NR EAST & ASIAN M20: Visible Language: A Study of Writing (285-061-200 & 257-060-200)

Instructor: Robert K. Englund

TuTh 12:30 - 1:45 PM

Office hours: TU 3:00- 4:00 PM (Humanities 396), or email me ( or class TAs Michael Heinle (; Timothy Hogue (; Jillian Jones (; Kathryn Reynolds (; or Jared Wolfe ( for appointments


Sections1AMo 2:00P-2:50PMHaines 110
1DWe 2:00P-2:50PMMS 7608
1EWe 3:00P-3:50PMRolfe 3108
1FTh 3:00P-3:50PMMS 5148
1GTh 4:00P-4:50PMMS 5148
1HFr 1:00P-1:50PMHaines A28

Download a class syllabus

Download a PDF copy of class slides part 1

Download a PDF copy of class slides part 2 updated weekly

Download the class Powerpoint part 1

Download the class Powerpoint part 2 updated weekly

Description: The course, designed for lower and upper division undergraduates, will consider the concrete means of language representation in systems of writing. The earliest representations of language known to us are those of the Near East dating to the end of the 4th millennium BC. While the literate civilizations of Egypt, the Indus Valley, China and Meso-America left us little evidence of corresponding earliest developments, still their antiquity, and, in the case of China and Meso-America, their evident isolation mark these centers as loci of independent developments in writing. The course will make a detailed presentation of the basic characteristics of these early scripts, offer an assessment of modern, alphabetic writing systems, and present the conceptual basis of semiotic language representation. Students should leave the class with knowledge of the origins and development of early non-Western writing systems; they should understand how the Greco-Roman alphabet arose in the 1st millennium BC, and how this alphabet compares to other modern writing systems.

Class textbook: Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing (London 1995 and 2007) (available at campus bookstore, and for example at Amazon; further required readings below

  1.April 2Class introduction
  2.April 4General classification of the types of writing
  3.April 9Prehistory of writing
  4.April 11Babylonian cuneiform
  5.April 16Babylonian cuneiform
  6.April 18Egyptian hieroglyphics
  7.April 23Iranian proto-Elamite, local transformations of cuneiform; Proto-Indian Harappan writing
  (guest lecturer: Jared Wolfe)
  8.April 25Chinese logographic; prep for mid-term
  9.April 30MID-TERM
10.May 2Visit to LACMA (see below)
11.May 7Film: “NOVA: Cracking the Maya Code”
12.May 9Meso-American 1
13.May 14Meso-American 2
14.May 16Linear A & B

15.May 21The alphabet’s origin and development
  (guest lecturer: Tim Hogue)
May 22PAPERS DUE (via Turnitin, by 11:59 PM)
16.May 23Phaistos; review of non-alphabetic writing systems; spread of alphabets
19.May 28Alphabets
17.May 30Alphabets & related notational systems
18.June 4Film: “Helvetica”
20.June 6General review, prep for final

11.   Final exam: Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 11:30 AM - 2:30 PM (two-hour exam) in WGYOUNG CS76

READINGS (and see related website [slightly abandoned recently, but still some helpful links]):

Week of April 1: Robinson pp. 7-17; Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems, pp. 26-45.

Week of April 8: Robinson pp. 52-67; Alexander Marshack, in Harnad et al., eds., Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech pp. 289-311; Robert K. Englund, “Prehistoric Writing” (IntLab. Reader MPIWG, pp. 17-29 (excerpted from OBO 161/1, pp. 42-55).

Weeks of April 15 and 22: Robinson pp. 20-51 & 72-79; Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone, pp. 11-45.

Week of April 29: Robinson pp. 182-197; from John DeFrancis, Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing: “Chinese” (23 pages).

Week of May 6: Robinson pp. 120-143; Stephen Houston, Maya Glyphs, pp. 33-51; Peter Daniels, in Daniels and Bright, eds., Worlds Writing Systems, “Decipherment,” pp. 139-159.

Weeks of May 13 and 20: Robinson pp. 108-119, 152-154 and 158-174; Emmett Bennett, in Daniels and Bright, eds., Worlds Writing Systems, “Aegean Scripts incl. Linear B,” pp. 125-133; Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet, pp. 23-42; Ellen MacNamara, The Etruscans, pp. 61-64.

Week of May 27: Read F. de Saussure, The Course of General Linguistics on sign theory (semiology=semiotics; further reading: Saussure, On Signifying; Peirce’s Theory of Signs)

One class session held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA; getting there) will be dedicated to acquainting the students with real examples of an array of ancient writing systems. This tour will take place on the 2nd of May; participants will begin gathering in the area between the Hammer and Art of the Americas at 1:15 PM to receive their complimentary tickets from the class TAs. To make the tour more manageable, we will divide into two groups: at 1:25, group one with birthdays on even-numbered days will proceed to the Art of the Americas Building, and go up to the 4th floor to begin the tour of the Mayan collection, while group two, born on odd-numbered days, will proceed to the Hammer Building, and will go to the 3rd floor to begin the tour of the Near Eastern collections. Upon completion of the respective collections, the groups will be given enough time to walk to the starting point of the corresponding tour, to begin at 2:00. You are welcome to return to the galleries once the tours are completed.


MID-TERM EXAM (25% of grade): The one-hour mid-term will test your understanding of the basic concepts of writing, and of the readings and lectures dealing with the Babylonian, Egyptian and Harappan systems.

TERM PAPER (25% of grade): Students will also be expected to write a paper on a text artifact viewed at LACMA, or one taken from a list of cuneiform inscriptions provided below. The paper will consist of 2000 words (ca. 7 pages double spaced) excluding bibliography, using author-date-page format. Topic treatment will include the geographical and temporal context within the writing system the artifact represents; its history of (archaeological) recovery; a general description of the artifact's salient features, its use within the realm of text genres for which we have evidence within its writing system, the means of modern representation of this and comparable inscriptions, including those in Roman script and in computer language. Papers due on May 22nd.

List of cuneiform artifacts acceptable as topics for class papers:
1. Behistun inscription of Darius I
2. Cyrus Cylinder
3. Hammurapi Code
4. Middle Assyrian Laws
5. Gilgamesh Epic; Flood tablet
6. ATU 7, pl. 14, W 19408,76+ (oldest theoretical surface calculations)
7. Gudea Statue B
8. TCL 2, 5499 (theoretical account of an ancient dairy herd)
9. JSS 7, 184 (21st century BC temple floor plan)
10. MSVO 3, 2
confer pertinent cdli:wiki pages for introductions and literature to some of these texts.

FINAL EXAM (40% of grade): The two-hour final will consist of short IDs of important concepts, events and persons in the decipherment of early writing systems; it will require knowledge of the so-called pristine systems: cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese and Mayan, as well as of the origin and development of modern alphabets; and it will also require the student to identify images of examples of writing systems discussed in class and tagged in the class Powerpoint. An unproofed review sheet for the class is downloadable here.

SECTIONS PARTICIPATION (10% of grade): 5% for attendance, and 5% for participation during the section meetings.