Writing Systems: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis

Writing Systems: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis

Writing Systems: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis

Writing Systems: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis

Synopsis

The problem of reducing language to writing and conversely that of interpreting written signs as language has been resolved through the development of different writing systems. This illustrated textbook introduces the major writing systems of the world (from cuneiform to English spelling) and analyzes their structure and function. It includes a review of the history of writing and a discussion of the literate mind and society.

Excerpt

The men who invented and perfected writing were great linguists and it was
they who created linguistics. Antoine Meillet

Writing has been with us for several thousand years, and nowadays is more important than ever. Having spread steadily over the centuries from clay tablets to computer chips, it is poised for further dramatic advances. Although hundreds of millions of people are still unable to read and write, humanity relies on writing to an unprecedented extent. It is quite possible that, today, more communication takes place in the written than in the oral mode. There is no objective measure, but if there were any doubts, the Internet explosion has laid to rest the idea that for the human race at large writing is only a ‘minor’ form of communication. It is not risky to call writing the single most consequential technology ever invented. The immensity of written record and the knowledge conserved in libraries, data banks, and multilayered information networks make it difficult to imagine an aspect of modern life unaffected by writing. ‘Access’, the catchword of the knowledge society, means access to written intelligence. Writing not only offers ways of reclaiming the past, but is a critical skill for shaping the future. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 motion picture ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ a computer equipped with a perfect speech recognition programme, which is even able to lipread, threatens to overpower the human crew. This is still science fiction. In contrast, the ability of computers to operate in the written mode, to retrieve, process and organize written language in many ways surpasses unaided human faculties. Mastering the written word in its electronic guise has become essential.

The commanding relevance of writing for our life notwithstanding, it is anything but easy to provide a clear definition of what writing is. Partly this is because of the multiple meanings of English words and partly because of the long history of writing and its great importance. At least six meanings of ‘writing’ can be distinguished: (1) a system of recording language by means of visible or tactile marks; (2) the activity of putting such a system to use; (3) the result of such activity, a text; (4) the particular form of such a result, a script style such as block letter writing; (5) artistic composition; (6) a professional occupation. While in this book . . .

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