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The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms
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64 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2001
As other reviewers have indicated, this book is beautifully illustrated, and it presents a great overview of the world's earliest writing systems and our attempts to understand them. If that is your interest, I cannot recommend a better introductory book.
On the other hand, if you wish to understand the relationship of writing to language, you may be led astray by the author's neglect of linguistic fundamentals.
The introduction of pictograms and proto-writing is useful. It tells most of what is theorized about the evolution of early language-based writing systems. However, the discussion of rebuses and logographs simply distracts the reader by mixing apples and oranges, namely language-based writing systems versus symbols and puzzles.
The author states that "English, French or German could be written in almost any script," but this obscures the fact that these languages adapted their common root -- the Roman alphabet -- differently to better support each language's unique phonetic structure. Similarly, how (or why) did our English orthography became fixed to now-extinct pronunciations? This you will not learn. Modern English is simply "less phonetic" than Finnish.
Of course, European writing is less novel than Japanese, Hangul or Cherokee, so the bulk of the discussion of modern writing systems focuses on the exotics. Unfortunately this is the subject area where the author is most dependent on the opinions of biased experts. For example, he bases much of his analysis of Japanese writing on J. Marshall Unger's attack on Japan's long-defunct 5th Generation computing debacle. The author relates the difficulty of the Japanese writing system to high suicide rates among juveniles during 1955-58, and tosses out unsupported gems like "It looks likely that the need for computerization must one day lead to the abandonment of kanji in electronic data processing, if not in other areas of Japanese life."
Again, the Western bias of the author (even selecting a Japanese movie poster about "Crint Eastwood" to illustrate a point!) enables him to make a very dubious claim: that even among readers of Japanese and Chinese, written symbols lack semantic content unless the reader can read the word out loud.
This argument is critical to his thesis that writing systems connect exclusively to the phonetic components of language, not to syntactic or semantic components. Ideographs persist merely to help the hapless speakers of Asian languages sort out their homphones. The thesis is wrong, and the supporting argument is severely ethnocentric.
In short, this is a great introductory history, but a lightweight analysis of writing as a linguistic phenomenon. Because of the book's focus on the history of writing, its historical merits outweigh its intellectual deficits; but please don't start an argument with a linguist or a native speaker of a non-European language based on what you've read in this book.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2000
If nothing else mattered, the lush photography of this book would bring it to the forefront of efforts to describe the history of written communications. Unfortunately, while it is extremely well written by an informed author, it has more in common with a text book than a real history. I cannot argue with most of the facts in the book, but I could argue with some of the conclusions. When authors, no matter how talented, no matter how well-informed, speak ex cathedra (my spelling here may well indicate the part of alphabetic writing which is decidedly not phonetic, in English, at least), especially when relentlessly advocating a particular point of view in a controversy, generally I am inclined to ignore them. A glance through the bibliography, though, shows that Robinson is quite willing to give a casual reader enough sources to spend many hours learning what is known of the history of scripts, and writing.
All in all, I would say this book is an excellent way to spark an interest in the subject.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2003
A richly illustrated nontechnical introduction to the history of writing. The author briefly touches upon the relationship between language and script and the challenges involved in the classification of writing systems but the bulk of the book is on presenting different families of scripts and accounts of thier development. The sections on extinct writing, such as cuneiform, and on undeciphered scripts were interesting but the book's chief attribute are the illustrations of alphabets, inscriptions, and glyphs, many of which are interpreted for the reader. A similar volume for the more linguistically inclined is "A History of Writing" by Steven Robert Fischer. The author, himself not without contraversy, provides the technical precision that is lacking in Robinson's book and has lots of examples of scripts as well.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2003
I notice as I write these words that I am taking part in a rather recent venture - the passage and preservation of information through symbols. Naturally, these were originally pictures and over time these evolved into the various scripts we now call alphabets.
This is a good overview of the various worldwide systems used today and in the past. He explains that ALL scripts are a mixture of phonetic and semantic signs - it's only the degree that differs. There is a historical review of hieroglyphs and the origins of writing, then a discussion of the evolution of writing and finally a look at the present and the future where, surprisingly, semantic notation is making a comeback. The book is lavishly ilustrated with charts, photographs and maps.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
My major reading interest these days concerns ancient history (co-incidentally) recorded in writing at the time. This era starts then with Sumeria and leads chronologically, but not directly, from there. Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, Mayas, Incas, Indus, and so on are all included. Excluded, to some extent (because they're better known) are Greece and Rome.
I have read books by David Rohl, Graham Hancock, Zecharia Sitchin, Robert Bauval, Michael Coe, Philip Graham, Alan Alford, D.S.Allan, Christopher Dunn, Mark Lehner, Von Daniken, Adrian Gilbert. Some of these my be considered by "fringe" authors (don't forget Velikovsky!), Others are very definitely "establishment". I do not (necessarily ) agree with their conclusions and extract only their facts!
But ... "The Story of Writing", WOW, what a book! It ties in so absolutely perfectly with where my interests lie! I thought that it would but be a child's story of writing (it was bought sight unseen). Far from it. It is an excellent thorough primer for a serious student. The book leads in with an extensive examination of what writing must do; i.e. transfer spoken word and ideas to another person. The writing is but the medium. The explanations throughout are clear and easily understood. Small translation exercises are sneaked in at odd places to keep the reader's involvement.
Developments of the different writing schemes are outlined (there is not space for much more!) Their interrelation, or lack thereof, is illustrated. Egyptian hieroglyphics are meticulously explained. The Japanese written language is analysed; how difficult it must be to have to know three levels of writing in order to fully understand! The Mayan calendar wheels and picto- to syllabic translations and meaning are well illustrated and explained. Development of the writing schemes and alphabets into their use for different languages are shown. Counting methods and schemes in cuneiform for different product or produce show complications inherent in proto-systems including a lack of a zero!
Lots and lots of fascinating detail! Stories of intrepid adventurers (Rawlinson) and scholars (Champollion and Ventris) who risked life, limb and/or reputation to discover and reveal the transliterations and meanings of hitherto unknown scripts. Chance finds and collaboration; scholars building on scholars' discoveries. Missing links found. "Insufficient data" for Phaistos and Indus and others; no Inca writing, destroyed libraries (Mayan and Alexandrian).
Occasional breakthroughs in the development of writing occur where dictatorial or imperial decree forces a change for simplification. Sadly, from a pure ease of learning and use, alphabets (or, more correctly, writing systems) suffer from traditional conservative (or religious)interests. How easy would it not be to be able to read Japanese or Chinese or Arabic or Russian in Roman letters! ... and what a loss to the beauty of the languages! Writing is primarily a method of communication, not illustration. However (and the author barely touches on the subject) the use of the many and various fonts would put some of the art back into writing.
The illustrations are, of course, superb. One lack of the book (very tongue in cheek this!) is a full set (semi-matt 8 x 10 colour) of the key points or styles of writing (Rosetta, Behistun) and those beautiful samples of calligraphy illustrating cuneiform, hieroglyphics, Narmer (both sides), Phaistos (both sides),Mayan calender, and so on (available on special mail order!). All with complete transliterations and translations, of course.
The only omission I could find in the discussion on Sumerian cuneiform was an explanation of the "syllabification" (my word) the authors such as Rohl and Sitchin use for god-names such as EN.LIL etc.
The author has missed out on one very important use of pictograms. In our South African industrial society with 40% illiteracy and 11 official languages, pictograms are essential!
Overall, a marvellous read and a valuable reference for my research!
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2004
I have always been fascinated with writing systems. This led me to learn to read 8 different languages before I realized it was the writing that interested me much more than the laguages themselves. That is why I am split in my perception of this book. It does an outstanding job of introducing many concepts in a good manner and provides wonderful examples but it is very shallow. That means, I suppose, that it is likely to appeal to more people who want just an "executive summary" instead of being faced with the prospect of actually learning the scripts. In providing the introduction, this book does a magnificent job and whets the appitite for more.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2001
This book, as someone else has said, is strong on graphics and history, weak on linguistics and the relationship between writing and language.
I was astounded by the page on Sign Languages and the claim that
"...they are *not* independent of speech; every successful system, such as American Sign Language ... is based on a spoken language. (Thus an ASL user cannot communicate with a Chinese Sign Language user.)"
No "thus" about it, they are different languages, and an ASL user cannot communicate with a *British* SL user either, but *can* communicate quite well with a French SL user. The speech-based sign languages, such as Signed English, are cumbersome hearing-invented codes that SL users hate. This page makes no mention of fingerspelling nor the notation of SLs, where SL and writing DO meet, nor indeed any mention of SL users, Deaf people.
It is top-heavy with the decypherment of ancient scripts, and - even allowing for the avoidance of ethnocentrism - very weak on our own Roman alphabet. If, for example, there is anything about cursive script, italics, serifs or non-Chinese typewriters, I missed it.
If you're interested in any of its strong topics, it's quite good (assuming the SL page is an isolated lapse), but as a comprehensive survey of how we store our utterences, it's a bit of a grab bag.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
How did writing evolve? How do we decipher the extinct languages? What are the connections between sound, symbol and script? If these questions interest you, you will love this book.

In a fascinating and delightful narrative, Andrew Robinson discusses the major writing systems in the world from the ancient hieroglyphs to the current alphabet based scripts. Over 355 illustrations bring to life the different writing formats and the accompanying explanations make the book a joy to read. Robinson's coverage of the history of decipherment of the extinct languages brings a distinct thrill to the subject.

The book is organized into three parts (1) How writing works - starting with Rosetta stone discovery and its decipherment and ending with how proto writing and clay tablets developed (2) Extinct writing - starting with the Cuneiform in Mesopotamia, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Greek Linear B, Mayan Glyphs and ending with the Undeciphered scripts such as Indus script and Linear A (3) Living Writing - starting with the first alphabet, old Greek, Latin, Arabic and Indian scripts and ending with the Chinese and Japanese writing.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs is so elegantly explained that I could actually write my name in Hieroglyphs by the time I went through it. Other highlights are the writing of runes, cherokee alphabet, reading the bones and impact of the latest discoveries on our knowledge of the history of writing.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2001
This book is a marvel. It should be read in conjunction with Sampson's 'Writing Systems'. Sampson's book is a bit heavier on the linguistics of writing systems, whereas Robinson's book is stronger on historic details. Unlike Sampson's, the Robinson book is also a lovely production that does NOT necessarily have to be read in a mostly linear way. It has the many 'hypertext' details--photos, illustrations, timelines, etc--that make (by way of comparison) Crystal's 'Encyclopedia of English' and 'Encyclopedia of Language' so wonderful to navigate through in various ways.
If you read Sampson's book along with Robinson's book, at least two things will most likely happen: (1) you will know more about writing systems as linguistic and cultural phenomena than most of the population and (2) you may well know more about writing systems than most professional linguists do.
This also is another one of those accessible titles (like Sampson, like much of what Crystal writes and edits) that will go a long way to help produce more enlightened language awareness in education. I highly recommend it to teachers of language or literacy since it can only add to their professional knowledge.
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on January 25, 2013
It happens on many levels and in language you will get over-lap and redundancy. How anyone can slight the conclusions of informed students like the writer after reading the same exact history of the shunning of hobbyists for the "learned professors" only approach detailed here is nuts. It is readily apparent that cultures in contact with one another exchanged ideas on everything which is why these "keys" or translation guides exist in the first place that have allowed us to reconstruct dead languages and writing systems. To say such ingenious systems were only logograms or only syllabic or pictograms seems quite ridiculous given the vast array of cultural similarities in archaeology. This book is awesome. I am using it to further my understanding of ancient mythology and thought it would be dull and centered largely on language itself but to the contrary it gives an excellent historical perspective that has allowed me to confirm L.A. Waddell's findings on the connection between Thor, Induru and the Turans which he states directly without providing a reference to what he was looking at or how he drew that conclusion!

Hittite "Tarhun" for instance as their "storm god" is identical to Turan, Duran, Induru, Tor, Thor (Sumerian Dur-An) "heavenly god" giving you perspective on the Trojans as Hittites which when coupled with the Linear B translation chart on pg. 118 then compared with the Hittite cuneiform block back on pg 91 shows you that Hittite logogrammic cuneiform is actually rudimentary Minoan Linear B, the Linear B being a hieratic (in cursive) form of Hittite. Now I got that from reading this book and never would have made this connection without Mr. Robinson's easy-to-understand explanations. Sure enough a quick internet search just now on this shows that current scholastic study on the subject is proving my "leaping" judgment true. These leaps of inspiration are why we are able to figure out dead languages and ancient history in the first place. This book is a fantastic primer for beginners.
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