Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Reading :: Writing and Script

Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction
By Andrew Robinson

This little book lives up to its subtitle: It's pocket-sized and only 157pp, and serves as a condensed version of Robinson's earlier book The Story of Writing. Like that earlier book, Writing and Script attempts to provide an overview of writing from its emergence to the present day. That's an enormous charge, but most of the book covers the origins and development of writing.

In fact, I picked up this book specifically because I was interested in learning more about the origins of writing. I've read about it in Denise Schmandt-Besserat's work, but wanted a broader take. In this sense, Writing and Script provided a nice overview. Robinson is openly skeptical of Schmandt-Besserat's thesis that writing emerged from tokens, characterizing it as a minority view for which "the correlation is patchy"; although the "theory is reasonable, it seems overcomplicated" (p.7). Robinson favors the view that tokens and bullae accompanied the origin of writing but did not precede it; rather, writing emerged from pictograms (p.8). "What is virtually certain, though, is that the first written symbol began life as pictures" (p.9).

Robinson discusses the geographical origins and likely chronology of writing's development (p.19 et passim), acknowledging the many questions about whether it appeared first in Mesopotamia or Egypt, and suggesting that writing was invented many times in different places (an account at odds with Schmandt-Besserat and Erard's assertion that it was only invented three times in human history).

Overall, Robinson packs a lot of information into this little book. I very much enjoyed the accounts of writing and the comparisons of different scripts, especially the ones that are genetically linked. The book is a quick but fascinating read, and I recommend it highly if you're at all interested in the development of writing.

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