Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: Writing

Scholia Reviews (Review by María Fernanda De Girolami & Romina Magallanes )

Barry B. Powell, Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. Chichester: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009.

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. . . .

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.

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