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Review of  Writing Systems

Reviewer: Peter T. Daniels
Book Title: Writing Systems
Book Author: Florian Coulmas
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Writing Systems
Book Announcement: 17.2534

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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 different.

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


''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:fImiz@m]
(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''

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 astonishing.

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 meanings.)

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


''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''

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


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Watt, W. C. 1998. ''The Old-fashioned Way,'' Semiotica 122: 99-138.

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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