A History of Writing

Steven Roger Fischer (Reaktion, new edition 2021; first published 2001), 352pp, £14.95 (paperback)
ISBN 978 1 78 914349 2

Reviewed by Ruth Durbridge

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The terms ‘paelography’, ‘pictography’, ‘phonography’ and ‘stenography’ have, unsurprisingly, more in common than part of their orthography. They go some way to summarising what this volume by Steven Roger Fischer is all about. A renowned and much-published linguist, the author explores the historical background to achieving what he calls ‘complete writing’ by way of ancient civilisations far and wide: from Mesopotamia to Egypt, the Middle East, Greece, China, Japan, the Americas and wider Europe from c.5300 BC onwards. Scripts such as Tifinigh, the writing of the Tuareg people in North Africa, Devanagari – responsible for Sanskrit literature – and the intriguing rongorongo of Easter Island have their place in the volume too. Intricate detail on ‘writing’ methods such as notches, cuneiform, hieroglyphs and typewriting, and the use of materials, including stone tablets, animal skins, papyrus, paper and computers, engages the reader still further.

The book contains fascinating insights into significant writing discoveries, just three of which are outlined here. One such relates to the Etruscan tablet named the Tabula Cortonensis, dating from c.300 BC, which was found by a building contractor in Cortona, Italy, in 1999, bringing 27 new words into the known vocabulary of 500 items. It was likely a property contract between two families.

Fischer also examines Vindolanda in Northumberland, an area close to Hadrian’s Wall, which has been under excavation since 1973. Some two thousand letters and documents on wooden tablets have revealed that Roman armies based here kept in contact with HQ between AD 85 and 130 by means of writing. It is no wonder then that Latin script became the official script of the Western Empire and England – in around the seventh century.

Moving on chronologically, Fischer does not let us forget the history of wholesale destruction by the Spanish in the 1500s of the Classical Era libraries of Mesoamerica, created by Mayan scribes. Colonial agrandissement has brought about the loss of much important literature; however, four codices have survived and are located in Madrid, Paris and Dresden.

The author, understandably, dwells on the development of printing, and reminds the reader that William Caxton was the first in England to print using movable metal type in 1476. The first English book was printed by him a year later. A final anecdote here is that Caxton printed in ‘London’ dialect, creating a London ‘house-style’ – a perceived model which became Standard British English. Thus, regional dialects became marginalised by printing and then radio, film, TV and visual language. At this point I must mention that the present volume is a recently revised edition after some twenty years. Obvious changes and additions appear in its final chapter.

A History of Writing is well worth reading from cover to cover, or dipping into, because of the remarkable detail. The book is of general interest and accessible to everyone. Technical terms are all carefully explained for the lay reader. Special explanatory features are the language mapping, comprehensive and engaging illustrations (e.g. the Book of Kells AD 800 and the Lindisfarne Gospels AD c.722) and the frequent back-referencing to remind the reader what they learned earlier in the book. Furthermore, the accompanying notes are excellent for readers who are approaching it from a scholarly and/or linguistic point of view.

Specifically of interest to copyeditors and proofreaders are the explanations of writing developments such as symbols (think proofreading/copyediting marks), diacritics (think Unicode special characters), typefaces such as serif (used by the Romans, incidentally), and the intricate nature of spelling (think ‘rôle/role’, ‘naïve/naive’, ‘-ise/-ize’). And while we are working on texts written by people whose first language is not in Latin script, or correcting linguistic features that have an etymological perspective, we can luxuriate in the fact that much of the world writes from left to right, and in rows running from top to bottom.

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