"Writing Systems: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis" (review)
- On the topic of ways of writing language, this is a rather long review
of a book published in 2003 by Florian Coulmas. It may be of interest
to some considering aspects of writing and literacy. (Fwd from
Linguist List)... DZO
From: Peter Daniels <grammatim@...>
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
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
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 "DESCRIPTIVE ADEQUACY."
"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 breath-group-)finally.
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
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.
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
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" . 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,
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
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 determinatives.)
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
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
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" ), 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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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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