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Review of  The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets

Reviewer: Philippa M Steele
Book Title: The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets
Book Author: George L. Campbell Christopher Moseley
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Writing Systems
Issue Number: 23.3109

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AUTHORS: George L. Campbell and Christopher Moseley
TITLE: The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets
SUBTITLE: Second edition
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2011

Philippa M. Steele, Faculty of Classics / Magdalene College, University of Cambridge

The first edition of The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets came out in
1997 and was the work of the famous polyglot linguist George L. Campbell, who
published it as a supplement to his two-volume Compendium of the World’s
Languages. This second edition, appearing six years after his death in 2004 at
the age of ninety-two, has been amended, corrected and ‘fairly considerably
amplified’ (p. viii) by Christopher Moseley. The book is aimed at a broad and
amateur readership, and Moseley specifies in the ‘Preface to the second edition’
(pp. viii-ix) that it is intended as ‘a useful guide for anyone wanting an
introduction to the many and fascinating scripts in which the languages of the
world have been written’ (p. viii).

Following the preface and a short initial chapter entitled ‘Introduction: the
world’s families of scripts’ (pp. 1-2), the main body of the work consists of
short separate entries for each of the writing systems discussed, with
accompanying illustrations and sign tables. New to the second edition is a
tripartite categorisation into ‘ancient’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘autochthonous’
writing systems, with scripts ordered alphabetically within each of the three
sections. A ‘Further Reading’ section (p. 182) is included at the end, followed
by a short index (p. 183).

Overall the Handbook gives a good general treatment of most of the well-known,
and a number of the less well-known, writing systems of the world. An effort has
been made to demonstrate not only the appearance and type of script in use in
each case, but also the extent to which the script is an effective
representation of the phonological features of the language it is used to write.
The level of detail to which each writing system is discussed varies from case
to case, with some requiring an extended examination of their development over
time or the complexities of their usage (for example, the comparatively lengthy
overview of Chinese, pp.72-81).

The difficulty of producing -- and indeed reviewing -- a book that aims to
introduce the writing systems of the world is that no single person is likely to
be an expert in all the entities discussed. Famously, George L. Campbell, the
original author, was proficient at speaking and reading more than forty
languages, and so was as well placed as anyone could be to publish volumes that
surveyed the world’s languages and scripts, especially volumes intended for a
general rather than specialised readership. Nevertheless, with such a broad
remit, inevitably there will be some errors and omissions, which was one of the
reasons why Christopher Moseley, himself co-editor of the Atlas of the World’s
Languages (Routledge, 2007), has produced this second edition of the Handbook of
Scripts and Alphabets. Even in the new edition, however, some imperfections have
remained or been introduced.

The very brief Introduction (pp. 1-2) purports to discuss ‘the world’s families
of scripts’, because ‘it would be as well at the outset to show how some scripts
are derived from others’ (p. 1). However, the ensuing paragraph mentions only
briefly a ‘link’ between a number of named scripts (Phoenician, ‘Greek’, Linear
B, ‘Minoan’, the Roman alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet), whose relations with
each other ‘can best be shown schematically’ (p. 1), in this case via an
inaccurate diagram reprinted from Diringer 1948 (which makes it look as though
the Greek alphabet is not a direct development from the Phoenician abjad). It is
unclear what is meant here by the reference to a ‘link’ between these scripts:
presumably a genetic interpretation is not intended, since the Linear A and B
syllabaries are unrelated to the Phoenician abjad and the later alphabets
descended from it, but on the other hand there is no clear indication that this
is a reference to theories of unidirectional development from pictographic to
alphabetic script types (as in e.g. Gelb 1952, which is cited briefly in the
Further Reading section on p. 182).

The Introduction goes on to inform the reader that writing systems can be
categorised into various different types, which represent phonemes (a term that
is never explained in the book, despite the intended general readership),
syllables and concepts to different degrees. Only three particular terms are
then glossed: ‘alphabets’ (optimistically described as ‘a system in which all
phonemes, both vowels and consonants, are given their own symbols of equal
value’, p. 2), ‘abjads’ and ‘syllabic alphabets’. Providing these definitions is
important, especially for the lay reader, but it would have been helpful if
further script types (e.g. syllabaries and pictographic and logographic systems)
were described, and if the main part of the book used only the glossed terms
(e.g. Epigraphic South Arabian, pp. 23-5, is described as a ‘consonantal
alphabet’ rather than an ‘abjad’, the term established here).

The above complaints are relatively minor, and much more obvious to an expert
epigraphist than they would be to the majority of readers. Although a longer and
more informative introduction would be a desirable adjunct, for the most part
the book does a good job of demonstrating the diversity of ancient and modern
writing systems. Each script is dealt with in turn, with a brief discussion of
its origins and structure, and its application to the language or languages
written in it; the clear and detailed structural descriptions of each script,
usually presented in relatively simple and accessible terms, compensate for the
brevity of the Introduction.

The new structure of the second edition, with writing systems categorised as
‘ancient’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘autochthonous’, is clearly intended as an
improvement on the first edition, which listed ancient and modern scripts
together. The case for dividing ancient from contemporary scripts is convincing
enough, as the ancient writing systems are specified by Moseley in the Preface
as ones that are no longer in use and that were used to write languages that are
now dead, as opposed to ones still in use today (p. ix). However, the category
of ‘autochthonous writing systems’ appears to be a bizarre misnomer for a set of
scripts that Moseley defines as ones that have arisen ‘usually in the last
couple of centuries, within or for a particular small speech community,
unrelated to any system used for surrounding languages’ (p. ix): of the seven
writing systems assigned to this category, four were created by native speakers
after various degrees of external influence (the Munda language scripts, N’ko,
Pahawh Hmong and Vai) and two by Christian missionaries with at least partial
inspiration from the Roman alphabet (the Fraser and Pollard scripts), while only
one could truly be described as ‘autochthonous’ in the sense that it seems to be
original as well as unique to one particular location (the undeciphered
Rongorongo script of Easter Island). One also wonders why some of the writing
systems assigned to the ‘contemporary’ group, such as Cherokee and Cree, were
not included in the ‘autochthonous’ category, given the similarities in their
origins to most of the other scripts in that class.

Moving from the overarching structure to the treatment of individual entities,
throughout its pages the Handbook highlights the numerous interconnections
between the world’s writing systems, with many a script described as being
derived from or at least partially based on another. The question of the
invention of writing, and the number of separate inventions that must have taken
place to result in the variety of writing systems we know of, is not discussed
but will surely be in the mind of the curious reader. The interrelatedness of so
many of the world’s scripts also causes a problem in terms of basic
categorisation: what constitutes a separate script, to be listed under its own
heading? While many related scripts are given separate entries in the book (e.g.
Gujarati, Gurmukhi and Bengali listed separately from Devanāgarī), some have
been grouped together, especially in the ‘ancient writing systems’ section (e.g.
the ‘Aegean scripts’, pp. 7-9, and the ‘Anatolian scripts’, pp. 10-11).
Occasionally a surprising choice has been made in this regard, for example the
listing of only the Persian (alphabetic) form of cuneiform, with minimal
reference to the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Elamite forms of the script
and no reference at all to Hittite cuneiform (even in the ‘Anatolian scripts’

As mentioned above, no reader is likely to be an expert in all the scripts
listed in this book, and the present reviewer’s specialism lies in the area of
the ancient scripts, especially those of the Mediterranean and nearby. That
being the case, I will limit close criticism to the Aegean scripts and the Greek
and Roman alphabets. The Aegean scripts are listed under ‘ancient writing
systems’ and are an example of a set of scripts that have no continuation in the
modern day; the description given here is mostly accurate, and reveals the
existence of several related writing systems (on the relations, see most
recently Steele forthcoming), including Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B
(early Greek). A few inaccuracies emerge: Linear A is not confined to accounting
documents, as suggested here (p. 7); there is not only one related Cypriot
script, but at least two, usually termed Cypro-Minoan (undeciphered) and the
Cypriot Syllabary (Greek and at least one unknown language) (p. 8); and the
table on p. 9 labelled ‘The Aegean Script’ consists of a table that gives only
the core signs of the Linear B script, and does not include the
‘duplicate’/‘homophonous’ (e.g. a2, a3, pu2, etc.) or ‘complex’ (e.g. nwa, pte,
etc.) signs that form a part of the whole syllabary.

The entry for ‘Greek’, in the ‘contemporary writing systems’ section, begins by
describing Linear B again (with an outdated reference to ‘Dorian invasions’ as
the reason for the fall of the Mycenaean palaces) and goes on to explain briefly
the adaptation of the Greek alphabet from ‘Canaanite/Phoenician’ in the early
first millennium BC (p. 98). The alphabet is described as ‘not phonologically
the most precise’ (though without explanation), which somewhat overlooks the
huge step towards the phonemic principle that is represented in the script’s
creation (and not only in the matter of the adaptation or invention of separate
vowel signs, which is mentioned fleetingly). The entry for ‘Roman’ gives an
accurate and quite detailed account of the development of the Roman alphabet
from the Etruscan, itself adapted from the Greek alphabet (p. 132), and of the
many variants of the Roman script in use today for languages throughout Europe
and all over the world. However, of the tables included in this entry, the one
labelled ‘The Roman Alphabet’ (p. 139), which lists each sign of the Roman
alphabet and transcribes it as itself, in a book that is after all written in
the Roman alphabet, seems a curious choice, to put it mildly.

The tables and diagrams found throughout the Handbook are an important and
integral part of the book’s appeal, and illustrate amply the sheer diversity of
methods via which we commit our speech and thoughts to writing. While some of
the tables of signs were apparently created for the volume, others have been
reprinted from other works, which leads to some inconsistencies in the way in
which different scripts are presented, and the degree to which they are visibly
assessed as an effective representation of the phonology of the languages
underlying them. However, such inconsistencies will not be very apparent to the
reader who dips into the volume at will, rather than reading it cover-to-cover
as a reviewer inevitably does.

More unsettling to a reader, especially an amateur enthusiast rather than an
expert epigraphist, will be the many references to linguistic concepts that go
unglossed. For example, the casual use of phonetic terms such as ‘retroflex’,
‘affricate’ and ‘palatal’ may not convey to the average reader how exactly these
phones would sound, and the ‘Note on phonetic symbols’ (p. xi) is not sufficient
to help, listing only eight symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
even though a much wider selection of IPA symbols appears throughout the book.
Considering the many references to phonemes in the context of discussing the
efficiency of different scripts, it is also unhelpful for the lay reader that
not even the basic principles of phonology are explained. Those who are left
with questions may well find more information in the works recommended in the
Further Reading section (p. 182; to which I would also add Coulmas 2003 and
Robinson 2007), but one wonders whether some of the recommendations, such as a
book about Turkish written in Turkish, will be of much use to most readers.

The Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets is a well presented and fascinating
account of the world’s writing systems. If it has some flaws for the expert
reader, for the most part these are not issues that will trouble its intended
readership excessively, and the only serious shortcoming is that its discussions
of such a wide range of scripts are necessarily brief and will leave the reader
with some questions, which will necessitate looking outside of this volume. The
enticing information found throughout the book would undoubtedly spark the
curiosity of any reader, and it is a suitable starting point for anyone
interested in the world’s scripts.

Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing Systems: An Introduction to their Linguistic
Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Diringer, David. 1948. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. New York:
Philosophical Library.

Gelb, Ignace J. 1952. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robinson, Andrew. 2007. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and
Pictograms. London: Thames and Hudson.

Steele, Philippa M. Forthcoming. The /d/, /t/, /l/ and /r/ series in Linear A
and B, Cypro-Minoan and the Cypriot Syllabary. Pasiphae VI (pages TBC).
Pisa-Rome: Biblioteca di Pasiphae.

Philippa M. Steele is the Henry Lumley Research Fellow in Classics at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and has been awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship to be held at the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge, 2012-2015. Her dissertation dealt with writing systems and languages of ancient Cyprus, and she is currently working on a project on ‘The History of the Greek Language in the Eastern Mediterranean During the First Millennium BC’. Her interests cover a wide range, including ancient Mediterranean scripts and languages, ancient Greek linguistics and dialectology, Mycenaean accounting and Linear B, and ancient multilingualism and linguistic diversity. In 2013-14, she will give the Evans-Pritchard Lectures at All Souls College, Oxford, on ‘Society and Writing in Ancient Cyprus’.

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