The Idea of Writing

Play and Complexity


The Idea of Writing is an exploration of the versatility of writing systems. From ancient Egyptian, Cuneiform and Meroitic writing to Chinese, Maya and Maldivian script, the authors examine the problems and possibilities of polysemy, representing loanwords and the problems of adapting a writing system to another language. The playful and artistic use of writing, including a contribution on writing dance, further illustrates the intricacies of the systems. This collection of articles aims to highlight the complexity of writing systems rather than to provide a first introduction. The different academic traditions in which these writing systems have been studied use linguistic, socio-historical and philological approaches that give complementary insights into the complex phenomena.
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Biographical Note

Alex de Voogt, Ph.D. (1995) in Psychology, Leiden University, is an Assistant Curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His studies on writing systems and the dispersal of board games focus on the Indian Ocean region.

Irving Finkel, Ph.D. (1976) in Assyriology, University of Birmingham, is an Assistant Keeper at the British Museum in London. His special subjects are Ancient Mesopotamia, Cuneiform writing, Lexicography, Medicine, Esoterica and the study of Ancient Magic, in addition to contributions on the history of board games.

Contributors are Margarita Winkel, Erik Boot, Joachim Friedich Quack, Henning Klöter, Wilfred H. van Soldt, Azeb Amha, Harry Falk, Claude Rilly, Wolfgang Behr, Joukje Kolff, Alex de Voogt and Irving Finkel.

Table of contents

Table of contents

Introducing writing on writing
Alex de Voogt

Play in writing

Strange byways in cuneiform writing
Irving L. Finkel

Scripts and shapes: Chinese characters and Japanese syllabaries in early modern Japan
Margarita Winkel

Substitution, substitution, substitution:
the many faces of Maya writing
Erik Boot


From group-writing to word association:
representation and integration of foreign words in
Egyptian script
Joachim Friedrich Quack

What is being borrowed?
Language and script contact in Taiwan
Henning Klöter

The adaptation of the cuneiform script to foreign languages
Wilfred H. van Soldt

Loanwords, “foreign words,” and foreign signs in Maya writing
Erik Boot

On loans and additions to the Fidäl (Ethiopic) writing system
Azeb Amha

Languages and scripts in the Maldive Islands: coding and encoding
Alex de Voogt

Foreign terms in Sanskrit pertaining to writing
Harry Falk


Reducing polyvalency in writing systems: from Egyptian to Meroitic
Claude Rilly

Difficult hieroglyphs and unreadable Demotic?
How the ancient Egyptians dealt with the complexities of their script
Joachim Friedrich Quack

Maya Writing: synonyms and homonyms, polyvalency and polysemy
Erik Boot

In the interstices of representation: ludic writing and the locus of polysemy in the Chinese sign
Wolfgang Behr

Towards another script Egyptian writing for non-Egyptian languages and vice-versa: a short overview
Joachim Friedrich Quack

The Caroline Islands script: a linguistic confrontation
Alex de Voogt

The interaction of syllabic and alphabetic
cuneiform writing in Ugarit
Wilfred H. van Soldt

Writing Dance
Joukje Kolff



All those interested in the history of writing systems, cultural contact in antiquity, Egyptology, Sinology, Assyriology, Maya studies as well as classical philology, linguistics and socio-linguistics

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