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Monday, August 25, 2003


WP's article, today, on the death of writing systems is a bit incoherent.

The article's theme is hearteningly democratic. A writing system -- for instance, Sumerian cuneiform -- dies out because there are too many restrictions on its use. That, at least, is the finding of a certain group of scholars:

"The collaboration among Houston, University of Cambridge Egyptologist John Baines and Assyriologist Jerrold S. Cooper of Johns Hopkins University began at a meeting that Houston hosted earlier this year to discuss the origins of writing. What resulted was "Last Writing," an essay on script death published recently in the British journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. Its basic conclusion: Writing systems die when those who use them restrict access to them."

. But its instances seem to cast that theory into doubt. Since "Both Egyptian and cuneiform survived for 4,000 years, a millennium longer than the Latin alphabet that Westerners use today, and both died in the early centuries of the Christian era after long declines," one has to wonder whether the extinction thesis of restricted use -- with its implication of rarity of users -- is a prime cause, or the result of some other factor. If, in fact, the long decline is defined, in fact, by rarity of users -- so that, by definition, access to the writing system is restricted. For if the Egyptian system lasted 4,000 years with the same level of restriction over time -- that is, with about the same number of rare users -- then it's death is not due to the restriction of access, but is caused by some concerted attack, conceptual, linguistic, or otherwise, on those users. If it had more users in the course of its functioning, and less users over time during its decline, this would essentially make the WP assertion nonsensical. It is like explaining that fire burns because it is hot.

In evolutionary terms, one has to wonder about the counter-case: what benefit accrues to the system by restricting access? It might be that the initial flood of Greek culture into Egypt, after Alexander's invasion, would have displaced even a more widespread writing system -- and that the very restrictedness and prestige of the welders of the older system preserved it.

So, given these weirdnesses in the article, we looked around to see if we could find other reports on Houston, Baines and Cooper's study. Here's the Brigham Yount U. news release (Houston is a BYU scholar):

"Changes in writing systems mirror larger changes that take place, not because of technological 'advances,' but because of feelings about the associations of past kinds of communication,� said Stephen Houston, Jesse Knight university professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University. �This is a new take on communicative 'technologies' -- that they are completely saturated with cultural values and conditioned by history.�

"Houston, a Maya expert, was joined by Oxford Egyptologist John Baines and Johns Hopkins� Jerrold Cooper, who studies cuneiform. Their study is reported in the new issue of Comparative Studies in Society and History, published by Cambridge University Press.

This a brilliant paper by three experts in two ancient scripts of the Old World and one of the New,� said Michael Coe, professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale and author of the bestselling Breaking the Maya Code. �Until now, no one has analyzed the deaths of these scripts from a comparative perspective. As for the Maya writing system itself, only Stephen Houston could have covered such a complex subject in such a convincing way. This is probably the world's most difficult script, and Professor Houston has been in the forefront of its ongoing decipherment.�

Here, there's no mention of restriction of access. In other words, the progressive thesis, which is what the research tends to dispute, is sustained, under a different form, by the WP article, in contradiction to the very study upon which it is reporting. A Derridean would expect no less. Because the writers of the WP article can't give up the thesis that writing systems "progress," with those that are technologically superior succeeding those that are inferior, the WP article distorts the whole point of the Houston, Baines and Cooper study.

Hmm. One could make extensive analogies to other WP distortions, of late, about Middle Eastern cultures. But one won't.

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