Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reading :: The Origins of Writing

The Origins of Writing
Edited by Wayne M. Senner

I read this 1989 edited collection over the winter break, but have been buried under other duties, so I haven't been able to give it its due. That's a shame, because it's an enjoyable book, with a variety of pieces including a chapter by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. The collection covers Sumerian tokens, early cuneiform, Egyptian heiroglyphics, the development of the Phonecian, Arabic, and Latin alphabets, runes and Celtic scripts, Chinese and Mesoamerican writing.

With this broad sweep, the collection ends up alighting briefly on different forms of writing. That means that readers get a sampling of these different writing systems and (sometimes) a sense of how they interact. But it also means that we don't get a sustained argument of how writing developed and spread.

Nevertheless, we see some interesting connections. In his chapter on the invention and development of the alphabet, for instance, Frank Moore Cross argues that the alphabet was invented only once (p.77). Nevertheless, five major, independent systems developed in the ancient Near East (p.77). Despite the mystic rumors swirling around runes, Elmer Antonsen compellingly argues in his chapter that these developed from the Latin alphabet, but adapted both for language and for the Germanic tendency to cut letters into wood: "the runic shapes avoid curves and horizontal lines, changing them to angles and oblique lines" because in wood "it is difficult to execute curves, and horizontal lines would tend to be obscured by the grain of the wood" (p.144).

These chapters, and the others, tell us fascinating things about how the diverse set of writing systems - some of which bear very little resemblance to each other - developed and interacted. If you're interested in the history for writing, check it out.

No comments: