June 20, 2021

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Alphabets, Hieroglyphs, & Pictograms
by Andrew Robinson.
1995, 2007 2nd ed (232 pages)

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    Quote = "Without writing there would be no history. In all civilizations, scribes have been the transmitters of culture, the first historians... Thus we owe a substantial debt to the scribes of ancient Egypt and the monks of medieval Europe." (Paraphrased by webmaster, from Introduction by author, Andrew Robinson, page 7)

    Quote = "Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, said of language that it might be compared to a sheet of paper. ‘Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought, or thought from sound’." (From Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, as quoted by the author, Andrew Robinson, page 17)

    Quote = "The way we write at the start of the 3rd millennium CE (Current Era) is not different from the way that the ancient Egyptians wrote." (From a reviewer who cited a quote by author, Andrew Robinson, page 17)
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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

    note = Writing Timeline — A Chronicle (16)
MODERN HIEROGLYPHS (signs or symbolic words)

"Are the huge claims made for the efficiency of the alphabet then perhaps misguided? Maybe writing and reading would work best if alphabetic scripts contained more logograms standing tor whole words, as in Chinese and lapanese writing and (less so) in Egyptian hieroglyphs? Why is it necessarily desirable to have a sound—based script? What, after all, has sound got to do with the actual process of writing and reading?" (17)

"We have only to look around us to see that ‘hieroglyphs’ are striking back --- beside highways, at airports, on maps, in weather forecasts, on clothes labels, on computer screens and on electronic goods including the keyboard of one‘s word processor. Instead of ‘move cursor to right, there is a simple picture of a right pointing arrow. The 'hieroglyphs' tell us where we must not overtake, where the nearest telephone is, which road is a freeway, whether it is likely to rain tomorrow, how we should (and should not) clean a garment, and how we should rewind a tape. Some people, beginning with the philosopher and mathematician Leibniz in the 17th century, even like to imagine that we can invent an entire written language for universal communication." (17)

"lt would aim to be independent of any of the spoken languages of the world, dependent only upon the concepts essential to high-level philosophical, political and scientific communication. If music and mathematics can achieve it, so the thought goes --- why not more generally? This book shows why that dream, appealing as it is, can never become a reality. Writing and reading are intimately and inextricably bound to speech --- whether or not we move our lips. Chinese characters do not speak directly to the mind without the intervention of sound, despite centuries of claims to the contrary by the Chinese and by many western scholars. Nor do Egyptian hieroglyphs, notwithstanding the beauty of their symbols and the fact that we can recognize people, animals, objects and the natural world depicted in them." (17)

"Aristotle called the basic unit of language --- by which he meant both spoken and written language --- "gramma." Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, said of language that it might be compared to a sheet of paper. ‘Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of the paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought, or thought from sound’." (17)

"We have just begun to understand the mental processes in speaking, we understand still less about those in reading and writing, but we may be sure of this: full writing cannot be divorced from speech; words, and the scripts that employ words, involve both sounds and signs." (17)


1) Reading the Rosetta Stone (20-35)

2) Sound, Symbol and Script (36-51)
    Quote = "Speech is a river of breath, bent into hisses and hums by the soft flesh of the mouth and throat," wrote the linguist Steven Pinker.” (37)
3) Proto-Writing (52-67)


4) Cuneiform (70-91)

5) Egyptian Hieroglyphs (92-107)

6) Linear B (108-119)

7) Mayan Glyphs (120-143)

8) Undeciphered Scripts (144-155)


9) The First Alphabet (158-167)

10) New Alphabets from Old (168-181)

11) Chinese Writing (182-197)

12) Japanese Writing (198-209)

13) From Hieroglyphs to Alphabets — and Back? (210-217)

POSTSCRIPT — Writing in the New Millennium (218-225)
    note = "The hoary questions about writing endure, taking new forms. Where, when, how, and why did it begin?" (219)



INDEX (231-232)
    Alphabet, origin of
    Phoenician script
    Pinker, Steven
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR = Andrew Robinson has written more than 25 books on the arts and sciences ancient scripts, writing systems and archaeological decipherment; and Indian history and culture. They include Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts, India: A Short History, and Earthshock, which won the Association of Earth Science Editors Outstanding Publication Award. They include six biographies: of the physicist Albert Einstein and the polymath Thomas Young; of the decipherers Jean-Francois Champollion (Egyptian hieroglyphs) and Michael Ventris (Minoan Linear B); and of the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore and the Indian film director Satyajit Ray.

Robinson's most recent books are: The Indus: Lost Civilizations, and Earthshock, published by Thames and Hudson: and the wide-ranging Earth-Shattering Events: Earthquakes, Nations and Civilization. The books combine his interest in archaeology, history, India and science. He also writes on these subjects for leading magazines, such as Current World Archaeology, History Today, The Lancet, Nature, and Science. A former literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, he was also a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge. See

SUMMARY = This book addresses the fascinating subject of writing, how it developed and the different systems employed by different cultures. It includes cuneiform, Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs, early alphabets, runes, Linear B, the scripts of China and Japan, and more. Robinson explores the virtues of these writing systems and their decipherment, or not in some cases. Accompanied by many illustrations of writing on walls, tablets, objects, stones, monuments, papyri, and others. This book holds a wealth of information not usually found in one publication.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Andrew Robinson explains the interconnection between sound, symbol, and script in a succinct and absorbing text. He discusses each of the major writing systems in turn, from cuneiform and Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphs to alphabets and the scripts of China and Japan, as well as topics such as the Cherokee "alphabet" and the writing of runes. Full coverage is given to the history of decipherment, and a provocative chapter devoted to undeciphered scripts challenges the reader: can these codes ever be broken? In this revised edition, the author reveals the latest discoveries to have an impact on our knowledge of the history of writing, including the Tabula Cortonensis showing Etruscan symbols and a third millennium BC seal from Turkmenistan that could solve the mystery of how Chinese writing evolved. He also discusses how the digital revolution has not, despite gloomy predictions, spelled doom for the printed book. In addition, the table of Maya glyphs has been revised so that they are up-to-date with current research.

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[1] Delightful to read... difficult to put down once started. -- Communication Arts

[2] Rich in images... well-informed and assured. -- Scientific American

[3] The book is a good verview of the history of written language and how it has been deciphered and developed over time. It does not go into depth. -- LibraryThing

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[1] R. M. PetersonTop Contributor - A fine and magnificently illustrated introduction for the generalist = While Robinson's book may be beneath scholars and serious students of scripts and writing systems, for the rest of us it is a fine introduction and a good addition to any general library. Following an excellent introductory overview of writing in general, there are thirteen chapters. Representative ones are "Reading the Rosetta Stone"; "Sound, Symbol and Script"; "Cuneiform"; "Mayan Glyphs"; and "Chinese Writing". Each chapter, in turn, consists of a half dozen or so topics, each of which receives one or two pages. For example, the chapter on "Undeciphered Scripts" has brief discussions of the following subjects: the difficulties of decipherment; Indus script; Cretan Linear A (still undeciphered, though Linear B is the earliest European script that we can understand); the Phaistos Disc; proto-Elamite script; Etruscan; and Rongorongo, from Easter Island. The book is copiously, and beautifully, illustrated, with photographs of ancient scripts and inscribed artifacts, as well as charts and maps. The illustrations and text are well integrated. The writing itself is ideal for a book of this sort -- neither simplistic nor overly academic. In addition, the book is carefully and intricately formatted, so much so that it is doubtful that the book could be satisfactorily rendered in digital form (just as Japanese kanji characters defy satisfactory electronic data processing). One theme of the book is that "the way we write at the start of the 3rd millennium AD is not different from the way that the ancient Egyptians wrote." Another is that phonography is essential to fully developed writing systems: "full writing cannot be divorced from speech. Words, and the scripts that employ words, involve both sounds and signs!"

[2] Bill J. Grossman - A good introduction to writing but could have been more comprehensive = This book gives the basic history of the dicyphering of a number of ancient scripts. It has some nice photos and illustrations. It is not a dictionary or an encyclopedia by any means. It covered the mainstream ancient scripts such as Cuneform and Egyptian, but barely touched on the more ancient,esoteric and mysterious scripts such as, Neolithic pictographic, Sumerian pictographic, ancient Greek linear A, and the Indus Valley scripts. I would have enjoyed it more if it pushed the envelope a little more.

[3] victor milian - The human need to learn and pass on knowledge is perhaps the greatest human achievement, which is to transmit human thoughts to writing for future generations to benefit from and hopefully build upon!

[4] OldSchool Skater = There is so much information packed in these pages that I have to read the book over at least once each year.

[5] Alexander Kharpatin - Really nice! = Very well written book with lots of graphics to show what the text is about. Great book! I highly recommend it!

[6] cmcc = A captivating and informative look at the history of a type of communication unique to only our human species. It is about how language began and how it has progressed over the eons, and maybe where it is going.

[7] Anca - Beautiful book with interesting facts. I first saw it at the Metropolitan museum and bought it as a gift then I ordered it for myself.

[8] Silurian SnapDragon - Good non academic introduction to language = It is not a historical overview of all writing systems but covers the major ones. Although I have always been interested in languages and writing sytems, I have never actually read about the subject. It is very readable and not too academic. It also includes mini puzzles to draw you into the subject further and that is something I did not expect. On realizing just how complicated certain language systems of scripts are, it certainly gives added respect for those who helped decipher the ancient scripts which had been lost. It is a good introduction to a vast subject.

[9] John NL Leyson=- Thorough and indeed, timeless! It is worth every cent. It is quality made from cover to cover. I love the vivid colored images and the crisp illustrations. It is helping me a lot with my research on ancient scripts. Above all, the contents are thorough and timeless.

[10] Graham Cammock = A great book with such an important subject. It especially made me appreciate Mayan glyphs in a way others have not.

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