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The Shape of Script

How and Why Writing Systems Change

Edited by Stephen D. Houston

This book builds on earlier projects about the origins and extinctions of script traditions throughout the world in an effort to address the fundamental questions of how and why writing systems change. The contributors—who study ancient scripts from Arabic to Roman, from Bronze Age China to Middle Kingdom Egypt—utilize an approach that views writing less as a technology than as a mode of communication, one that is socially learned and culturally transmitted.

2012. 346 pp., 54 figures, 5 tables, notes, references, index, 6 x 9

Contributors: John Baines, John Bodel, Stephen Chrisomalis, Beatrice Gruendler, Stephen D. Houston, David B. Lurie, John Monaghan, Richard Salomon, Kyle Steinke, Niek Veldhuis

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“Having edited two valuable collections on how scripts are born (The First Writing) and how they die (The Disappearance of Writing Systems), Stephen Houston has now assembled a third, equally valuable collection, The Shape of Script. … Until quite recently, it was common for most scholars of writing to assume that writing systems must inevitably evolve towards greater efficiency or a more phonemic representation of the languages they express. This somewhat arid view is no longer tenable…. As Houston rightly argues in his Preface, ‘The study of writing needs to be brought back into the fold of anthropology, not as a marginal or recondite specialty but because it is an indispensable tool by which knowledge is transmitted.’ The wide-ranging contributors to this collection respond to this brief with both erudition and imagination.”
—Andrew Robinson, author of The Story of Writing, Lost Languages, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, and Cracking the Egyptian Code

“This collection of essays addresses a rarely treated but strategic set of questions. It shows that the study of the evolution of script systems constitutes the best way to understand how aesthetics and script use can shape each other in a cultural tradition, and more generally, how the visual appearance of signs can influence the social use of language. In a very wide range of case studies—from Maya and Mixtec to Latin, Egyptian, Arab, and Chinese—each contributor demonstrates that the ‘shape’ of script has its own levels of analysis from its minute constituents to its broader macro-settings. The Shape of Script is a great attempt to marry an amazing scholarship with an anthropologically-minded perspective on writing, seen as a culturally-shaped mode of communication and as one of the central cultural productions in human history. It certainly is a stunning achievement.”
—Carlo Severi, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

“This very important book delineates what amounts to a new domain of scholarly inquiry.”
—Andréas Stauder, University of Basel, Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 69, 2013


  1. Cuneiform: Changes and Developments
    Niek Veldhuis
  2. Scripts, High Culture, and Administration in Middle Kingdom Egypt
    John Baines
  3. Paragrams, Punctuation, and System in Ancient Roman Script
    John Bodel
  4. Stability and Change in Arabic Script
    Beatrice Gruendler
  5. Some Principles and Patterns of Script Change
    Richard Salomon
  6. Script Change in Bronze Age China
    Kyle Steinke
  7. The Development of Writing in Japan
    David B. Lurie
  8. Maya Writing: Modified, Transformed
    Stephen D. Houston
  9. The Shape of Script in a Colonial Context: Alphabetic and Pictorial Registers in Mixtec Texts
    John Monaghan
  10. Trends and Transitions in the History of Written Numerals
    Stephen Chrisomalis

There are no working papers for this book at the present time.