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From: "Don Osborn" <dzo@xxxxxx>
To: qalam @ yahoogroups . com
Subject: "Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach" (review)
Date: Thu, 28 Apr 2005 05:43:25 -0000

FYI (fwd from the linguist list)... DZO

Date: 27-Apr-2005
From: Galen Brokaw <brokaw @ buffalo . edu>
Subject: Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach

AUTHOR: Rogers, Henry
TITLE: Writing Systems
SUBTITLE: A Linguistic Approach
SERIES: Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2005
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-2760.html

Galen Brokaw, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University at Buffalo

Writing Systems is a textbook designed to introduce students to the study of writing systems. The book begins with a short, concise introductory chapter, followed by a chapter titled "Theoretical Preliminaries." Chapters three through twelve focus on specific writing systems: Chinese; Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese; Cuneiform; Egyptian; Semitic; the Greek alphabet; the Roman alphabet; English; Indian Abugida and other Asian phonographic writing; and Maya. Chapter thirteen deals with other writing systems such as invented indigenous American scripts and more obscure systems such as the runic alphabet. The final chapter provides a framework for the classification of writing systems. At the end of each chapter there is a section with suggestions for further reading, a list of terms for review, and a set of exercises for students. The book also contains four appendices containing basic linguistic terms, the international phonetic alphabet, an explanation of the principles of English transcription followed in the book, and a glossary.

As the subtitle indicates, Rogers takes a linguistic approach in his exposition of writing systems. This approach has the advantage of benefitting from the adaptation of a well-established conceptual system. It also means, however, that it inherits all of the prejudices of that system. Rogers' linguistic approach leads him to define writing narrowly as the "use of graphic marks to represent specific linguistic utterances" (2). In the introductory and theoretical chapters, Rogers does an excellent job of defining his terms and delimiting his topic, thus providing a clear framework for his subsequent exposition. As in linguistics itself, however, there are other perspectives that offer competing theoretical formulations about language and writing. The study of secondary media in general --

 whether they fall under Rogers' definition of writing or not -- 

offers an interesting opportunity to problematize the traditional formulations of linguistic theory. The linguistic approach adopted by Rogers misses this opportunity.

The essential issue here has to do with the basis upon which the definition of writing is established. Rogers' definition of writing as the representation of specific linguistic utterances is based upon a definition of language as verbal utterance which evinces an underlying mental system. This is the general essence of a linguistic approach to writing. The problem is that this framework has led traditional linguistic theory to fetishize language as constitutive of communication. The emergence of pragmatics as a linguistic sub- field has attempted to address this problem to a limited degree, but remains restricted by the narrow conceptualization of communication as verbal language. This is not necessarily to say, as some scholars have argued, that traditional linguistics is merely chasing an illusion in its attempt to codify language. But there is no reason to exclude other forms of representation from the definition of writing. The ideographic mode of Mesoamerican pictography and the Andean khipu, for example, constitute complex communicative systems that for the most part appear to fall outside Rogers' linguistic definition of writing. The inclusion of such systems in a survey text would be a daunting task, especially given our, in some cases, incomplete understanding of these media. Nevertheless, a textbook on writing systems might productively problematize the very concept of writing, at the very least as a way of making explicit its underlying theoretical assumptions.

In fairness to Rogers, I should point out that the critical perspective I am advocating here is one that is marginal to mainstream linguistics. As I mentioned above, this textbook provides a clear and coherent exposition of the topic. Even those who may share my perspective and wish to read against the theoretical assumptions in the book will find it a valuable text.

The chapters focusing on specific scripts are, for the most part, fairly straightforward expositions. The book is a well-informed, up- to-date survey of writing systems. It covers all the major writing systems of the world as well as several less well-known systems. As a survey textbook, Rogers does an excellent job of introducing the historical background and some of the socio-linguistic issues of each writing system covered. This is not to say that there are no deficiencies in his descriptions, unequal treatment of writing systems, and other such issues. One of the inherent drawbacks of a single-authored survey of this nature is that it will inevitably reflect the author's degree of expertise in each writing system. Furthermore, the way in which Rogers defines writing as graphic marks used to "represent specific linguistic utterances" (2) means that true expertise in a writing system depends upon a certain level of expertise in the language as well. Thus, it is unlikely that any single individual will develop an expertise in all writing systems.

By the same token, I can only offer critical commentary on scripts in which I have a certain level of experience and expertise. As an example, I would point to the grouping of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese into a single chapter. The rationale for this grouping appears to be the common historical influence of Chinese writing. But, as Rogers explains, Korea developed a phonographic writing system that is not dependent upon Chinese characters. It seems to me that Korean hangul merits its own chapter as much as any other script, but treatment of this system is limited to a rather brief and incomplete section in the fourth chapter alongside Japanese and Vietnamese. The much more complete treatment of Chinese in a separate chapter explains the stroke order of the characters, but the section on modern Korean script omits any explanation of the stroke order of hangul letters. Furthermore, although this section includes examples of the construction of hangul syllabic units, there is no visual sample of even a short hangul text, nor any mention of its variable format, which even today is sometimes organized from left to right and top to bottom, sometimes from top to bottom and right to left.

Readers with expertise in other scripts may discover similar issues, but these deficiencies should not detract from the value of this book. Textbook surveys of this nature are inherently holistic, and the holistic value of this text mitigates its apparent deficiencies. Rogers' writing is clear and concise, and the information presented is well organized. Any theoretical differences of opinion or minor substantive issues aside, this is an excellent textbook on Writing Systems.


Galen Brokaw is an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University at Buffalo. He specializes in indigenous American media and its interaction with alphabetic script in the colonial period. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the Andean khipu.

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