FYI (fwd from the linguist list)... DZO

Date: 27-Apr-2005
From: Galen Brokaw <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
Announced at

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


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 khipu.