Re-Posted April 9, 2010 See paper explaining Scriptology
website! Also: see Bibliography on Scriptology
ASPECTS OF SCRIPTOLOGY
The History of Writing in General: The history and rich cultural
lore of specific writing systems and languages
Contemporary political influences
in changing writing systems
Ancient Writing: Decipherment, Archaeology
The Evolution of Specific Developments in Writing:
Direction of writing.,
Writing Materials: Papyrus, Parchment, Paper,
etc., Pen, Stylus, Pencil
Erasers, White-out ,
Teaching Writing & Reading: Cursive,
penmanship, italics, printing;
Dyslexia and other Reading
and other writing problems
alphabets for beginners?
Orthography: Spelling reform; Adapting alphabets to
other languages; Phonetics and phonetic
Different Kinds of Alphabets:
Letter order, direction, punctuation,
Extensions of Writing as Codes:
Flag Alphabets Morse
Code for Telegraphs Codes and Cryptography
Braille for the Blind
Hand Alphabet for the Deaf
Mathematical Symbols Other Symbols in General
Astrological, Astronomical, Electronic, Cartographic (maps),
New symbols on computers– smileys, backslash,
Letters as Symbols
Magical and religious ideas, sacred or magical
alphabets Other quasi-letter-symbols
Play and Making Up Alphabets
Fantasy and Science Fiction
Comic Strip Art
Art with Letters
Steinberg, etc. Style &
Scriptology as an Interdisciplinary Field
Classes on aspects of scriptology are offered within a wide variety of
academic departments internationally, such as departments of—or in the
component studies of— :
Studies of specific languages and cultures--
Ancient and modern Near Eastern,
other regional cultures
Education: penmanship, reading
Notational systems: music, math,
chemistry, maps, electronics, astronomy, proofreading,
Non-Phonemic Writing: Semaphore,
Morse Code, Braille Hand
SOME FUNCTIONS OF WRITING
(In contrast to oral communication)
- Broadcasting: Spreading information beyond the reach of the
voice, over space.
- Preserving: Holding information for future reference, over
- Instructions and technical books: Combining the previous items.
- Self-expression: Opening a wider range of speakers for a wider
range of audiences.
- Entertainment: Enjoying the previous item.
- Law and Standards: Establishment of consistent norms and
enhancing the sense of fairness in and among communities.
- Persuasion: Political propaganda, commercial advertisements,
- Reflection & Analysis: Carefully reviewing subjects
regarding coherence, difference.
- Civil Participation: Combining the previous three items.
Thus, writing makes it possible for a culture to include more knowledge
than a single mind can encompass. The arrival of written language
creates an architecture for a civilization to become “sticky,” making
it possible to transmit knowledge more effectively, in greater volume
and detail, and to build on advances.
SOME ISSUES RELATED TO LITERACY
Primary Education When is the best time to begin the teaching of
reading? Of writing? What is the best method for teaching reading or
writing? Printing or Cursive? In what way should computers be used in
Secondary Education Should learning about linguistics and, more
particularly, different kinds of alphabets and writing systems be
included in the language arts programs of middle or high schools?
Higher Education What kinds of “literacy” should be emphasized? How
much traditional “literature” should be part of the core curriculum?
What about classes in semantics, public speaking, critical analysis of
propaganda, rhetoric, etc.? Certainly, media studies should, I think,
become a core subject.
Computers How much should we expect from this new technology, and
how much is excessive “hype”? Can computer literacy substitute for
ordinary “book learning”?
New Ways of Thinking The growing prevalence of Power Point, used
not only by lecturers, but also by students in making up their reports,
and its increasing use in a wider range of fields, all structures the
way people engage in discourse. Similarly, the presence of
hypertext makes for a different mode of “interactive reading,”
following sub-directions and discovering cross-linkages as it fits the
individuality of the reader.
A ROUGH CHRONOLOGY IN THE HISTORY OF WRITING
Humans make flint tools, fire, probably begin to talk
200,000 years ago
Culture complex enough for petroglyphs and cave
Beginnings of agriculture, first towns (in Middle East
) 10,000 years
Beginnings of trade, exchange of tokens in Middle
7,000 years ago
Beginnings of first written tablets, scrawled markings (in the
Middle East, on clay) @ 5,200 years ago (i.e.,@ 3,200
BCE) [BCE is the abbreviation
used by modern historians: “Before the
Common Era” instead of BC (Before Christ); and many also use CE instead
of AD (Anno Domini).]
? Precursors to Cuneiform in Mesopotamia (Today, Southeastern Iraq)
Tokens, etc. @3300 BCE
Egypt picked up idea and began Hieroglyphics
Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed Cuneiform and first cuneiform
numerals @2700 BCE
Development of Papyrus, Brush, and Hieratic (first cursive) (In
Egypt) @2600 BCE
Applications expanded beyond trade and religion, to include legends,
letters, poetry, government @2400 BCE
Akkadians supplant the Sumerians in what is today Iraq, adapt numerals
to base 10: @2300 BCE
Diffusion of idea of writing through Persia to settlements in
West India, the early “Indus Valley” settlements, where they
began their own form. @2300 BCE
Early Assyrian empire, “Code of Hammurabi,” other texts in Mesopotamia.
In Egypt, flowering of many aspects of
culture. @1800 BCE
Beginnings of pre-Alphabetic scripts in Levant
(from the Sinai peninsula up through Canaan to
Civilizations in Crete (Minoan), Cyprus, Mycenae in
Greece and their special writing systems–still being
deciphered– @1800-1100 BCE
Beginnings of writing in China
Development of alphabetic systems in Levant, rise of
@1200- 900 BCE
Phoenicians as traders in the Mediterranean Sea
Beginnings of Greek Alphabet, adding vowels!
Diffusion into northern Italy, Etruscan Writing
Aramaic spreads as “lingua franca” of Middle East
900 BCE-200 AD
Beginnings of Latin-Roman script, from Etruscan
sources 500s BCE
Papyrus a big industry in Egypt, trade and literacy growing
in 2000-200 BCE
Spreading down the Nile, into Spain
Beginnings of writing in Central America
Development of Brahmi Script in North India–derived from Aramaic,
developed 300s BCE
Many scripts develop from this root throughout South Asia
Latin takes in increasing Greek influences, letters
First specimens of Square Hebrew, derived from
Aramaic @180 BCE
Roman Empire spreads writing into Northern Europe,
elsewhere 100 BCE-200AD
Paper invented in China (Tsai-Lun)
Development of Mayan Script
Block Printing in China
Spacing between words
Charlegmagne organizes more legible writing
1100-1300s, introduction of the zero sign in the West,
appearance 1100-1300 CE
of calculations with pen & paper using Hindu-Arabic numerals
Gutenberg invented movable type printing
(Printing spreads rapidly throughout Western
Korean Popular Script Designed
Type Designs Developed
Type design and manufacture separated from
GLOSSARY OF WORDS RELATING TO THE STUDY OF
ALPHABETS AND WRITING SYSTEMS
Acrophonic. Refers to the principle in which a certain sound is
represented by a symbol the pronunciation of which begeins with the
sound. Example: representing the sound h with the picture of a house.
Alphabet, alphabetic. Terms referring to symbols like our English
letters which represent phonemes. Examples:the letters p, a, t, h, and
d in pat, hat, pad, had.
Aspirated. Marked by release of a puff of air. Example, notice the
difference between the sound of p in pie as differentiated from its
sound in spy. There’s a slight h sound with the former.
Boustrophedon. (Literally: “turning like oxen in plow.”) Refers to
writing alternate lines in opposite directions.
Calligraphy The making of writing an art form.
Cartouche. An oval or oblong frame used in Egyptian hieroglyphics to
enclose personal names.
Cursive A quick and superficial form of writing used for
daily, practical purposes. (Sometimes cursive becomes monumental when
Cuneiform. Wedge-shaped symbols used in Sumerian and other writing
systems. (Derived from Latin cuneus ‘wedge.’)
Cyrillic alphabet. An alphabet widely applied to the Slavic languages,
as in the case of the thirty-three-letter Russian alphabet. Since the
1930s, it has been used for most of the languages of the former Soviet
Union. (Named after St. Cyril, a ninth-century apostle of the Slavs.)
Demotic script. (Lit. “people’s script”) Egyptian writing that evolved
from the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts into a linear script tending
strongly toward alphabetic representation.
Diagraph. Two letters used to represent one sound. Example: ph in phase.
(Trigraph = three written symbols representing one
speech sound (e.g., manoeuvre)
Dipthong. A vowel containing two distinct qualities. Ei
sound of weigh, ou as in ouch
(Tripthong: A vowel containing three distinct
qualities (e.g., “fire”)
Hangul. Korean alphabetic system of writing created in the fifteenth
Homonyms. Words which have the same pronunciation and written form but
different meanings. Example: can which may mean either a metal
container or to be able to.
Homophones. Words having the same sound but different spellings: Ex:
right, wright, write; to, too, two.
Ideograph, ideogram, ideographic. Refers to symbols that
represent meaning without indicating pronunciation–often opposed to
“phonetic”. E.g.: ☺ ♂ ♀
Logographic. Refers to symbols that represent words. Thus, & is a
logograph that represents the word “and”or $ represents “dollar”. A bit
more specific and word oriented than ideographic.
Mnemonic Something that aids in remembering in a non-phonetic fashion,
either iconically or non-iconically.
Orthography. A conventional writing system used for a specific
language. (Implies conventions of spelling, they types of letters
Phoneme. The smallest unit of speech that can distinguish one word from
Pictographic. Symbols which depict things or actions.
Pinyin. An alphabet based on Latin letters that was adopted in the
People’s Republic of China in 1958.
Polyphony A characteristic of a single written sign
representing more than one phoneme in a language. E.g., in English, [a]
sounds different in man, mane, malt, mark
Quipu. Knotted cords used by the ancient Peruvians for
record-keeping–as a mnemonic device.
Rebus. Representation of a word or syllable by pictures of objects
whose names resemble the sounds of the words or syllables. Example: a
picture of a bee representing the syllable be.
Schwa. The name of the most neutral vowel, a sort of dull uh
represented by the phonetic symbol ə.
Solidus An oblique stroke: / also called a virgule, slash,
slant, or oblique.
(The “backslash” = \ is a relatively new
form that relates to computer file addresses.)
Syllabary A writing in which a sign normally stands
for one or more syllables of the language (in contrast to an alphabet
or a logography).
Dialect: To convert the flow of language into written form
becomes more problematical when the language is heavily accented:
It's amazing, you will understand the above word by the end of the
conversation below. Read aloud for the best results. Be
you're going to find yourself talking "funny" for a while after reading
this. (This has been nominated for best e-mail of 1999.)
The following is a telephone exchange between a hotel guest and
room-service at a hotel in Asia, which was recorded and published
the Far East Economic Review
Room Service (RS): "Morny. Ruin sorbees"
Guest (G): " Sorry, I thought I dialed room-service"
RS: "Rye ..Ruin sorbees..morny! Djewish to odor sunteen??"
G:"Uh..yes..I'd like to order some bacon and eggs"
RS: "Ow July den?"
RS: "Ow July den?... pry, boy, pooch?"
G: "Oh, the eggs! How do I like them. Sorry, I'd like them
RS: "Ow July dee bayhcem...crease?"
G: "Crisp will be fine."
RS: "Hokay. An san toes?"
RS "San toes. July san toes?"
G: "I don't think so."
RS: "No? Judo one toes??"
G: " I feel really bad about this, but I don't know what 'judo one
RS: " Toes! Toes!...why djew Don Juan toes? Ow bow singlish
mopping we bother?"
G: "English muffin!! I've got it! You were saying 'Toast.'
Fine. Yes, and English muffin will be fine."
RS: "We bother?" G: "No...just put the bother on the side."
G: "I mean butter...just put it on the side."
G: "Yes. Coffee please, and that's all."
RS: "One Minnie. Ass ruin torino fee, pooch ache, crease baychem,
tossy singlish mopping we bother honey sigh, and copy...rye??"
G: "Whatever you say"
G: "You're welcome"
In ordinary English, though, we have many
sounds that must be known, not guessed. Here’s a fun poem about that:
I’m taught p-l-o-u-g-h s‘all be pronounce “plow.”
(A Fresh Hack at an Old
Charles Battell Loomis
Zat’s easy w’en you know,” I say, “Mon Anglais I’ll get through!”
My teacher say zat in zat case, o-u-g-h is “oo”
And zen I laugh and say to him, “Zees Anglais make me cough.”
He say, “Not ‘coo,’ but in zat word, o-u-g-h is ‘off.’”
Oh, Sacre bleu! Such varied sounds of words makes me hiccough!
He say, “Again mon frien’ ees wrong; o-u-g-h is ‘up’
In hiccough.” Zen I cry, “No more! You make my t’roat feel rough.”
“Non, non!” he cry, “you are not right; o-u-g-h is ‘uff.’”
I say, “I try to spik your words, I cannot spik zem though!”
“In time you’ll learn, but now you’re wrong! O-u-g-h is ‘owe.’”
I’ll try no more, I s’all go mad–I’ll drown me in ze lough!”
“But ere you drown yourself,” said he, “O-u-g-h is ‘ock.’”
He taught no more, I held him fast, and killed him wiz a rough.
Wherefrom come the standards that rule our lives?
Much of what follows applies also to the evolution of conventions and
norms in other fields, such as in the history of writing and what seems
to be acceptable (even if it doesn’t make much sense):
(This is for people who have a hard time understanding engineering:)
The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet
8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?
Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads
were built by English expatriates.
Why did the English build them that way? Because the first rail lines
were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and
that's the gauge they used.
Why did "they" use that gauge? Because the people who built the
tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building
wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
So why did the wagons have that particular odd spacing? Well, if they
tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of
the old, long distance roads in England, because that was the spacing
of the wheel ruts.
So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads
Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The
roads have been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads? The ruts in
the roads, which everyone had to match for fear of destroying their
wagon wheels, were first formed by Roman war chariots. Since the
chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in
the matter of wheel spacing.
The US standard railroad gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches derives from the
original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are
handed a specification and wonder what horse's backside came up with
it, you may be exactly right, because the
Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate
the back ends of two war horses.
Thus we have the answer to the original question. Now for the twist to
the story. When we see a space shuttle sitting on its launching pad,
there are two booster rockets attached to the side of the main fuel
tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB's. The SRB's are made by
Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRB's
might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB's had to be
shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.
The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the
Rocky mountains. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track,
and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' rumps. So, a
major design feature of what is arguably the worlds most advanced
transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the
width of a horse's backside!
Don't you just love engineering?
From Pre-Literate to
In the December 2, 2001 New York Times Magazine, an article titled “A
Plunge into the Present,” (by Ron Suskind, pages 84-90), described the
rapid modernization process of a pre-literate tribe on Babuyan, a small
island about a hundred miles north of the Phillippine Islands. The key
word here is pre-literate. They didn’t even know there was a way
to communicate other than by mouth, through speech. After a missionary
went there in 1977, and after many adventures, was able to help them
put their language, Ibatan (which is also the name for themselves
collectively), into written form. Then they wrote books: One was
titled: Stories concerning us here on Babuyan. Another was an
Atlas Book–Drawings of the island, another larger frame which showed
its relation to the Phillippines, another of the Pacific Ocean and
surrounding countries, then of the whole World, and even the solar
system. A third book was a cookbook with recipes of the indigenous
Of course, there is much more to this story about many other aspects
of modernization that came with the arrival of this missionary,
but the point I want to emphasize is the power of writing: After a few
years, one native said, "Written language gave us a way to capture our
history and compare ourselves to people everywhere... Now that we have
a past, I find that I think only of the future. I always feel a clock
ticking and time rushing by... But the old ones live always in
the present. Theay hear no clock. Once, that’s the way we all were.
Scholars say that the arrival of written language creates an
architecture for a civilization to become “sticky,” making it possible
to transmit knowledge more effectively, in greater volume and detail,
and to build on advances. Another interesting thing. In that peaceful
community, the Ibatan have no words for war, envy, jealousy, property,
to buy, to sell, or to own! Imagine then the impact of Western culture
when they began to trade, have visiting teachers from the Phillippines,