A new paper, “Last Writing: Script Obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica” by Stephen Houston, John Baines, and Jerrold Cooper (published in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History), sounds fascinating; a Washington Post story by Guy Gugliotta says:

When a system of writing begins to die, people probably don’t even notice at first. Maybe the culture that spawned it loses its vitality, and the script decays along with it. Maybe the scribes or priests decide that most ordinary people aren’t able to learn it, so they don’t teach it.

Or a new, simpler system may show up—an alphabet, perhaps—that can be easily learned by aggressive upstarts who don’t speak the old language and don’t care to learn its fancy pictographic forms.

Or perhaps invaders take over. They decide the old language is an inconvenience, the old culture is mumbo jumbo and the script that serves it is subversive. The scribes are shunned, discredited and, if they persist, obliterated.

In the first study of its kind, three experts in the study of written language have described the common characteristics that caused three famous scripts—ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern cuneiform and pre-Columbian Mayan—to disappear.

“Thousands of languages have come and gone, and we’ve studied that process for years,” said Brigham Young University archaeologist Stephen D. Houston, the study’s Maya specialist. “But throughout history, maybe 100 writing systems have ever existed. We should know more about why they disappear.”

The collaboration among Houston, University of Cambridge Egyptologist John Baines and Assyriologist Jerrold S. Cooper of Johns Hopkins University began at a meeting that Houston hosted earlier this year to discuss the origins of writing. What resulted was “Last Writing,” an essay on script death published recently in the British journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. Its basic conclusion: Writing systems die when those who use them restrict access to them.

“The sociological and cultural dimension is crucial,” Houston said. “Successful systems don’t have these prohibitions. Once there’s this perception that the writing is only for this function or that function, script death is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The story has interesting details on the history of all three scripts and is well worth reading in full; this tidbit particularly struck me: “Greek became Egypt’s official language during the Hellenistic period, and the Romans discriminated against indigenous nobles by taxing those who didn’t speak it: ‘This was a body blow,’ said Cambridge’s Baines.” There’s nothing new under the sun. (Again via Taccuino di traduzione; I’m feeling lazy today, so I’m just swiping all her links. Grazie, BebaManno!)


  1. My favorite extinct script is the Hsi-hsia script of the Tanguts in NW China (Gansu / Ning-hsia and neighboring areas) ca. 1000-1200 AD. It was modeled on Chinese script and is thus “ideographic”. A handful of mostly Russian and Japanese scholars are spending their time on the extremely difficult and rather useless task of decoding it. (but don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing). I have read that this very difficult script survived for a time even after the Hsi Hsia state was destroyed by the Mongols.

  2. I have looked for a long time for a font of the Tangut script… finally found one at Mogikyo… went through the time-consuming process of installing their font program… and it doesn’t work on my computer! Have you any idea where I can locate a font, or even just a chart of the symbols used by the Tanguts? I sure would be grateful!

  3. Peter T Daniels says: “Kychanov in WWS [The World’s Writing Systems (1996), of which Daniels was coeditor] lists a number of works in Japanese by Nishida, and also Grinstead’s Analysis of the Tangut Script (1972), which is in a Swedish series that was widely remaindered a while ago.”

  4. Fortunately, Unicode is making it possible to write these obsolete scripts on computers. The Roadmap to the Supplementary Multilingual Plane shows the archaic scripts currently available (black), accepted but not yet finalized (green), submitted but not yet accepted (blue), and not yet a proposal (red). The SMP also includes various symbol sets and scripts in marginal use. In addition, there are submitted proposals for oracle-bone and small-seal Chinese scripts.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Specifically, Tangut is now in Unicode.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    My scripts generally die by uncaught exceptions.

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