What Is Writing?

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Writing and Civilization - From Ancient Worlds to Modernity Course
The written word is so central to our lives that it can seem as if it has always existed. Yet writing is a relatively recent invention. Trace the remarkable saga of "visible speech" from its earliest origins to its future in the digital age. In this thrilling journey, you'll explore…
The Origins and Development of Writing
Now that you understand the significance of writing, explore three popular beliefs or myths about where writing comes from and how it developed. Investigate the theories of monogenesis versus polygenesis--whether writing was only invented once or independently in locations around the world--and the reasons writing systems are resistant to change.
The Future of Writing
Episode 24 of Writing and Civilization
Will typing replace handwriting? Will e-books make printed books obsolete? Will speech-to-text software replace our need to physically write at all? Join Professor Zender as he speculates about the future of writing based on past developments, from the invention of movable type to new signs and spelling conventions inspired by…
What Is Decipherment?
The earliest writing systems are known to us only through the efforts of archaeological decipherment. But how can archaeologists be certain that the knowledge is accurate? Learn a bit of history on cryptography and the differences between decipherers and code-breakers as you examine the theory and methodology of decipherment, as…
What Do Egyptian Hieroglyphs Say?
Episode 14 of Writing and Civilization
Join Professor Zender as he reads hieroglyphs that Champollion's efforts helped to recover from oblivion, and see how you too can learn to decipher this blend of phonetic signs, logograms, and semantic signs. Also, consider the interaction of Egyptian writing and culture, including how the practice of damnatio memoriae was…
What Does Cuneiform Say?
Episode 16 of Writing and Civilization
See how scholars revealed a lost world of language and literature when they expanded upon Grotefend's breakthroughs by relating Old Persian to the ancient cuneiform scripts that preceded it. Next, trace the development of writing through 3,500 years of Mesopotamian history, and consider what ancient texts such as The Epic…
What Do the Mayan Glyphs Say?
Episode 19 of Writing and Civilization
How can the strikingly similar structural features of the Mayan and ancient Egyptian writing systems be explained? Continue your exploration of how Mayan writing works through a comparison with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then find out what scholars have learned about ancient Maya civilization from decipherment, and examine a series of fascinating--and…
Where Did Our Alphabet Come From?
Most alphabets in use today are derived from one script developed over 4,000 years ago. What accounts for the vast popularity of the Roman or Latin alphabet? This episode takes you back to ancient Egypt as you investigate the origin of our alphabet and the contributions made to it by…
The Fuþark—A Germanic Alphabet
Runes are often mistakenly thought to be a semimagical system of signs used for divination and ritual, but nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the real history of the Runic alphabet--also known as the Futhark --as a case study for why writing systems rise and fall.
Chinese—A Logosyllabic Script
In continuous use for almost 3,400 years, the Chinese script and its derivatives are used by more than 1.5 billon people around the world. Examine popular myths about Chinese writing as you discover the earliest origins and evolutions of Chinese characters (known as Hanzi), and differentiate between the five sign…
Japanese—The World’s Most Complex Script
Borrowed and adapted from the Chinese, Japanese writing is the most complicated script ever devised, yet it's used by more than 100 million people daily. Investigate how and why Japanese writing took on the complex form it has today, why attempts to simplify it have had little success, and why…
The Five Pillars of Decipherment
First, get an introduction to the five preconditions or "pillars" necessary for decipherment to be possible, paying particular attention to the first pillar, known as script type. Then turn to the typology of the three main categories of signs found across the world--logograms, phonograms, and semantic signs--and consider how these…