Book Review

STEPHEN D. HOUSTON (ed.). The shape of script: how and why writing systems change. xxiv+322 pages. 54 illustrations, 5 tables. 2012. Santa Fe (NM): School for Advanced Research Press; 978-1-934691-42-7 paperback $34.95.

Review by Andrew Robinson
London, UK

Robinson image

In the comparative study of writing systems, there is a tendency to suppose that the signary of each system has a fixed form—whether it be the 26 letters of the English alphabet, the 50 or so syllabograms of the Japanese katakana, or the many hundreds of logograms of Egyptian hieroglyphic. Of course, every specialist in a particular writing system knows that in reality its signs frequently changed their form over time as a result of various pressures, ranging from the trivial to the important. Yet these details are usually regarded as "esoteric to outsiders", writes the Mayanist Stephen Houston, editor of The shape of script, "attention to them a harmless if ineffectual pursuit" best left to specialists. This collection—arising from a seminar held in the United States in 2007—aims to show why this view is inadequate.

Houston has earlier edited, or co-edited, two valuable collections on how scripts are born (The first writing, 2004) and how they die (The disappearance of writing systems, 2008). The shape of script—about the development of scripts—is equally valuable, though its less dramatic subject matter means that the book will most likely appeal more than its two preceding volumes to a predominantly specialist readership.

Until quite recently, it was common for scholars to assume that writing systems must inevitably evolve towards greater efficiency or a more phonemic representation of the languages they express—a notion encapsulated in the so-called 'triumph of the alphabet'. This somewhat arid view, influentially articulated by I. J. Gelb in A study of writing in the 1950s, is no longer tenable. It is increasingly clear that many other factors influence the formation of a script, including the purely aesthetic. Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Chinese characters functioned successfully over a time span longer than the Roman alphabet, for all their evident complexity. Today, there is a much greater awareness that successful writing systems were enmeshed in the particular needs and values of societies. "Writing partakes of the complex structure of a society; it defines the social place of those who use it as scholars, scribes, readers or uninitiated bystanders", notes Niek Veldhuis in regard to the convoluted history of cuneiform. As Houston rightly argues in his preface: "The study of writing needs to be brought back into the fold of anthropology, not as a marginal or recondite specialty but because it is an indispensable tool by which knowledge is transmitted." The book's wide-ranging contributions respond to this brief with both erudition and imagination.

Richard Salomon points out in his overarching essay, "Some principles and patterns of script change", that when he was in high school, it was fashionable for girls to write a circle, instead of a dot, above the letter 'i'. Some went further and drew a tiny heart, instead of a circle. Such calligraphic playfulness is found in all writing systems—perhaps most notably in Chinese—although it may have no enduring status. Technology may also influence a script's shape. For example, the ductus of Indian scripts (Salomon's specialty) tends towards straight lines and sharp angles in northern India, for example in Bengali, whereas that of southern Indian scripts, such as Tamil, emphasises curved lines and rounded forms. The reason is thought to be that the birch bark and paper used in northern India was less prone to being split by a metal stylus drawing straight lines and sharp angles than the palm leaves used in the south. Most important of all, the signs of a script may be adopted to write an entirely new language, thereby undergoing permanent changes of form. This happened when the Phoenician signs were adopted by the ancient Greeks, the Chinese characters were borrowed by the Japanese, and the Latin alphabet was used by Spanish colonialists to write the Mixtec language of central Mexico.

The book devotes separate chapters to the many varieties of cuneiform, to the various ancient Egyptian, ancient Roman, Arabic, Bronze Age Chinese, Japanese, Mayan and Mixtec scripts, as well as to the history of written numerals. The limited attention given to ancient Greek is perhaps surprising, with no reference at all to Europe's earliest readable writing, Mycenaean Linear B. There is also no reference to undeciphered scripts, apart from the Etruscan script (where it is the underlying language, rather than the Greek-derived signs themselves, that remains a mystery)—not to mention an absence of the great decipherers Jean-François Champollion and Michael Ventris. However, gaps are inevitable with a subject as diverse as writing systems. Overall, this book completes a trilogy of books on scripts' origins, development and disappearance, of which its hard-working editor should feel justifiably proud.