Barry B. Powell, Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. Chichester: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xx + 276, incl. 115 illustrations and 8 maps. ISBN 978-1-4051- 6256-2. UK£50.00.
María Fernanda De Girolami,
Olga Cossettini Institute, Rosario, Argentina.
National University of Rosario, Argentina.
Powell’s aim is to carry out a detailed investigation into the structural principles that govern writing through the study of historical examples. He focuses on what he calls 'lexigraphic writing', which is attested since 3400 BC. Also, he highlights the fundamental necessity of defining and understanding writing from a careful organization of categories, since professional jargons, when used without precision, sometimes generate confusion. An example is the ambiguous use of the following categories: 'language', 'writing', 'lexigraphic writing', 'speech', 'pictogram', 'ideogram', and 'alphabet', among others. The book begins with a diagram of the categories of writing with which he will develop his argument. It is followed by three indexes: of contents (pp. vii-viii), of illustrations (pp. ix- xiii) and of maps (p. xiv); then come a preface (pp. xv-xvi), a chronology (pp. xvii-xx) from 9000 BC to AD 1900, an introduction (pp. 1-10) followed by eighteen chapters (pp. 11-254), a glossary (pp. 255- 62), bibliographical references divided on thematic sections (pp. 263-68), a general bibliography (pp. 268f.) and, lastly, an index (pp. 270-76).
The first four chapters, 'What is Writing?' (pp. 11-18), 'Writing with Signs' (pp. 19- 37), 'Categories and Features of Writing' (pp. 38-50) and 'Some General Issues in the Study of Writing' (pp. 51-59), are devoted to theory. In the first, after expounding various definitions of writing made by different scholars, Powell offers his own definition: writing is 'a technology of explosive force, a cultural artifact based not in nature (whose rules we did not create) but sprung from the human mind' (p. 11). It is 'a system of markings with a conventional reference that communicates information' (p. 18). In these definitions there is no reference to speech, language, or the spoken word. Writing is a technology with a material basis different from that of speech, which is not a technology and it is not material, but an essential human aptitude, whereas 'a language is any system of symbols that serves this innate faculty to communicate through symbols: speech is one such system of symbols, writing is another' (p. 18). Because it is made up of marks, writing is material (not spiritual, emotional, or mental); because of its conventional references it is cultural, and human (neither natural nor divine), and its aim is that of communication with a reader. In the second chapter, Powell indicates that the scholars’ definitions of writing previously quoted are not satisfactory as they disregard the scripts that do not make reference to human speech and that belong to the lexigraphic writing, for example road signs, primitive art, descriptive-representational devices, and identifying-mnemonic devices. Powell proposes to call these forms of writing semasiography (p. 32). They are non-phonetic signs that can be abstract and whose marks on material basis always 'communicate information without the necessary intercession of forms of speech' (p. 32). Other types of semasiography are musical notations, mathematical notations, and computer icons. In the third chapter, the author seeks to organize the categories of writing by means of a chart of structural relations, explained at the beginning of the book, starting with the distinction between semasiography and lexigraphy. From that point on, he focuses on different types of lexigraphy, logography and phonography, and the two categories the last one is divided into, namely syllabography and alphabetic writing. First of all, the author explains that the shift from semasiography to lexigraphy took place through what is called a rebus, 'a graphic mark can encode a sound recognizable in speech by diverting the graphic mark of its "meaning", leaving only the sound' (p. 38). This shift is also called phoneticization. He then focuses on the difference between logography and lexigraphy; in logographic writing (logograms = word- signs), the logograms 'do not have phonetic value, but they do refer to significant segments of speech'. While in phonographic writing (sound-writings) 'the signs do have phonetic value, and they may or may not refer to significant segments of speech' (p. 40). The relationship between logograms and words and the additional signs associated with logograms is investigated, as well as the two categories of phonography: syllabography and alphabetic writing (p. 44). A section about spelling rules and orthography follows. Chapter Four offers a summary of the writing categories and of the historical changes considered as the most important. After that, the strategies in the formation of lexigraphic writing systems and the relationship between writing and thought and between writing and art are analyzed, indicating their different origins and purposes (p. 54).
Chapters 5 and 6: 'Protocuneiform and Counting Tokens' (pp. 60-69) and 'The Origin of Lexigraphic Writing in Mesopotamia' (pp. 70-84) are devoted to the emergence of lexigraphic writing. In Chapter 5 the tablets called 'Protocuneiform' are researched, which constitute for the author the accounting system from which lexigraphic writing emerges (p. 60). The protocuneiform tablets of Uruk III and IV, the context for protocuneiform writing and, finally, the relation between tokens and writing, in comparison with the theory of Denise Schmandt–Besserat (p. 69), are analyzed. In Chapter 6, after describing the discovery of the phonetic principle, the discovery and decipherment of cuneiform, logosyllabic cuneiform writing and the changes in writing across time and place, and presenting once again the pictographic theory of the origin of writing, Powell concludes that 'lexigraphic writing, an arbitrary and conventional system of signs, came into being when, first, sematograms standing for things, persons, or places became logograms, standing for words, which through the rebus came to stand for sounds. Such a shift in function required arbitrary decisions about how the system is going to work, and only individuals can make such decisions' (p. 83).
Chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10 are devoted to Egyptian writing. In Chapter 7, 'Plato´s Ideas and Champollion´s Decipherment of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs' (pp. 85-99), the different interpretations of hieroglyphics from the descriptions of Diodorus c. 80–20 BC) to Horapollo, Athanasius Kircher (1602- 80), Thomas Young (1773-1829), and Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832 [p. 96]) are studied. Chapter 8, 'Egyptian Writing and Egyptian Speech' (pp. 100-107), focuses on the sections `The Phases of Egyptian Language / Speech´: Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic and Coptic; and `The Forms of Egyptian Writing´: hieroglyphic proper, hieratic and demotic. Chapter 9, 'The Origin and Nature of Egyptian Writing' (pp. 108-19) sets out the relationship between Mesopotamian logography and Egyptian writing. Powell points out that there is archeological evidence of commerce between Mesopotamia and Egypt in the second half of the fourth millennium BC, therefore he thinks that someone understood the principles of the Mesopotamian invention and re-invented writing according to the Egyptian conditions (p. 109). He also researches the earliest Egyptian writings and their different types of signs: phonograms, logograms, semantic complements or determinatives. Chapter 10, '"The House of Life": Scribes and Writing in Ancient Egypt' (pp. 120-27) studies writing instruments, mainly the Egyptian invention of the papyrus, the way the scribes used those instruments, some examples of writing and the role of the scribes in the Egyptian culture.
Chapter 11, 'Syllabic Scripts of the Aegean' (pp. 128-47), begins with the study of Cretan writing and notes how different it is to the Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions (p. 129). Then, it focuses on examining the two writing systems that appeared on Crete between c. 2100-1750 BC: Cretan hieroglyphs (p. 130) and Linear A (p. 133). It continues with the study of Linear B, indicating not only the plausible relationship between the Greek occupation of Cnossus in c. 1450 and the invention of that script by the invaders (p. 135), but also how it differs from the Mesopotamian and Linear A scripts. The author goes through the different attempts of decoding and ends up with the syllabic writing on Cyprus, indicating its relationship to Linear A, in which it was based.
Chapters 12, 13 and 14 are devoted to West Semitic Writing. The first of these, 'The West Semitic Revolution' (pp. 148-62) studies some of the scripts that appeared in the cuneiform writing tradition: the Iluvian hieroglyphs, the Hurrian language, Elamite cuneiform. The Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet and the phoenician syllabary c.1000 BC are then analyzed. In Chapter 13, 'What Kind of Writing Was West Semitic?' (pp. 163-74), the author discusses the notion of 'alphabet' and tries to precise its meaning as well as the one for 'phoneme', and indicates the impossibility of the West Semitic signs to encode phonemes since its recognition depends on the structure of the Greek alphabet. In the Chapter 14, 'The origins of West Semitic Writing' (pp. 175-86), different perspectives about these origins are examined: the hieroglyphic inscriptions found in the desert west of Egyptian Thebes and datable to the late Middle Kingdom, c. 1850-1750 BC (p. 177); and also the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. Here Powell rejects 'The acrophonic principle in the history of writing' and suggests that the West Semitic writing was an invention (p. 185). Lastly there is a section devoted to Other Levantine Epigraphic Finds from the Bronze Age.
In Chapter 15, 'Chinese logography' (pp. 187- 205) the complexity of the Chinese scripts, such as the neolithic markings, dated to c. 6500 BC, and the Oracle Bones, inscriptions attested from the late Shang Dynasty around 1200 BC., are explored. The problem of the origins of the Chinese writing (p. 193) is analyses -- how Chinese writing works, the attempts to reform the Chinese script, the relationships between Chinese writing and speech, and Chinese writing and poetic expression.
Chapter 16, 'Lexigraphic Writing in Mesoamerica' is devoted to the study of Mayan writing, its origins, its nature, and its possible purposes. Powell describes the Mesoamerican writing system as logosyllabary (p. 226).
Chapter 17, 'The Greek Alphabet: A Writing That Changed the World' (pp. 228-44) begins by introducing the 'Background to the Invention of the Greek Alphabet' (p. 228) where the way of transmission of writing from Phoenicia to Greece is described, as well as the changes introduced to the Phoenician symbols by the Greek alphabet, where one of the theses of the book is highlighted: 'The Greek alphabet was a single invention that took place at a single time. All writing systems, as far as we know, were invented by single men, never by groups or committees' (p. 231). The date of the alphabet´s invention is examined, as well as its role as an aid to poetic inspiration (p. 242) and the origins of the Greek alphabetic writing, which are depicted as 'fortuitous and improbable in the utmost' (p. 242).
The work ends with Chapter 18, 'Summary and Conclusions' (pp. 245-54) where the author goes over the origins, purposes, types, relationships and consequences of the different studied scripts, as well as some theses stated throughout the book -- mainly the practical aspect of the various writing systems. The scholars’ interpretation of the different scripts are also re-stated: alphabetic writing, which in some cases has been naturalized and projected without any criticism of the objects analyzed, resulting in some wrong conclusions, according to the author (p. 249). However, Powell attributes to the alphabet cultural qualities that are morally superior to other forms of writing when he polemically asserts that: 'the alphabet promoted the growth of science and democracy while the non-alphabetic cultures wallowed in ghost-fear, violence, and religious extremism (never found in the West!)', and also: 'one can think of the alphabet as a superior system, because it is transcendent and because in its attachment to human speech it is a force for unifying the world' (ibidem).
We think that the book makes a complete and precise study of its subject and that the stated theses about writing are important contributions to research on this topic, not only from the perspective of the social sciences but also from that of the humanities.