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Review of  Writing Systems

Reviewer: Galen Brokaw
Book Title: Writing Systems
Book Author: Henry Rogers
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Writing Systems
Issue Number: 16.1350

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Date: Wed, 27 Apr 2005 09:37:17 -0400
From: Galen Brokaw
Subject: Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach

AUTHOR: Rogers, Henry
TITLE: Writing Systems
SUBTITLE: A Linguistic Approach
SERIES: Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2005

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

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

As the subtitle indicates, Rogers takes a linguistic approach in his
exposition of writing systems. This approach has the advantage of
benefitting from the adaptation of a well-established conceptual
system. It also means, however, that it inherits all of the prejudices of
that system. Rogers' linguistic approach leads him to define writing
narrowly as the "use of graphic marks to represent specific linguistic
utterances" (2). In the introductory and theoretical chapters, Rogers
does an excellent job of defining his terms and delimiting his topic,
thus providing a clear framework for his subsequent exposition. As in
linguistics itself, however, there are other perspectives that offer
competing theoretical formulations about language and writing. The
study of secondary media in general -– whether they fall under
Rogers' definition of writing or not -– offers an interesting opportunity
to problematize the traditional formulations of linguistic theory. The
linguistic approach adopted by Rogers misses this opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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