman to Mark Twain.

As C reviews the development of scripts, he does not spend much time on such things as the shapes of symbols being altered as they are transmitted from one language to another, but rather focuses on how these symbols are used in the new language and what level of language they represent. He examines scripts that are primarily word-based, syllable-based, and segment-based, arguing that none of them is a pure system, all of them mixing in elements from other levels. For example, English 〈to〉, 〈too〉, and 〈two〉 reflect a word-based element. C argues strongly that writing systems are not simply graphic representations of some level of language (word, syllable, phoneme), but rather that they are autonomous. One of the outcomes of this assumption about the automous status of writing systems is that the written form of a language also acts as an agent of linguistic change. This assumption distinguishes his book from other books that have surveyed writing systems.

In addition to his excellent work on the interaction of language and scripts (what one expects from a book of this title), C closes with a bonus chapter, ‘Sociolinguistics of writing’. This is a solid contribution to a topic growing in interest and C shows his breadth here.

There are some small disappointments in the book. C has been misinformed about the Ethiopic syllabary, that some vowels precede the consonants of their symbol (154). In addition, he categorizes SIL as helping to spread the Roman alphabet (201), whereas SIL has worked on computerized implementations of more scripts than any other organization, including involvement in developing the first software for Ethiopic, Vai, Burmese, and so on. Apparent problems involving typesetting include 〈ɲ〉 as ‘velar’ (102) and the loss of an underline diacritic in a Hebrew example (120). Of more concern is C’s assumption that in reading consonantally based Hebrew and Arabic scripts, the vowels simply ‘take care of themselves’ (122, 126), an assumption more asserted than defended.

Those who have read C’s The writing systems of the world (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) will recognize his thinking on many topics, but will find much that is expanded or new, justifying the publication of the present volume.

This book serves as a good reference for students of writing systems and will reward phonologists who want to probe additional paths to understand how our brains process sounds. With questions at the end of each chapter, the book, another fine specimen of the famous Cambridge ‘red series’ of textbooks, would serve well as a key part of a course on writing systems.

Peter Unseth
Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL, Intl


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