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Review of The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets
AUTHORS: George L. Campbell and Christopher Moseley TITLE: The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets SUBTITLE: Second edition PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2011
Philippa M. Steele, Faculty of Classics / Magdalene College, University of Cambridge
SUMMARY The first edition of The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets came out in 1997 and was the work of the famous polyglot linguist George L. Campbell, who published it as a supplement to his two-volume Compendium of the World’s Languages. This second edition, appearing six years after his death in 2004 at the age of ninety-two, has been amended, corrected and ‘fairly considerably amplified’ (p. viii) by Christopher Moseley. The book is aimed at a broad and amateur readership, and Moseley specifies in the ‘Preface to the second edition’ (pp. viii-ix) that it is intended as ‘a useful guide for anyone wanting an introduction to the many and fascinating scripts in which the languages of the world have been written’ (p. viii).
Following the preface and a short initial chapter entitled ‘Introduction: the world’s families of scripts’ (pp. 1-2), the main body of the work consists of short separate entries for each of the writing systems discussed, with accompanying illustrations and sign tables. New to the second edition is a tripartite categorisation into ‘ancient’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘autochthonous’ writing systems, with scripts ordered alphabetically within each of the three sections. A ‘Further Reading’ section (p. 182) is included at the end, followed by a short index (p. 183).
Overall the Handbook gives a good general treatment of most of the well-known, and a number of the less well-known, writing systems of the world. An effort has been made to demonstrate not only the appearance and type of script in use in each case, but also the extent to which the script is an effective representation of the phonological features of the language it is used to write. The level of detail to which each writing system is discussed varies from case to case, with some requiring an extended examination of their development over time or the complexities of their usage (for example, the comparatively lengthy overview of Chinese, pp.72-81).
EVALUATION The difficulty of producing -- and indeed reviewing -- a book that aims to introduce the writing systems of the world is that no single person is likely to be an expert in all the entities discussed. Famously, George L. Campbell, the original author, was proficient at speaking and reading more than forty languages, and so was as well placed as anyone could be to publish volumes that surveyed the world’s languages and scripts, especially volumes intended for a general rather than specialised readership. Nevertheless, with such a broad remit, inevitably there will be some errors and omissions, which was one of the reasons why Christopher Moseley, himself co-editor of the Atlas of the World’s Languages (Routledge, 2007), has produced this second edition of the Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets. Even in the new edition, however, some imperfections have remained or been introduced.
The very brief Introduction (pp. 1-2) purports to discuss ‘the world’s families of scripts’, because ‘it would be as well at the outset to show how some scripts are derived from others’ (p. 1). However, the ensuing paragraph mentions only briefly a ‘link’ between a number of named scripts (Phoenician, ‘Greek’, Linear B, ‘Minoan’, the Roman alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet), whose relations with each other ‘can best be shown schematically’ (p. 1), in this case via an inaccurate diagram reprinted from Diringer 1948 (which makes it look as though the Greek alphabet is not a direct development from the Phoenician abjad). It is unclear what is meant here by the reference to a ‘link’ between these scripts: presumably a genetic interpretation is not intended, since the Linear A and B syllabaries are unrelated to the Phoenician abjad and the later alphabets descended from it, but on the other hand there is no clear indication that this is a reference to theories of unidirectional development from pictographic to alphabetic script types (as in e.g. Gelb 1952, which is cited briefly in the Further Reading section on p. 182).
The Introduction goes on to inform the reader that writing systems can be categorised into various different types, which represent phonemes (a term that is never explained in the book, despite the intended general readership), syllables and concepts to different degrees. Only three particular terms are then glossed: ‘alphabets’ (optimistically described as ‘a system in which all phonemes, both vowels and consonants, are given their own symbols of equal value’, p. 2), ‘abjads’ and ‘syllabic alphabets’. Providing these definitions is important, especially for the lay reader, but it would have been helpful if further script types (e.g. syllabaries and pictographic and logographic systems) were described, and if the main part of the book used only the glossed terms (e.g. Epigraphic South Arabian, pp. 23-5, is described as a ‘consonantal alphabet’ rather than an ‘abjad’, the term established here).
The above complaints are relatively minor, and much more obvious to an expert epigraphist than they would be to the majority of readers. Although a longer and more informative introduction would be a desirable adjunct, for the most part the book does a good job of demonstrating the diversity of ancient and modern writing systems. Each script is dealt with in turn, with a brief discussion of its origins and structure, and its application to the language or languages written in it; the clear and detailed structural descriptions of each script, usually presented in relatively simple and accessible terms, compensate for the brevity of the Introduction.
The new structure of the second edition, with writing systems categorised as ‘ancient’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘autochthonous’, is clearly intended as an improvement on the first edition, which listed ancient and modern scripts together. The case for dividing ancient from contemporary scripts is convincing enough, as the ancient writing systems are specified by Moseley in the Preface as ones that are no longer in use and that were used to write languages that are now dead, as opposed to ones still in use today (p. ix). However, the category of ‘autochthonous writing systems’ appears to be a bizarre misnomer for a set of scripts that Moseley defines as ones that have arisen ‘usually in the last couple of centuries, within or for a particular small speech community, unrelated to any system used for surrounding languages’ (p. ix): of the seven writing systems assigned to this category, four were created by native speakers after various degrees of external influence (the Munda language scripts, N’ko, Pahawh Hmong and Vai) and two by Christian missionaries with at least partial inspiration from the Roman alphabet (the Fraser and Pollard scripts), while only one could truly be described as ‘autochthonous’ in the sense that it seems to be original as well as unique to one particular location (the undeciphered Rongorongo script of Easter Island). One also wonders why some of the writing systems assigned to the ‘contemporary’ group, such as Cherokee and Cree, were not included in the ‘autochthonous’ category, given the similarities in their origins to most of the other scripts in that class.
Moving from the overarching structure to the treatment of individual entities, throughout its pages the Handbook highlights the numerous interconnections between the world’s writing systems, with many a script described as being derived from or at least partially based on another. The question of the invention of writing, and the number of separate inventions that must have taken place to result in the variety of writing systems we know of, is not discussed but will surely be in the mind of the curious reader. The interrelatedness of so many of the world’s scripts also causes a problem in terms of basic categorisation: what constitutes a separate script, to be listed under its own heading? While many related scripts are given separate entries in the book (e.g. Gujarati, Gurmukhi and Bengali listed separately from Devanāgarī), some have been grouped together, especially in the ‘ancient writing systems’ section (e.g. the ‘Aegean scripts’, pp. 7-9, and the ‘Anatolian scripts’, pp. 10-11). Occasionally a surprising choice has been made in this regard, for example the listing of only the Persian (alphabetic) form of cuneiform, with minimal reference to the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Elamite forms of the script and no reference at all to Hittite cuneiform (even in the ‘Anatolian scripts’ entry).
As mentioned above, no reader is likely to be an expert in all the scripts listed in this book, and the present reviewer’s specialism lies in the area of the ancient scripts, especially those of the Mediterranean and nearby. That being the case, I will limit close criticism to the Aegean scripts and the Greek and Roman alphabets. The Aegean scripts are listed under ‘ancient writing systems’ and are an example of a set of scripts that have no continuation in the modern day; the description given here is mostly accurate, and reveals the existence of several related writing systems (on the relations, see most recently Steele forthcoming), including Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B (early Greek). A few inaccuracies emerge: Linear A is not confined to accounting documents, as suggested here (p. 7); there is not only one related Cypriot script, but at least two, usually termed Cypro-Minoan (undeciphered) and the Cypriot Syllabary (Greek and at least one unknown language) (p. 8); and the table on p. 9 labelled ‘The Aegean Script’ consists of a table that gives only the core signs of the Linear B script, and does not include the ‘duplicate’/‘homophonous’ (e.g. a2, a3, pu2, etc.) or ‘complex’ (e.g. nwa, pte, etc.) signs that form a part of the whole syllabary.
The entry for ‘Greek’, in the ‘contemporary writing systems’ section, begins by describing Linear B again (with an outdated reference to ‘Dorian invasions’ as the reason for the fall of the Mycenaean palaces) and goes on to explain briefly the adaptation of the Greek alphabet from ‘Canaanite/Phoenician’ in the early first millennium BC (p. 98). The alphabet is described as ‘not phonologically the most precise’ (though without explanation), which somewhat overlooks the huge step towards the phonemic principle that is represented in the script’s creation (and not only in the matter of the adaptation or invention of separate vowel signs, which is mentioned fleetingly). The entry for ‘Roman’ gives an accurate and quite detailed account of the development of the Roman alphabet from the Etruscan, itself adapted from the Greek alphabet (p. 132), and of the many variants of the Roman script in use today for languages throughout Europe and all over the world. However, of the tables included in this entry, the one labelled ‘The Roman Alphabet’ (p. 139), which lists each sign of the Roman alphabet and transcribes it as itself, in a book that is after all written in the Roman alphabet, seems a curious choice, to put it mildly.
The tables and diagrams found throughout the Handbook are an important and integral part of the book’s appeal, and illustrate amply the sheer diversity of methods via which we commit our speech and thoughts to writing. While some of the tables of signs were apparently created for the volume, others have been reprinted from other works, which leads to some inconsistencies in the way in which different scripts are presented, and the degree to which they are visibly assessed as an effective representation of the phonology of the languages underlying them. However, such inconsistencies will not be very apparent to the reader who dips into the volume at will, rather than reading it cover-to-cover as a reviewer inevitably does.
More unsettling to a reader, especially an amateur enthusiast rather than an expert epigraphist, will be the many references to linguistic concepts that go unglossed. For example, the casual use of phonetic terms such as ‘retroflex’, ‘affricate’ and ‘palatal’ may not convey to the average reader how exactly these phones would sound, and the ‘Note on phonetic symbols’ (p. xi) is not sufficient to help, listing only eight symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) even though a much wider selection of IPA symbols appears throughout the book. Considering the many references to phonemes in the context of discussing the efficiency of different scripts, it is also unhelpful for the lay reader that not even the basic principles of phonology are explained. Those who are left with questions may well find more information in the works recommended in the Further Reading section (p. 182; to which I would also add Coulmas 2003 and Robinson 2007), but one wonders whether some of the recommendations, such as a book about Turkish written in Turkish, will be of much use to most readers.
The Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets is a well presented and fascinating account of the world’s writing systems. If it has some flaws for the expert reader, for the most part these are not issues that will trouble its intended readership excessively, and the only serious shortcoming is that its discussions of such a wide range of scripts are necessarily brief and will leave the reader with some questions, which will necessitate looking outside of this volume. The enticing information found throughout the book would undoubtedly spark the curiosity of any reader, and it is a suitable starting point for anyone interested in the world’s scripts.
REFERENCES Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing Systems: An Introduction to their Linguistic Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Diringer, David. 1948. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. New York: Philosophical Library.
Gelb, Ignace J. 1952. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Robinson, Andrew. 2007. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms. London: Thames and Hudson.
Steele, Philippa M. Forthcoming. The /d/, /t/, /l/ and /r/ series in Linear A and B, Cypro-Minoan and the Cypriot Syllabary. Pasiphae VI (pages TBC). Pisa-Rome: Biblioteca di Pasiphae.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Philippa M. Steele is the Henry Lumley Research Fellow in Classics at
Magdalene College, Cambridge, and has been awarded a British Academy
Postdoctoral Fellowship to be held at the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge,
2012-2015. Her dissertation dealt with writing systems and languages of
ancient Cyprus, and she is currently working on a project on ‘The History
of the Greek Language in the Eastern Mediterranean During the First
Millennium BC’. Her interests cover a wide range, including ancient
Mediterranean scripts and languages, ancient Greek linguistics and
dialectology, Mycenaean accounting and Linear B, and ancient
multilingualism and linguistic diversity. In 2013-14, she will give the
Evans-Pritchard Lectures at All Souls College, Oxford, on ‘Society and
Writing in Ancient Cyprus’.