Geoffrey Sampson, “Writing Systems” (Equinox, 2015)

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It’s not always been clear how the study of written language fits into linguistics. As a relatively recent historical development, it’s tempting to see it as a sideshow in terms of questions about the innateness of language. But at the same time, humans’ aptitude for literacy seems remarkable and could be said to merit study in its own right as a window into the mind.
It’s easy to enjoy Geoffrey Sampson‘s Writing Systems, 2nd edition (Equinox, 2015) without getting into these questions, because the social and historical story that unfolds over its pages is itself fascinating. This new edition benefits from advances in classical and anthropological scholarship, and offers a meticulous and elegantly explained account of the emergence of some of the world’s predominant writing systems. But the author also continues to make a strong case for the relevance of written language to linguistic study, and draws substantially upon psycholinguistic research (which itself has motivated a reappraisal of how reading ‘works’, since the first edition was published in 1985).
In this interview we touch upon some of the recurring themes of the book: how writing systems are elaborated and combined; how historical processes have resulted in some degree of mismatch between languages and the writing systems used to record them; and how technology mediates the way these systems are used.
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