None of us had ever thought that the study of Ancient Writing Systems would take us to Japan. Luckily, the Association for Written Language and Literacy gave us this opportunity. Robert and Natalia represented the CREWS project in the 11th Workshop in Writing Systems and Literacy, held by this association at the end of August at the Nanzan University in Nagoya, with the title “Writing Systems: Past, present (… and future?)”. Our colleague Anna Judson was there with us as well and she also has written a post about it, you can read it HERE.

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It was fascinating to participate in a workshop with people working in such a variety of languages and scripts, and talks ranging from historical or theoretical topiGenryaku_Manyosyu 1.jpgcs, such as the nature of the ‘grapheme’, to cognitive studies, the creation of new orthographies and even writing with emojis.  But, naturally, there was a particular focus on East Asian writing systems, with talks focusing on Japanese, Korean and Chinese. We also had the pleasure to listen to the keynote presentations by Florian Coulmas, who was invited as distinguished speaker for this workshop, Dorit Ravid and David Roberts.

As for the members of the University of Cambridge in the workshop, Anna spoke about Linear B in a presentation entitled “Orthographic variation as evidence for the development of the Linear B writing system”; Natalia presented “The typologies of Ancient Mediterranean Scripts” and finally Robert spoke in the Semitic session about “Vowel representation in Semitic languages between language structure and socio-cultural adoption and adaptation”.


Natalia during her presentation at the AWLL Workshop. Photo taken by Robert Crellin.

One topic discussed at the conference which was of particular interest for our project was that of designing orthographies for unwritten languages in the modern context, since it afforded an opportunity to consider ‘live’ many of the same or similar questions as those which would have faced the person or persons involved in designing e.g. the first Semitic abjads and the Greek alphabet. For example, when borrowing a writing system developed for writing one language, how should you modify it for writing another? In the West African context many of the languages are tonal, while European languages are in general not. Accordingly, if you decide to adapt the Latin alphabet for use in West Africa, you need to decide whether or not to mark tone, and if it is to be marked, how you should mark it. A range of options are in principle available, from not marking tone at all, to marking each tone exhaustively.

In the Ancient Near East / Eastern Aegean context, the question of vowel marking is in many ways parallel: North West Semitic abjads in general, and the Phoenician writing system in particular, are loath to record vowels. The would-be adapter(s) oDT272437 smallerf the NW Semitic abjad for Greek would have faced a choice: to record vowels or not. The fact that all known Greek alphabets do record vowels suggests either that the alphabet was adapted in a particular context and on one particular occasion, and that all other alphabets are in some way genetically related to that development, or, if there was more than one creation at a particular time, that each of those involved in the adaptation for Greek were independently of the view that written Greek required vowel representation.


Robert during his presentation at the AWLL Workshop. Photo taken by Koji Miwa.

That there might be something inherent in Old Indo-European languages, including, of course, Greek, that requires vowel representation is perhaps suggested by the fact that the majority of writing systems developed and used in the ancient world for these languages record vowels in one way or another. By contrast, many scripts used for writing Semitic languages do not record vowels. Of course, here the interplay of inheritance and innovation is of critical importance: that it is perfectly possible to write an IE language with an abjad is shown by e.g. New Persian, while, as mentioned in a previous post, on the Semitic side the Ge’ez and Akkadian writing systems record vowels. What factors are more or less significant in adapting and developing a writing system for a particular language is, going forward, one of the major research questions that Robert will be addressing.

We would like to thank the organisers of the workshop for allowing us to participate in such an interesting and fruitful workshop.


~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student) and Robert Crellin (CREWS Research Associate)

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