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LINGUIST List 17.2534

Fri Sep 08 2006

Review: Writing Systems: Coulmas (2003)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <lauralinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Peter Daniels, Writing Systems

Message 1: Writing Systems
Date: 08-Sep-2006
From: Peter Daniels <grammatimverizon.net>
Subject: Writing Systems

AUTHOR: Coulmas, Florian
TITLE: Writing Systems
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis.
SERIES: Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2003

Reviewer: Peter T. Daniels, Jersey City, NJ

"That such a book as this should have been permitted to go forth to the world
with the _imprimatur_ of the University of Cambridge, affords matter for very
grave reflection." --John Churton Collins, 1886

This is the forty-fourth contribution to the distinguished series of Cambridge
Textbooks in Linguistics (the fifty-first, counting second editions), but it
might have inspired Mr. Collins to repeat his remark (on a work by Edmund Gosse)
some sixscore years on (Cohen 2003). Florian Coulmas is a sociolinguist who from
time to time addresses writing systems, and his work on the place of writing in
society is always insightful and rewarding. He has also published three books on
writing systems _per se_ -- *The Writing Systems of the World* (1989), *The
Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems* (1996), and the volume under review.
Unfortunately, however, his attention to detail in this volume has not met
Cambridge's wonted standard.


The book begins with a (misguided) Note on Fonts. "A font for a script that was
used 3,500 years ago," the author claims, "is anachronistic. Using it in a
scholarly book amounts to a distortion and to underestimating the importance of
media" (xviii). While this is true to an extent for his example of Linear B
(where no one uses such fonts, because the transliteration is straightforward),
it is most emphatically not true for Egyptian hieroglyphs -- any philological
treatment of the language uses typeset hieroglyphs to a very great extent,
because it is virtually impossible to transliterate the signs with sufficient
clarity to support the discussion, and because transcriptions of ancient
Egyptian remain speculative as to the vowels (and as to the values of some
consonants). As it happens, even for contemporary scripts, Coulmas uses very,
very few script examples within the text (and some of those few are quite
mistaken; see below).

Chapter 1: What Is Writing? (1-17)

In the first chapter, Coulmas surveys various definitions of writing, beginning
with Aristotle's, and contrasting Saussure's well-known banishment of written
language from the purview of descriptive linguistics with the Eastern (scil.
Chinese) tradition that still accords the written sign pride of place; he finds
in I. J. Gelb (1952/1963) the notion "that writing _became_ a device for
expressing language rather than having been such a device from its inception"
(15). But this is a distortion of Gelb's position; Gelb, unlike Coulmas,
carefully distinguished synchronic description from diachronic explanation.
Coulmas also slides, apparently unwittingly, from Gelb's statement that writing
expresses _language_ to a claim that writing expresses _speech_ (16) --a straw
position against which he proceeds to argue.

Chapter 2: The Basic Options: Meaning and Sound (18-37)

Coulmas's second chapter concerns visible representations of meaning that are
not writing (what Gelb called "forerunners" of writing, although none of them
actually "foreran" writing; DeFrancis 1989), and also iconic representations of
speech such as Korean hangul and Bell's Visible Speech. It culminates with lists
of four "assumptions" and three "principles" (33):

Writing and speech are distinct systems.
They are related in a variety of complex ways.
Speech and writing have both shared and distinct functions.
The bio-mechanics of the production and reception of speech and writing are

the principle of autonomy of the graphic system
the principle of interpretation
the principle of historicity

As in most treatments of writing systems that enunciate "principles" in their
opening chapters (Daniels 2002: 94), these principles are subsequently pretty
much ignored. The chapter concludes with a "Note on terminology and notation."

Chapter 3: Signs of Words (38-61)

Seven chapters follow that treat the various ways units of writing are paired
with units of language. Each begins with an attempt to define the unit in
question linguistically and follows with a description of one or two writing
systems operating at that level -- in chapter 3, Sumerian and Chinese exemplify
logographic writing.

Chapter 4: Signs of Syllables (62-88)

A number of writing systems, modern and ancient, are exhibited to represent
syllabographic writing, but none is presented in detail.

Chapter 5: Signs of Segments (89-108)

The roman alphabet, primarily as used for English but also as supplemented with
diacritics and with additional forms (as in the International Phonetic
Alphabet), is the topic of this chapter.

Chapter 6: Consonants and Vowels (109-30)

This chapter attempts to discuss Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek.

Chapter 7: Vowel Incorporation (131-50)

Several scripts of South and Southeast Asia, in which vowels are represented by
alterations of basic consonant symbols, are presented.

Chapter 8: Analysis and Interpretation (151-67)

The principal example here is Korean hangul, in which letters of the alphabet
were originally intended to iconically represent the contours of the vocal tract
used in producing their sounds, additional strokes on letters represent phonetic
features, and the letters are combined into syllable units.

Chapter 9: Mixed Systems (168-89)

Egyptian, Akkadian, Japanese, and English are discussed here.

Chapter 10: History of Writing (190-207)

A highly compressed history is presented.

Chapter 11: Psycholinguistics of Writing (210-22)
Chapter 12: Sociolinguistics of Writing (223-41)

Brief surveys of reading and writing, and of literacy, standardization, and
spelling reform round out the volume.

Appendix: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 1 (242-46)

Although this appendix is referred to nowhere in the book, it offers its passage
in 21 languages, 10 in roman alphabets, 5 of the others without transliteration,
and none with analysis to suggest how they represent the meaning of the text.

A bibliography and indexes of names and subjects follow.


In evaluating Coulmas's *Writing Systems*, we can invoke Chomsky's old criteria
of observational adequacy, descriptive adequacy, and explanatory adequacy (1964:
924). The first might assess factual accuracy, the second the organization of
information, and the third the analytic understanding of writing. The book fails
on all three counts.

Readers uninterested in a catalog of errors might skip to the section titled


"The lowest level of success is achieved if the grammar presents the observed
primary data correctly" (Chomsky 1964: 923f.).

This book is wrong, as Humpty Dumpty once said, from beginning to end. The very
first indisputable factual mistake is both inexcusable and prototypical: the
noted linguist Fred Householder is called "Frank" (12, cf. 251). This cavalier
attitude toward proper names is pervasive. In the bibliography alone we find
Laroch for Laroche, Algeria for Alegria, Empleton for Embleton, Givon for Givón,
Rölling for Röllig, and a "John" M. Unger listed separately from J[ames]
Marshall Unger. This treatment of data that are so easily checked does not bode
well for treatment of less familiar materials, such as details of writing
systems and their history.

I will begin my catalog of errors in the areas with which I am most familiar,
writing systems for Semitic languages, following these with examples that are so
egregious as to be evident to the non-specialist.


General. To baldly assert that when using "Semitic consonantal alphabets" vowels
"are indicated optionally" (113) is a vast oversimplification. In Phoenician
writing, vowels are never indicated. In Ancient Hebrew, some long vowels are
indicated by means of some of the consonant letters (the label for them is
_matres lectionis_ 'mothers of reading'), and in Arabic all long vowels are
always indicated (with a handful of lexically determined exceptions). The
vowel-indication systems that were introduced during the first millennium CE for
Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic are of course optional, but they are not the only
device for notating vowels. C seems unaware that he echoes the consensus of
scholars in rejecting Gelb's claim that the Semitic consonantaries represent
"syllables with indeterminate vowel," since he puts it as "Following O'Connor
(1996) [i.e. in Daniels & Bright 1996, henceforth WWS] I, therefore consider
Semitic writing as encoding the consonants of the West Semitic languages" (114).
In discussing the absence of V-letters he adduces the non-existence of
vowel-initial words in West Semitic languages, but fails to take into account
the probable inspiration for the West Semitic signary from the consonant-only
Egyptian writing system; but when he goes on to inquire, "What if V-initial
words ... need to be written?" (127), he appears to be unaware of the existence
of Ugaritic writing, a form of West Semitic script used in a city-state where
over half a dozen languages were spoken, among them ones with initial vowels,
which includes extra letters that (when writing Semitic) denote glottal stop
followed by /i/ or /u/ (the original Alep-equivalent being used for glottal stop
followed by /a/). Where C does allude to an Egyptian-Semitic connection, in
discussing "Proto-Sinaitic" (194), he offers as a reference a 1948 article
rather than the 1966 revised edition of the work of W. F. Albright, which
perhaps ought not to be cited at all in an elementary textbook in view of its
refutation in the next work cited in the same footnote, Sass 1988.

Hebrew. The term "Paleo-Hebrew" does not refer to the "script which became
extinct in antiquity when the Hebrews adopted a cursive variety of the Aramaic
alphabet from which eventually the 'Square' Hebrew/Jewish script evolved," or to
the Phoenician alphabet (116bis); it is the label for an archaizing revival of
the earlier Hebrew script, at the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were being written
around the turn of the Era, which was used within documents otherwise in Square
Hebrew letters for the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter sacred name of God), for
a scroll of Leviticus, and on coins of the Bar Kochba Revolt against Roman rule.
C commits his share of the common confusions of Hebrew letters: final Kap for
Dalet (116) and Chet for He (121), and also Pe with Rafe instead of final Pe
without Dagesh (119). He chose to transliterate the subphonemic lenition of
stops, but failed to indicate several of its occurrences (118). He refers to the
epenthetic [a] inserted between a non-low vowel and a final laryngeal ("furtive
Patach") as a "glide" (120). His explanations of the realization of the vowel
points known as Shwa and Metheg (121) may represent attempts to condense
accounts in some grammar-book, but they bear little relation to reality. C
alternates between "gimmel" (117, 119) and "giimel" (126) for the name of the
third letter, which is in fact "gimel" (or "giml").

Arabic. To the practiced eye, Arabic writing is not "quite different" (116) from
the Nabataean script from which it emerged in the two or three pre-Islamic
centuries (Gruendler 1993). The transliteration of the Arabic consonantary omits
the underdot from the second <z> (123). C adopts the shorthand
claim/pedagogic device that each Arabic letter has "four different shapes"
depending whether it is connected or not to the preceding and following letters
(though the variation is merely a matter of interactions in the creation of
ligatures), leading him to coin the phrase "writing group" for a sequence of
letters that happen to all be traced without lifting the pen (123). The
diacritic _shadda_ is printed in the text as a raised, slanted omega rather than
with an actual Shadda. In the example of its use (where the correct form
appears), the letters of the example words are bizarrely spaced apart (123).
Diphthongs are wrongly claimed to be written by combining Waaw, Yaa', and 'Alif
(123). C states both that endings (case inflections, specifically) "are only
pronounced in connected speech" and that they are "omitted in connected speech"
(125, in adjacent sentences); in fact they are omitted phrase- (or

Akkadian. The East Semitic branch of Semitic is not "sometimes called North
Semitic" (111); that term has been used by a minority of scholars who wish to
avoid the notion of a stark divide between East and West Semitic languages. C
has badly misinterpreted the table he reprints (76) from WWS: 57. It is not, as
C says, the "basic grid of cuneiform 'Syllabary A'." What it is, as identified
in his source, is the "inventory of basic signs used in the pronunciation column
of Syllabary A." (A couple of the signs in that inventory aren't even included
in Syllabary A.) Syllabary A was not, as C says, "widely used as a basic
standard" (67). What it is, as explained by Cooper (WWS: 47), is "a cuneiform
syllabary of the first millennium [BCE, which] would have been the first list of
signs and their values for a student scribe to master in Nineveh during the age
of Ashurbanipal." One wonders where C got the notion that the 211 (actually 212;
he overlooked no. 56A) signs of Syllabary A "as applied to Babylonian ...
decreased further to a set of about 110 signs" (67). Cooper clearly states (47)
that "scribes writing Akkadian in most periods had a working repertoire of
between two and three hundred signs," though scholars would be familiar with two
to three times as many.

C has badly misunderstood the relation between the Sumerian and Akkadian writing
systems. He believes (177, 208) that Sumerograms represent loanwords in the
Akkadian language. All they are, though, is logograms, which happen to be
transliterated by modern scholars with the Sumerian readings of the signs, just
as logograms in Linear B or Luvian happen to be transliterated with Latin words.
Sumerograms were read in Akkadian only. (His main example, LUGAL [177f.] is
actually not even a sign in Sumerian -- it is a sequence of LÚ 'man' and GAL
'big' -- and there is no trace of a loanword *lugallu 'king' in Akkadian.) We
don't, in fact, know the pronunciation of a few very common words in Hittite
(cf. 208), because they happen to be written only with Sumerograms or even
Akkadograms. Misled by the Neo-Assyrian typographic form of the sign DINGIR
'god' / AN 'sky' (despite the "Note on Fonts"!), C does not realize that 'sky'
is not a "semantic extension" of 'god' (177), but that both senses come from the
original 'star' (and the sign's original shape is rather like an asterisk).

On p. 77, C offers an incorrect explanation for "broken writing" (a term he
renders as "broken graphics," perhaps as a calque on the French), saying
"sequences of -(C)VC-VC signs must be interpreted as containing geminated
consonants, as in _li-in-ik-ta_ or _li-in-kat-ta_ for /linkta/ 'he vowed'." Not
only is the sequence between slants not a possible word of Akkadian, it
represents neither an exemplification of the rule as he states it, nor a
transcription of either of the sequences of signs offered! If those sequences
were to occur, they would be read _lin'ikta_ (with glottal stop; Reiner 1964:
169f.; Cooper, WWS: 48) and _linkatta_ respectively, though neither of these
could relate to _naqû_ 'vow'. In Akkadian, a CV sign can be followed by an echo
V sign. C claims (77) this was to disambiguate an "indeterminate" vowel of a CV
sign -- by which he refers to the fact that a sign containing /i/ can also be
read /e/ if the word it's in historically contained one of the three laryngeals
-- but the signs for /i/ and /e/ are not so used. Rather, CV-V optionally
indicates a long vowel, as he also says.

Ethiopic. Since the middle of the reign of King Ezana of Axum, ca. 350 CE
(coincident with his conversion to Christianity), vowels have been notated in
the script of the Ge`ez language (which is still used in Ethiopic churches) and
of its modern relatives including Amharic in Ethiopia and Tigrinya (not
"Tigrinia") in Eritrea, though not of Somali (154). C makes quite a hash of his
description of it. The vowels are written, Indian-fashion, by appendages to the
basic consonant letters, except that /a/ is assumed as the vowel following the
consonant in the unaltered letter-shape. Vowellessness is not indicated using
the same letters as <Ca> (i.e. the plain consonant letters), as C states
(154), but by the same letters as are used for the short high (central) vowel
(often misleadingly transliterated with Shwa, although it is not a reduced
vowel; I will use <+> below for the nonce). C seems to be hung up on a
notion that there is something special about a left-to-right sequence, even
within a graphic unit, since he draws attention to the fact that some of the
vowel-attachments are on the left of the letters and some are on the right. But
he chooses a particularly unapt example to discuss, beginning with the syllable
/l+/. The letter <la> is (sort of) an inverted Y, and the appendage for
/+/ is a loop attached to the left leg _inside_ the tent of the legs. Yet C
describes this as to the right! His eyes seem to betray him further, since he
describes the circle-to-the-right that marks /ee/ as a "curly hook," and claims
that "/a/ is marked on the left" (154). But /a/ is not marked at all, and /aa/
is either an extension or addition of a right leg or a bending of a single
vertical to the left. A few only of the marks for /+/ and a few of those for
/oo/ are on the left of their letters (as can be seen in the chart on p. 155).


While the counts (173) of 26 monoconsonantal and ca. 80 biconsonantal
hieroglyphs are correct, there are not 40, but 87 triconsonantal signs (Ritner,
WWS: 78). Perhaps C interpreted Ritner's statement "Exclusively logographic
writing is relatively rare in Egyptian" (74) to mean that "only few [sic]
Egyptian signs are logograms" (170), but of the 700 or so signs used in Middle
Egyptian, fewer than 300 are accounted for by the phonetics and the nearly 100
semantic determinatives. I can find no warrant (e.g. Gardiner 1957, Loprieno
1995) for C's assertion that "more than 400 signs were rarely needed at any one
time" (170).


Greek alphabet. C claims that "The relative shortage of V letters,
characteristic of the alphabets of many other European languages as well,
testifies to the descent of the Graeco-Latin alphabet [the what?] from its
Semitic precursor where vowel indication was even more sparing" (111). One
wonders how this testimony was elicited, given that at least one vowel letter,
Omega, was added to the Greek alphabet quite independent of the Phoenician
forebear. It is not at all clear why C offers Hebrew letter names and words as
if they underlie the Greek letter names (126); the Phoenician originals are
either known or easily reconstructed (Noeldeke 1904). C is quite mistaken in
stating (122, 127) that the Greek innovation of vowel letters was an extension
of the _matres lectionis_ principle -- because the Greek alphabet was developed
from the Phoenician consonantary, and Phoenician uses no _matres_ at all. (In
the footnote to this discussion, C fails to mention the standard reference on
the development and varieties of the Greek alphabet, Jeffery 1990. Familiarity
with that work might have kept him from the bare statement "The Greeks also
invented the three letters <Phi>, <Chi>, <Psi> for the
consonants /ph/, /kh/, and /ps/"; they were the outcome of a very complicated
process.) While it is certainly true that "For some time both horizontal
directions of writing [Greek] were possible, the direction being reversed with
every line," one must wonder what C has in mind when he says "This way of
writing frequently manifests itself in _scriptura continua_ or writing without
word separation" (128); it is not common at all around the world, and is perhaps
most noteworthy in the South Arabian sphere, where inscriptions on very long
walls were written in such a fashion presumably so that one could continue
reading while walking back to the start of the text.

Cypriote syllabary. On p. 82, C gives a Greek word written with the Cypriote
syllabary, _ptolin_, transliterated _po-to-li-ne_, but according to the chart on
the facing page, the characters he shows are _pa-ta-li-ne_.


In discussing what to call the writing system in which, for instance, this
review is composed, C mentions that the term "Latin alphabet" is ambiguous
between "the writing system of the Latin language" and "a set of 26 letters
serving the writing systems of a great number of languages, ... also referred to
as 'Roman' or 'roman'" (32). But whence this number 26? That's the number of
letters in the English writing system, not the Latin or roman: Latin has 23,
roman an indefinite number of letters, since different writing systems have made
additions and subtractions over the ages.

English. In what phonemic (scil. phonetic; slants rather than brackets are
simply wrong) scheme are "she," "he," and "me" transcribed as /SI: hi: mi/
respectively (63)? In what dialect of English is there a word [ju:fImizm] (98)?
The charts of English consonants and vowels contain mistakes: the affricates are
notated as sequences of stop+fricative rather than with the ligatured
characters; and <v> is printed instead of the phonetic symbol for the high
back lax vowel (185). In the discussion of spelling reform, unconscionable space
and attention (238f. and in the appendix) are devoted to "Kånådån," a
development by a Canadian, which is not simply a proposal for reformed spelling
but also (as C seems not to notice) festoons English with a variety of
inflectional suffixes (so that "All human beings are born free and equal"
becomes "Al humanes ar bornized friis and ekwallik" [appendix]).

Danish. If "_Stød_ marks a phonological distinction, as in _mor_ 'mother' vs.
_mord_ 'murder', homophone words only distinguished by the presence of _stød_ in
the latter" (106), how can they be "homophone"?

Africa. The chart (102) of the Africa Alphabet (which was promulgated in 1927,
not 1930) is missing its letter for the bilabial continuant (International
Institute 1930).

Vietnamese. The additional letters for vowels -- consonant letters are
disregarded -- are mistakenly said (106) to be plain letters with diacritics
(that, of course, is what they look like, but they are by any analysis separate
letters), and they are misprinted as such (properly printed Vietnamese can be
seen in the appendix), leading to the incorrect statement that "there are
several graphemes consisting of a letter base and double accents" (107), with
more examples of typographic improvisation. The claim that "The romanization of
Vietnamese was a reform of the writing system, as Chinese characters, a
completely different system, were abolished and a new system was specially
designed for Vietnamese" (234) reveals ignorance of history. The romanization
was devised in the mid 17th century, but the Chinese-based script continued to
be used for over two more centuries, and the romanization was not officially
adopted until 1910 (Nguyen Dinh-Hoa, WWS: 691).

Chinese. The pinyin diacritic for the Third Tone is correctly given on p. 106 as
hachek, but throughout the discussion of Chinese (51-58), it is wrongly printed
as breve.

South Asia

Brahmi. "The first documents in Brahmi," the script devised for Prakrit during
the reign of Ashoka ca. 250 BCE, were _not_ "written from right to left" (132).
One coin with such a text has been found, where the punch engraver simply forgot
to incise the inscription backward so that when the coin was stamped out, the
legend would read properly. If an Aramaic-script background for the shapes of
Brahmi letters is not assumed (132), then the _similarities_ cannot be explained
(the differences are irrelevant to the question of descent). The letter
<o> is incorrectly shown (134) as the same as <u>, missing its top
stroke (and the forms given for <a> and <aa> do not agree with any
in the paleographical charts of Dani 1986). The correct statement that /a/ is
incorporated into the plain consonant letter makes rather incoherent the
statement that it is "superseded by the other vowel diacritics" (134) -- it
ought to refer to "diacritics for the other vowels."

Devanagari. Marathi should not be listed among the modern Indo-Aryan languages
with scripts of their own (228). The suggestion that the use of two scripts, a
Perso-Arabic one and an Indic one, played a greater part in the divergence of
Urdu and Hindi (232) than the associated Muslim vs. Hindu cultural background is

Tibetan and Thai. Because C consistently fails to distinguish between synchrony
and diachrony, he unnecessarily confuses himself and the discussion of tone in
Tibetan and Thai (143, 148). In both these languages, which involve even more
extreme cases of historical spelling than English does, tonogenesis occurred
after literacy was achieved; Tibetan tone is not systematically derivable from
the orthography, while in Thai the inherited graphic material does serve in an
elaborate way to indicate tone (Miller 1956, Brown 1985).

Southeast Asia. A page is reproduced (149) from Holle 1877, but no reference is
given either to its original publication or to the recent reprint with
translation from the Dutch original.

Korean. Hangul is not "quite unique in that its graphic components are sensitive
to subsegmental phonetic features" (157); C's own earlier example of Bell's
Visible Speech is another, and so are the two most widely used shorthand systems
for English, Pitman's and Gregg's. The tone marks included by the inventors of
the script were not "unnecessary for writing Korean" (161) in the 15th century,
and some dialects of Korean, though not the Seoul standard, are still tonal in
the 21st century. C exaggerates (165) the transparency of modern Korean
orthography, as comparing any transcription of the language with a
transliteration will show (Sohn 1999). Like the note on Urdu vs. Hindi above,
the suggestion that "In the two Koreas ... linguistic divergence is taking
place, largely as a result of two different orthographies and orthography-based
standards" (233), rather than because there has been virtually no
intercommunication between the nations for fifty years, or two generations, is
astonishing. The authority quoted for the statement, Sohn 1997, in fact says
exactly the opposite -- that the orthographies diverge because of independent
policy-setting by the two governments.


Cherokee. The implication of the statement "The Cherokee language has mostly
open syllables, the only final margin C being /s/ for which a separate grapheme
<s> is provided" (70) is incorrect; Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee
syllabary, spelled his own name <s-si-quo-ya>. Nor is /s/ the only
syllable-final consonant in Cherokee (Scancarelli, WWS: 591, 590).

Vai. C interprets _mgb_ as a triconsonantal cluster (73), rather than a
prenasalized labiovelar single segment, presumably on the basis of its
alphabetic transliteration.

Old Persian. It is difficult to see how C can say that "Old Persian cuneiform
comes close to a segmental script" (169), especially in the absence of any
description at all other than "its basic modus operandi is phonographic."
Perhaps he was misled by the (unsourced) chart found in both Coulmas 1989: 87
and 1996: 370, which wrongly shows both a consonantal and a syllabic value for
every character.

Uyghur. It may be incorrect to state that the shift from horizontal to vertical
writing when the Uyghur script was adapted from the Sogdian was "abrupt" (206).
Syriac, which is read horizontally, was written vertically (to avoid smearing
ink), and this practice may have continued with Sogdian scribes; Uyghur scribes,
observing, might then have simply not rotated the written page back to
horizontal, accommodating the Chinese practice of writing in columns.


From time to time, C betrays the alphabetocentric attitude he decries elsewhere.
Thus on p. 213 he suggests that "modern alphabetic texts consist of words
divided by spaces, reflecting the intuitive insight that word separation
facilitates reading." No such insight has been intuited by writers of the vast
majority of the world's scripts! The assertion, on the basis of one study of
Japanese, that "for speech-sound awareness to occur, mastery of a _phonographic_
writing system seems to be the key factor, rather than of an alphabetic script"
(220) is belied by Prakash et al. (1993), who found that it does not occur in
writers of an Indic-type script. It is a "telling sign" of Eurocentrism that
spelling reform is assumed to be the responsibility of "the state" (236), an
attitude utterly foreign to the American or even the Briton.


Here and there a reversed sans serif <e> appears in place of the intended
phonetic character (epsilon on 63, 100); the "ram's horn" or "baby gamma" vowel
character is found instead of a proper gamma for the voiced velar fricative in
the table for Arabic transcription, and one of the Arabic glyphs is mistyped (124).


C's author-date references to the literature are generally to the date of the
latest reprint rather than to the date of original publication, which can be
both misleading and confusing -- thus on p. 21 "Mallery 1972" is cited,
apparently, for "the cave paintings of Lascaux or the pictographs of North
American Indians." Only if we know that the Lascaux cavern was discovered in
1940 does this strike us as odd; and when we turn to the bibliography and find
that "Mallery 1972" is his _Sign Language_ ("First published 1881"), and not his
1893 _Picture Writing_ (also reprinted in 1972), we are further puzzled.

On p. 132 is a list of labels for the Indic type of writing system (cf. the
description of Ethiopic writing above), which includes _semisyllabary_ credited
to "Ullman 1989 following Diringer 1968." Inasmuch as the work by Ullman
referred to, _Ancient Writing and Its Influence_, was published in an extensive
series called "Our Debt to Greece and Rome," and deals exclusively with the
Greek and Roman scripts, one wonders why Indian (or even Ethiopian) writing
might have been mentioned. In fact, (the book has no index but) the only mention
of India appears to be on p. 163, in the context of the spread of the roman
alphabet: "The many alphabets of Central Asia (India, Tibet, etc.) are descended
from the Semitic. Their future depends on political considerations." The word
"semi-syllabary" does appear (almost) on p. 17: "strictly speaking, Semitic
script was not alphabetic; it was rather syllabic or semi-syllabic" -- a
foreshadowing of Gelb's notorious claim (vide infra). But what of the Diringer
connection? David Diringer does use the term "semi-syllabary" -- just once,
1948: 360, in the text, but indexed four times, the others being references to a
"mixed alphabetic-syllabic system" vel sim. -- and if he had recognized the
Indic as another "type" of script might have used this label for it. Thus
Ullman's usage does not "follow" Diringer's. Moreover, Ullman cannot have
"followed" Diringer, because his book was published in 1932! (Nor does Diringer
cite Ullman.) The 1968 "third edition" of Diringer 1948 (aside from added
paragraphs describing decipherments accomplished in the 1950s) does not appear
to differ from the original, except for the illustrations having been removed to
a second volume (even the 1948 statistics were not updated). Ullman 1932 has
frequently been reprinted unaltered (my 1963 edition does not note the original
date of publication).

Coulmas 1984, referenced on p. 224 but not in the bibliography, would seem to be
_Linguistic Minorities and Literacy_, said in Coulmas 1989 to be published by
Berlin, Amsterdam, New York: Mouton. (Could this already be Mouton de Gruyter?)


"A second and higher level of success is achieved when the grammar ... specifies
the observed data (in particular) in terms of significant generalizations that
express underlying regularities in the language" (Chomsky 1964: 924).

Strategically, treating writing systems by type rather than by historical
relationship is a good approach. But tactically, to begin chapters with
discussions of the notions of "word," "syllable," and "segment" seems misguided
-- as is well known, these are three of the most difficult concepts in
linguistics, and it seems an unnecessary complication to ask the student of
writing systems -- who will have an intuitive understanding of them -- to become
involved in age-old discussions. In each case C's conclusion essentially is "we
know them when we see them" ("where words are recognized in writing this is not
the result of a theoretically founded analysis of speech, but an
interpretation," 40; "a syllable is a unit of articulation, and although a
universally accepted articulatory definition is not available, phoneticians of
different schools are agreed that syllables possess psychological reality for
speakers," 63; "all attempts to prove that speech actually _works_ on the basis
of principles determining the sequential organization of discrete segments have
failed," 90); thus the discussions might better have been left to textbooks of
phonology, morphology, and lexicology.

C's three principles (vide supra) may be taken as "significant generalizations."
For each of the principles, C poses two questions, so we can investigate how
they fare in the book.

Principle of the autonomy of the graphic system

"What are the basic operational units of the system, and what are well-formed
sequences of these units?" (34). The organization of the book is according to
the different sorts of operational units. Traditionally, three such units have
been recognized by writers on writing: the logogram, the syllabogram, and the
letter. A fuller typology was introduced by this writer in 1988 (Daniels 1990,
1992), and, as seen from the Synopsis of chapters 3-7 above, it has been adopted
by Coulmas; but C's only reference to my work is to pooh-pooh (113) one of my
suggested terms for one of the types. (Of the two articles that he suggests
discuss the terminology, Bright 1999 and Watt 1998, the former, as its title
indicates, is about the concept, not the word ["I recognized the aptness of
Daniels's term"], and what the latter, presented as a review article on WWS,
criticizes is its own misrepresentation of my typology.) He does not recognize
that the initial impetus for the new typology was to clarify why Gelb's
Principle of Uniform Development is invalid, even though he devotes several
pages (197-99) to its inadequacy (cf. further detail in Daniels 2000a). (Gelb
believed that the three types of writing system could come into being only in
the order conventionally listed, and without skipping any steps; thus the West
Semitic consonantary _had_ to be a syllabary, so that the Greek alphabet could
develop out of it.)

Thus I can only applaud C's admission of both the consonantary (my "abjad") and
the "semi-syllabary" (my "abugida") to the basics of script typology; but I'm
disappointed that he does not recognize the usefulness of a term for the latter
that does not include morphemes relating either to "alphabet" or "syllabary," so
as to emphasize its independence of the other two types. (Neither of my terms is
an invention; they are names in Arabic and Ge`ez respectively for exactly the
phenomena I imported them into English to name.) Unlike C, Fischer (2001, a work
considerably less respectful of factual accuracy than C's; Daniels 2002a)
accepts both the typology and the nomenclature, albeit without acknowledgment.

As for well-formed sequences of units, that would seem to be a matter for the
grammars of individual written languages, and it was in effect the assignment to
contributors to WWS, but it is not particularly the brief of an introductory
textbook. In another way, though, to insist on the sequence -- the linearity --
of writing is to disregard much recent work emphasizing the non-linear nature of
writing as opposed to speaking: the availability of previous sentences,
paragraphs, pages for reexamination; the possibility of taking in much more than
a single word or phrase at a time. This is a favorite topos of Roy Harris, who,
however, is quoted only sparingly and only on other issues.

Principle of interpretation

"On what level of linguistic structure are the units of a writing system
interpreted and how do they reflect structural feature(s) of the language(s)
they provide with a written form?" (34). On the one hand, these questions do not
differ from the questions posed by the previous Principle; on the other, this
seems to be a recapitulation of the old ("post-Bloomfieldian") problem of
"mixing levels" -- morphemes were not to be acknowledged in doing phonology,
meaning in doing grammar, and so on (the approach found its apotheosis in Harris
1951 and the annunciation of its demise in Halle 1959).

This presents the opportunity, however, to discuss the notion of _grapheme_. At
the spot where a definition might be expected (the word is in boldface, in the
section called "A note on terminology"), there appears only "The term *grapheme*
refers to the abstract type of a letter and its position in a given writing
system" (36), which I do not find helpful. Here and there it is used simply as a
fancy synonym for "letter" (Daniels 1991: 528) -- only, interestingly, in
connection with pure syllabaries (index s.v.) -- but on p. 103 we learn that
"all upper and lower case letters, all diacritically modified letters, and all
letter combinations that function as graphotactic units" are to count as
separate graphemes.

Herein lies my problem with the term. If the suffixes -emic and -etic, or the
anthropological technical terms "emic" and "etic," are to be useful at all, they
ought to retain some commonality of sense across the disciplines or even within
linguistics. But to what phenomena in language or culture do capitalization or
the use of diacritics or digraphs correspond? Aside from the few cases of
conditioned allography like the forms of syllable- or word-final <s> in
German or Greek, or the final or combining forms in Hebrew or Arabic, what would
a "graphetic" level of analysis be? Are the reduced forms of Indic characters
(used for the initial member[s] of a consonant cluster) to be considered
allographs of the full form? But they represent /C/ rather than /Ca/, so they
disagree in both form and function with the full forms. (And surely variation in
either handwriting or typeface is a non-linguistic phenomenon comparable to
vocal timbre.)

If Japanese kana can be called graphemes without fuss (80), are individual kanji
also graphemes? But is there indeed no fuss? Is there not some sort of
functional relationship between the katakana and hiragana <ku>s? Is there
some different sort of relationship between katakana and hiragana <ka>s
and <ki>s, where there is even a degree of graphic similarity? (These
three examples happen to be exceptional cases where both the katakana and
hiragana of each syllable derive from the same character [Müller-Yokota 1994:
387, 389f.; less fully in Seeley 1991: 194-96, 200].) What of Chinese? Is each
character to be considered a grapheme? If so, what are the (traditionally) two
components of almost every character, the radical (or semantic) and the
phonetic? If they are the graphemes, what are the characters to be called? (In
fact, C does not invoke "grapheme" in his account of Chinese characters, but he
skips right over the component level, saying "Each character, a meaningful unit,
is composed of a fixed number of meaningless strokes" [53]. It is certainly true
that "while characters map onto morphemes and words, there is no systematic
mapping relation between strokes and segments"; but it is also true that such a
relation does exist between components and sounds, and between components and

It is questions like these that led me to suggest (1991) that the term
"grapheme" should not be used in the study of writing systems.

Principle of historicity

"How are writing systems adjusted to the languages they represent, and how does
writing a language affect its development?" (35). The second question is a
perpetual one, and necessarily unanswerable. It is a popular speculation that
written languages change more slowly than unwritten ones, but how could one
tell? Is it not the same popular speculators who claim that the (unwritten)
dialect of the US Ozarks "is" Elizabethan English? The first question appears to
inquire into orthographic reform, a topic of contemporary interest to Dutch and
German scholars (e.g. Neijt 2001, Coulmas 1998) but another one destined to
generate more heat than light.

Given the preface to those questions, however, it seems they are simply not the
right questions for the topic. C correctly observes that: "Because established
writing systems have a strong tendency to resist change, the spoken and written
forms of a language usually progress in an asynchronous manner, which, in the
long run, adds to the complexity of the mapping relations between both. Further,
most original writing systems have been transferred to other languages" (34f.).
Here in a nutshell is the kernel of the study of writing systems. It suggests
that the basic questions are, How do writing systems synchronically represent
their languages, despite the diachronic disparities between the two, and what
happens when readers/writers can no longer tolerate the discrepancies?

The prime lesson to be learned from C's observation is that synchrony and
diachrony must be sundered as strictly as ever Saussure suggested. We have
already mentioned how C's not doing so led to confusion in his descriptions of
Thai and Tibetan writing, but a more familiar example appears in his accounts of
Greek. On p. 127 the context (irrelevant here) is the (supposed) greater need of
Indo-European languages to notate vowels than Semitic languages had; C gives six
Greek words with, not transliterations, but phonetic transcriptions -- such as
<ánoia> ['ania] 'feebleminded' and <hugíeia> [i'jia] 'health'. The
reader could be forgiven for being distracted from the point at hand by
wondering why Greeks would have written those pronunciations with those
spellings. Nowhere does C note that he offers Modern Greek pronunciations of
Classical words! The ensuing discussions of the innovation of vowel letters
(127, 128) are also unsatisfactory. We have already noted that C incorrectly
attributes them to prior _matres lectionis_; he also says that Epsilon and Eta,
Omicron and Omega were devised to notate vowel length, but C. J. Ruijgh (1997
cols. 569ff. § 28) shows that the pairs denote vowel height rather than vowel
length (and differently in different dialects). Thus C's "It is doubtful whether
Greek spelling conventions ever approximated the ideal of a one-to-one relation
between letters and sounds. In classical Greek the one-symbol-one-sound
principle is violated for the Vs <a>, <i> and <u>, which
encode both short and long vowels, and for the digraphs <ei> and
<ou> which are no longer interpreted as diphthongs" suffers from mixing of
eras and an imprecise notion of when Greek was "classical" (perhaps 401 BCE when
the standard alphabet was adopted in Athens, vs. the several earlier centuries
when the inventory of letters was becoming established).

Another, more trivial example of the overlooking of historical information is
the discussion of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Contrasting it with the
iconic symbols of Bell's Visible Speech (28-32), C gives the impression that it
was created in 1888 on the basis of the roman alphabet, rather than recognizing
it as a refinement of earlier roman-based phonetic transcription systems by such
as William Jones, John Pickering, and Richard Lepsius (MacMahon, WWS: 831-37).

It has become fashionable in recent years to decry "alphabetolatry," the notion,
which led to Gelb's Principle of Unidirectional Development as well as to
certain pernicious notions concerning the history of Western Civilization (cf.
WWS: 26-28), that the alphabet is the "best" kind of writing system and a 1:1
relation between symbol and segment is the "best" kind of alphabet. C rightly
deprecates this notion (197ff.), but is not above succumbing to it himself, e.g.
the reference (102) to a phoneme-grapheme "ratio closer to the ideal of 1 : 1."

From time to time, C offers a sententious but uninterpretable evaluation:
"Arabic writing thus [scil. because it is morphophonemic] illustrates even more
clearly than other phonographic systems that writing is autonomous, but at the
same time allows for, and calls for, phonetic interpretation" (125). "The use of
_matres lectionis_ in archaic Semitic documents ... is clear evidence that the
Semitic scribes had a notion of a vowel as a unit of language" (131). "A matrix
like this [scil. Brahmi's] where the common graphic element of all listed items
can be interpreted as a consonant is clear evidence that the notion of a
consonant as such was available to whoever designed the system" (135). Finally,
C observes correctly that "It is difficult ... clearly to distinguish the spread
of a writing system from its evolution, derivation and transmutation into a new
system" (207) -- but why should one? History is complicated. It only should not
be confused with description.


"A third and still higher level of success is achieved when the ... theory in
question suggests an explanation for the linguistic intuition of the native
speaker" (Chomsky 1964: 924).

Coulmas covers a great many topics in a few pages, but what one misses is an
overarching conceptualization that can unify and even illuminate a great many
seemingly independent phenomena of writing. For instance, in dealing with the
origins of writing, C notes that "(1) it is rooted in pictures, and (2) it
happened several times. ... A major conceptual transformation is necessary to
turn a picture ... into the sign of the name of an object .... Present evidence
suggests that this remarkable reinterpretation was effected independently at
least four times in different parts of the world, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and
Mesoamerica" (196). C does not ask _why_ it happened in these particular places,
nor why it did not happen in other places. (Note that his reason for denying the
usual account that Egyptian writing was inspired by Sumerian writing is the very
superficial one that there is no graphic resemblance between cuneiform signs, or
even pre-cuneiform signs, and hieroglyphs -- even though the two writing systems
are organized almost identically, with logograms, phonograms, and semantic

As it happens, an answer for both those questions has been available for a
decade, in Daniels 1992, but C chooses to ignore it, rather than either embrace
it or attempt to refute it (if it be suggested that the article is published
rather obscurely, C cites four other articles from the same book). The invention
of writing occurred in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica because the
"remarkable reinterpretation" was done by people speaking monosyllabically
organized languages -- languages in which most morphemes (most words, even)
comprise a single syllable. C even knows (89, 220) the work of the Portuguese
psychologist José Morais that shows the syllable to be the basic unit of speech
of the preliterate person. With "monosyllabic" languages, the drawing of a
picture to represent a thing is tantamount to recording the word that names the
thing. The most salient unit of speech, the syllable, coincides with the most
salient unit of language, the word -- the free morpheme -- and it becomes all
but inevitable that such a drawing could be reused (as a rebus) for another word
of the same or similar pronunciation -- a word that could not so easily be pictured.

The standard example, of Sumerian _ti_ 'arrow' being reused for _ti_ 'life' is
hackneyed, so I shall borrow a different one (going all the way back to the
earliest known Chinese inscriptions) from Karlgren (1926: 34): "We have a word
that in Mandarin is pronounced _k'iu_ and means 'fur-coat', another, also
pronounced _k'iu_, meaning 'to seek'. The two must have been homonymous already
in very early times, for when the scribe wanted to write the abstract _k'iu_ 'to
seek', which was difficult to represent by means of a picture, he wrote
<--> instead (originally a picture of a fur)."

The connection between monosyllabic languages and the origins of writing has
been approached by other investigators (e.g. C, p. 47), but it was not
previously made explicit. It became apparent only with the new typology of
writing systems -- specifically, the dividing of the old category of
"syllabary," which encompassed both true syllabaries like Linear B, Japanese,
and Cherokee and abugidas like Brahmi and Ethiopic. For it soon became apparent
that all of the dozen or so modern inventions of writing by persons unschooled
in any form of writing (the first known one being Sequoyah's Cherokee) are
syllabaries. The conventional pairing of Cherokee and Cree (as on C's pp.
69ff.), simply because they are both used for languages of Native North America,
tends to obscure the two great differences between them: Cree is an abugida (the
basic symbol represents /Cê/, and its three 90° rotations represent the other
three vowels), and its deviser, James Evans, was a missionary who had learned
phonetics from Pitman's shorthand.

Then, with the decipherment of Mayan, a third indubitably independent ancient
invention of writing, the writing structurally the same as Sumerian and Chinese,
the language also monosyllabic, the conclusion was clear: writing is invented in
cultures with some degree of urbanization (for it initially fills the economic
need for keeping records of transactions among sizable or specialized groups of
people) whose languages are monosyllabic (note that writing was not invented by
any Semitic- or Indo-European-speaking peoples, or by the indubitably urbanized
Quechua-speaking Incas).

It follows, moreover, from this theory that Egyptian hieroglyphs were not an
invention from scratch, for Egyptian writing is not syllabic, and Egyptian is
not monosyllabic. Instead, Egyptian is the first of three examples of script
innovation by mislearning (the others being the West Semitic consonantary and
the Greek alphabet; Daniels in press, cf. 2002: 105). Script transfer is indeed
a topic that comes up again and again in the book (recall the quotation under
"Principle of historicity" [35]), but C again misses the opportunity to embrace
or engage existing proposals that when script transfer involves scholars who
already have a tradition of grammatical study of their language, the outcome is
an improvement, subtle or major; but when script transfers involve careful
learning of a script and application of its principles unchanged to a new
language, the outcome is often a script that fits the new language less
efficiently than in the model (Daniels 2000; if it be suggested that the article
is published rather obscurely, C has an article in the same journal number; cf.
also Daniels 2001 -- this chapter cannot be said to be published obscurely, but
C has a chapter in the same book and cites another chapter from it).

I had hoped to end this review on a positive note. I have nothing but praise for
the statement "Since writing systems are artifacts, they are subject to
deliberate manipulation" (cf. Daniels 2001: 66). That is the most important
difference between writing and language (and the main reason "grapheme" is not a
coherent concept). I also agree with what immediately follows: "Tolerance for
complexity and the desire to have a writing system that looks like, or, on the
contrary, differs from, another are variable factors not easily captured by
general laws" (cf. Daniels 1992: 100). But as I hope to have shown in a variety
of publications over the last decade and more, the succeeding sentence is overly
pessimistic: "The history of writing, therefore, cannot rely much on universal
tendencies, but has to investigate the spread and transmutation of every script
in its own right" (208).

Is it, perhaps, relevant to the very strange epigraph? "Writing ... a mooring
post for those who travel on mud" (vii).


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Peter T. Daniels, co-editor and principal author of *The World's Writing
Systems*, holds degrees in linguistics from Cornell University and the
University of Chicago. He is also Production Editor at Gorgias Press.
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