Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Course No. 2241
Professor Marc Zender,
Ph.D., University of Calgary
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Course No. 2241
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Course Overview

Can you imagine the world—or your life—without writing? From emails to street signs and newspapers to novels, the written word is so ever-present that we rarely stop to consider how it came to be.

Yet at just over 5,000 years old, writing is actually a relatively recent invention. It has become so central to the way we communicate and live, however, that it often seems as if writing has always existed.

Through writing, we gain knowledge about past cultures and languages we couldn’t possibly obtain any other way. Writing creates a continuous historical record—something an oral history could never achieve. And writing systems are integral to many cultural identities and serve as both a tool and a product of many important societal structures, from religion to politics.

The fundamental role and impact of writing in our civilization simply cannot be overstated. But the question remains: Who invented writing, and why?

Like any event from our prehistoric past, the story of writing’s origins is burdened by myths, mysteries, and misinformation. For the past two centuries, however, dedicated scholars have used rigorous methods to uncover a tale of intrigue, fascinating connections, and elegant solutions to the complex problem of turning language into text.

In the 24 visually intensive lectures of Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity, you’ll trace the remarkable saga of the invention and evolution of “visible speech,” from its earliest origins to its future in the digital age. Professor Marc Zender—Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and an accomplished epigrapher—whisks you around the globe on a thrilling journey to explore how an array of sophisticated writing systems developed, then were adopted and adapted by surrounding cultures.

This course answers many of the most common questions about the world’s writing systems and the civilizations that created them, plus a number of questions you may never have thought to ask.

  • Do all writing systems descend from a single prototype, or was writing invented independently?
  • What one feature do the world’s writing systems have in common?
  • Which kinds of signs and symbols qualify as writing, and which do not?
  • How is the digital age changing the way we write?

Along the way, you’ll visit the great early civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Japan, and the Americas, and you’ll see how deciphering ancient scripts is a little like cracking secret codes—only far more difficult.

Witness the Triumphs of Decipherment

Through the process of decipherment, civilizations including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete, and Mexico have, as Professor Zender says, “all given up their secrets.” Lost histories, literatures, and religions can now be studied in translation, and the disciplines of ancient history, archaeology, and comparative literature have benefited enormously as a result.

You’ll be spellbound as you hear accounts of the breathtaking moments when the decipherment of ancient scripts broke centuries of silence. And you’ll marvel at fascinating objects once shrouded in mystery, including

  • the iconic Rosetta stone, often credited with being the key to our understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics;
  • an Egyptian sphinx inscribed with the oldest-known form of our own alphabet;
  • a doorway at Persepolis inscribed in cuneiform;
  • a Maya vase featuring an ancient comic strip; and
  • wooden, rune-inscribed runakéfli sticks featuring carved messages that reflect the social sphere of 12th-century Scandinavia, including one that reads, "I'd like to get to the pub more often."

Crucial to your understanding of how epigraphers decipher scripts—and why they’re sometimes unsuccessful—are five preconditions known as the “pillars of decipherment,” which you’ll study in detail and return to throughout the course.

A Window into the Past

Among the fascinating takeaways from studying lost scripts is a newfound sense of shared humanity with ancient peoples. The cuneiform scripts of ancient Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia, in particular, are eerily modern and reveal glimpses of the origins of practices and beliefs that continue to the present.

You’ll also see how writing was used for political purposes by our earliest civilizations, as in the practice known as damnatio memoriae, whereby ousted leaders were quite literally erased from history, either through the recarving of inscriptions or by omission from official records. Ironically, it is Tutankhamen’s own erasure that may have helped obscure his tomb from raiders.

Despite the obvious connection between language and writing, this course draws a clear distinction, explaining how single languages can be written using various writing systems. English, you’ll learn, was once written with runes. In antiquity, Greek was represented by at least three different scripts.

In exploring how writing systems rise and fall, you’ll encounter many scripts that are associated with languages that have surviving descendents, including those of the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, which have relatives in Hebrew and Arabic. Others scripts you’ll study—such as those of the Elamites, Hurrians, and Sumerians—record languages that have died out or evolved to the point of being unrecognizable.

Myths Dispelled, Revelations Told

In Writing and Civilization, you’ll encounter a wealth of eye-opening information that sets the record straight on this enigmatic subject. Here are just a few of the misconceptions that you’ll encounter and investigate in greater detail.

  • A civilization cannot exist without writing: While writing and civilization share a strong relationship, they are not inextricably entwined.
  • Writing was invented to serve the administrative needs of early cities: Although writing did serve this purpose, it likely first emerged out of a need to record proper nouns.
  • The Rosetta stone is a one-of-a-kind artifact: This first and most famous example of a bilingual—or “triscript,” as it contains Greek writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and demotic script—is not the only Egyptian bilingual in existence, nor was it unique for its era.

You may also be surprised to learn that the Aztecs possessed writing, and that unearthed Aegean writings in Linear B spoke only of mundane accounting matters rather than Theseus and the Minotaur and Icarus, as early scholars predicted.

Hear Messages of the Ancients Revealed

Writing and Civilization offers lifelong learners the chance to not only discover the history of ancient writing systems, but also the rare opportunity to actually hear those scripts read aloud and to learn the meaning of their messages hidden in plain sight.

As an expert on Mesoamerican languages and writing systems and an international lecturer on decipherment, Professor Zender has conducted linguistic, epigraphic, and archaeological fieldwork in much of the Maya area, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. His expertise, along with firsthand accounts of his experiences and discoveries, adds an invaluable perspective that truly brings this riveting material to life.

You will also be captivated by the extraordinary visuals accompanying each dynamic lecture, including photographs of ancient sites and artifacts, explanatory animations, and numerous illustrations artfully drawn by the professor—many exclusively for this course. 

From papyrus to personal computer, the story of writing is 5,000 years in the making, and it’s still evolving. Investigate the fascinating relationships between language and writing, and the cultures that gave birth to them, in Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    What Is Writing?
    It has been said that writing exists only in a civilization and a civilization cannot exist without writing, but is that accurate? Consider the validity of this statement and examine several of the critical functions that writing has served during the past 5,000 years. Also, get an introduction to pictography and its limitations. x
  • 2
    The Origins and Development of Writing
    Now that you understand the significance of writing, explore three popular beliefs or myths about where writing comes from and how it developed. Investigate the theories of monogenesis versus polygenesis—whether writing was only invented once or independently in locations around the world—and the reasons writing systems are resistant to change. x
  • 3
    Where Did Our Alphabet Come From?
    Most alphabets in use today are derived from one script developed over 4,000 years ago. What accounts for the vast popularity of the Roman or Latin alphabet? This lecture takes you back to ancient Egypt as you investigate the origin of our alphabet and the contributions made to it by the Canaanites. x
  • 4
    The Fuþark—A Germanic Alphabet
    Runes are often mistakenly thought to be a semimagical system of signs used for divination and ritual, but nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the real history of the Runic alphabet—also known as the Fuþark —as a case study for why writing systems rise and fall. x
  • 5
    Chinese—A Logosyllabic Script
    In continuous use for almost 3,400 years, the Chinese script and its derivatives are used by more than 1.5 billon people around the world. Examine popular myths about Chinese writing as you discover the earliest origins and evolutions of Chinese characters (known as Hanzi), and differentiate between the five sign groups found in Chinese. x
  • 6
    Japanese—The World’s Most Complex Script
    Borrowed and adapted from the Chinese, Japanese writing is the most complicated script ever devised, yet it's used by more than 100 million people daily. Investigate how and why Japanese writing took on the complex form it has today, why attempts to simplify it have had little success, and why it's unlikely the system will ever be abandoned. x
  • 7
    What Is Decipherment?
    The earliest writing systems are known to us only through the efforts of archaeological decipherment. But how can archaeologists be certain that the knowledge is accurate? Learn a bit of history on cryptography and the differences between decipherers and code-breakers as you examine the theory and methodology of decipherment, as well as the evidence it considers. x
  • 8
    The Five Pillars of Decipherment
    First, get an introduction to the five preconditions or “pillars” necessary for decipherment to be possible, paying particular attention to the first pillar, known as script type. Then turn to the typology of the three main categories of signs found across the world—logograms, phonograms, and semantic signs—and consider how these signs are combined in different writing systems. x
  • 9
    Epigraphic Illustration
    As you turn to the second pillar of decipherment—the body of texts available for study—consider how epigraphers find a broad, accurate, and readily accessible corpus to examine. Walk through methods for recording inscriptions, and contrast early and modern illustrations of the Classic Maya site of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, to see the evolution of epigraphic illustration. x
  • 10
    The History of Language
    Investigate the importance of language, the third pillar of decipherment, by starting with the story of the decipherment of ancient Sumerian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Learn how scholars known as philologists or historical linguists use the comparative method of linguistic reconstruction to compare related languages and reconstruct their shared ancestor. x
  • 11
    Proper Nouns and Cultural Context
    As you consider the fourth pillar of decipherment, cultural context, see how most epigraphers’ efforts begin with the recognition of proper nouns. Then meet the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and learn how he became the source of much of our information for the cultural context of Old World writing systems. x
  • 12
    Bilinguals, Biscripts, and Other Constraints
    Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt is most celebrated for its discovery of the Rosetta stone, which contains ancient Greek writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and demotic script. Consider this icon of decipherment as the first and most famous example of a biscript, and discover just how common such artifacts are around the world. x
  • 13
    Egyptian—The First Great Decipherment
    Before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered hieroglyphic writing in 1822, no one had been able to read a word of Egyptian. Why were Egyptian history and its ancient language and writing system forgotten? How did early attempts at decipherment go astray? Get the answers here as you learn what clues led Champollion to success. x
  • 14
    What Do Egyptian Hieroglyphs Say?
    Join Professor Zender as he reads hieroglyphs that Champollion’s efforts helped to recover from oblivion, and see how you too can learn to decipher this blend of phonetic signs, logograms, and semantic signs. Also, consider the interaction of Egyptian writing and culture, including how the practice of damnatio memoriae was used to strike names from official records. x
  • 15
    Old Persian—Cuneiform Deciphered
    Meet Georg Grotefend, a German high school teacher who made an incomparable contribution to the study of ancient writing and civilization. As you investigate the methods he used to decipher Old Persian cuneiform in the Achaemenid texts of Persepolis, delve into a bit of history on this culture’s language and the foundation that was already established for the decipherment. x
  • 16
    What Does Cuneiform Say?
    See how scholars revealed a lost world of language and literature when they expanded upon Grotefend's breakthroughs by relating Old Persian to the ancient cuneiform scripts that preceded it. Next, trace the development of writing through 3,500 years of Mesopotamian history, and consider what ancient texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh can teach us about ancient cultures of this region. x
  • 17
    Mycenaean Linear B—An Aegean Syllabary
    How did the decipherment of Linear B change perceptions of ancient Aegean civilization? Why are epigraphers still perplexed by many Linear B spellings? Wade into the discovery, decipherment, and contents of this intriguing ancient writing system—Europe’s earliest attempt at writing—and measure it against what you’ve learned about decipherment of Egyptian and cuneiform scripts. x
  • 18
    Mayan Glyphs—A New World Logosyllabary
    Investigate whether the features of Old World scripts such as Chinese and Japanese, Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform, and Linear B apply to the unrelated scripts of the New World. Focus specifically on Yuri Knorosov’s decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphic writing and how living in Cold War Russia both helped and hindered his work. x
  • 19
    What Do the Mayan Glyphs Say?
    How can the strikingly similar structural features of the Mayan and ancient Egyptian writing systems be explained? Continue your exploration of how Mayan writing works through a comparison with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then find out what scholars have learned about ancient Maya civilization from decipherment, and examine a series of fascinating—and even humorous—inscriptions. x
  • 20
    Aztec Hieroglyphs—A Recent Decipherment
    Complex views of Aztec civilization are too often replaced with a one-note narrative that focuses only on the practice of human sacrifice. Look more closely at the system Aztecs invented to write their Nahuatl language, which is still spoken by more than one million modern Mexicans in the form of about a dozen regional dialects. x
  • 21
    Etruscan and Meroïtic—Undeciphered Scripts
    Despite decades of effort by many qualified epigraphers, there are still dozens of undeciphered scripts. Turn to the failures of decipherment and the lessons that can be drawn from them by focusing on the attempted decipherment of two scripts—Etruscan and Meroïtic—which recorded languages with no known relatives or descendants. x
  • 22
    Han'gul, Tengwar, and Other Featural Scripts
    Move from writing systems that developed over time to scripts that were deliberately designed by an individual or group, often for use as a universal system. See how these “featural” writing systems betray their intentional design through an examination of examples including Korean Han'gul, Lodwick’s Universall Alphabet, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tengwar and Certar. x
  • 23
    Medium and Message
    Whether on papyrus, bamboo, clay, stone, or wood, writing shows an important relationship between medium and message. Explore the influence media have had on writing’s shape, direction, and use by delving into the origins of terms used for writing implements, the process for making papyrus, the phasing out of scrolls by codices, and more. x
  • 24
    The Future of Writing
    Will typing replace handwriting? Will e-books make printed books obsolete? Will speech-to-text software replace our need to physically write at all? Join Professor Zender as he speculates about the future of writing based on past developments, from the invention of movable type to new signs and spelling conventions inspired by the QWERTY keyboard. x

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Your professor

Marc Zender

About Your Professor

Marc Zender
Ph.D., University of Calgary
Dr. Marc Zender is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and a research associate in Harvard University’s Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program. He earned his Honors B.A. in Anthropology from The University of British Columbia and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Calgary. Professor Zender has published extensively on Mesoamerican languages and...
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Reviews

Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 68.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Better than excellent Professor Zender may be only person in the world with this range and depth of knowledge about writing systems. Being actively involved in the decipherment of Mayan and Aztec is one thing, but to have equally deep knowledge regarding Egyptian, Chinese, multiple Middle Eastern scripts, and much, much more, seems almost impossible for just one person to master. Bravo!
Date published: 2014-11-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Unconvincing. Perhaps a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but I found it hard to stay interested in this course because I so often found myself arguing with the professor. When he explained the reasons for a certain conclusion, I didn't find it convincing. There were gaping logical holes in his explanations. In addition, there were some points where I believe he was flat-out wrong. For example, he did not make a distinction between written translation and transliteration. In China, for instance, a sign for Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, can be written 1)In Chinese characters; 2)As :Tiantan," which is a transliteration of the Chinese name, representing the sound for English speakers; or 3)As "Temple of Heaven," which is a translation of the meaning of the name. This point applies to all languages that do not use the Latin alphabet. Likewise, he made a big deal out of the claim that proper names get carried into other languages according to their pronunciation. This is not necessarily true, either for place names or for people's names. For instance, many Native Americans were known to settlers as "Black Elk" or "Crazy Horse," not according to how those names were pronounced in the Indian languages. Similarly, some places in China are rendered in English according to a translation of the meaning of the name in Chinese and not according to the pronunciation, such "Yellow River" instead of "Huang He." Even more complicating his oversimplified assumptions, sometimes the second culture comes up with a completely different name for a place that is neither a rendering of the pronunciation in the original language nor a translation of the meaning. For example, Chinese people call San Francisco "Jiu JIn Shan," which literally means "Old Gold Mountain," which has no relationship to the sounds "San Francisco" or the meaning of that name in English. I see no reason why such processes could not have been at work in ancient times, something he never mentions. His commentary on how Chinese people use the Latin alphabet on computers to write Chinese characters was wrong, as were his remarks about the relationship of Mandarin and Cantonese. The expression "reading Mandarin" is pure nonsense. I don't think he knows much about Chinese as his commentary on that language was consistently mangled. Two other complaints: he punctuates his lectures sometimes with fake laughter, which I found annoying, and the title of the course is a huge misnomer. There is very little about modern writing systems in the course and there is very little about the relationship of writing and civilization. If you are interested in ancient history, you may enjoy this course. If you are interested in understanding the phenomenon of human writing in general, skip it.
Date published: 2014-10-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not inspiring, but good content This course was quite different from what I expected. Note that each individual lecture is valid as a standalone. There is no essential flow-on or lead-in from every lecture to the next. I believe the course should have been much more structured. The extensive use of graphics is excellent, obviously called-for in this course. The professor's presentation did not grab me; I think his accent, tone and laid-back style may hold a key. Some lecturers seem to have a "magic touch" while others don't. Dr Zender has a habit of going off on tangents during his lectures, into issues which are not always pertinent. Frankly, I found it difficult much of the time to follow this professor, to comprehend exactly what he was saying. More time should have been devoted to the actual history and development of writing in all its forms, rather than assigning such a giant slice to this professor's personal main drive which is decipherment (e.g. Mayan, Aztec, Etruscan and Linear B). He is very famous in his field for his highly-acclaimed research on Maya hieroglyphic writing. Decipherment is particularly fascinating to me, but this is not a Great Courses set titled Decipherment... such a course, using 2 or 3 professors over 36 lectures would be tremendous in my world! In Writing and Civilization, I also felt that far more time should have been assigned to explanations about writing implements, materials & techniques, inks, paper, parchment, containers, storage, libraries, etc. So, my verdict on Language and Civilization is mixed, with an overall but not enthusiastic recommendation.
Date published: 2014-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intriguing, informative, fascinating I have an advanced degree in Classics, and it's sometimes hard to find courses that go into sufficient depth on the subjects I'm interested in. This course and the Greek and Roman Archaeology course are two of the best I've taken, anywhere, any time. I use the material in teaching my own classes all the time. Outstanding value, fun, can't say enough positive things about it.
Date published: 2014-10-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good, but incomplete Like several others, I found this course good, but not what I expected. I'm no expert in linguistics, but I've read several books on the subject (Mario Pei, David Crystal, Steven Pinker) and viewed or listened to courses given by John McWhorter, Seth Lehrer, and Anne Curzan. I fail to see how you can subtitle this series "to modernity" when the lecturer discusses Maya, Aztec, Etruscan and Minoan-B in depth and dismisses Hebrew and Arabic with a mere mention-not even a single lecture. You have produced other series with multiple presenters in order to cover a broad field, why limit this one to a professor who's specialty is Central America? I look forward to the 2nd edition of this course in the future. My "recommendation" to others would include a caveat.
Date published: 2014-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, Great Professor, But You Knew That Professor Zender's course “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity” is fun. Least I be accused to trivializing it, let me add that it is informative, well researched and well crafted. I envy him his presentation skills, the trove of facts he brings to the party, and the scholarship behind the course. The course is great. I chose the course because, as an avid reader, I have always wondered at our ability to hear the voices of the dead intellectuals of the past, to get messages by post from around the world, and to enjoy the time machine aspects of the written word. My wife can write a note to leave behind, and when I pick up the note, it's as though I had been present when she decided I needed to pick up the dry cleaning. His skill at blending the technical facts with the historic context is great. One of the strengths of his course was undoing prior misconceptions common among the untutored. I had been told by a source I respected that writing had only been invented once. The concept had then migrated from Mesopotamia to other civilizations. He points out that this ignores the the timing of other writing systems such as the Egyptian, the Han, and the South American written languages. My favorite story of the evolution of the original written scripts from markings on clay envelopes holding tokens representing livestock was also proven untrue. The taxonomy of written language types amazed me. Like most of us, I thought I was familiar with the terms of the field such as alphabets and pictographs, but had never even heard the terms abjad or abugida. And before I viewed the course, I assumed all signs were pictographic representing some concept as an abbreviated drawing. Professor Zender pointed out that the linkage between our scripts and our spoken language is not as carved in stone as I had assumed (no pun intended). He made this point strongly enough that I will be taking him up on his recommendation to get Professor McWorter's “Story of Human Language” in the near future. As a fellow bibliomaniac I hesitate to take issue with his comfort at watching ereaders displace codices (books) and keyboarding displacing cursive in our school systems. Of the latter point, he has convinced me by pointing out the that people watching reed styli and mud sheets be replaced by inks and paper felt a similar discomfort. But I have stacks of vinyl recordings, eight track tapes, 8 inch, 5 ¼ inch and 3 ½ inch disks, ½ inch data tapes and other digital medai with inaccessible content. I must remain a doubter on this point. The cliff at Bisotun will be readable long after the last unicode file has gone into the great bit bucket. Whether you are a student of language, of writing, of history, or even a reader of detective stories, I urge you to consider this course. Not that I'm biased, of course, but get this one.
Date published: 2014-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I learned a great deal about a fascinating topic, one I hadn't even realized was a topic, and I enjoyed this course very much. Some reviewers complain that this course was not accessible in the spoken version. I agree the video version would a great deal, but I like to listen while I walk, drive or exercise, and would rather not be tied to a video screen so I satisfied with the oral version. I was disappointed that there were not more diagrams in the Study Guide to bridge the difference between the oral and video formats.
Date published: 2014-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! I cannot think of anything negative to say except that I wanted it to go on longer. He needs to make an extended mix! I'm already anxious to watch it all again. It's just packed with great stuff. Such a captivating and clear speaker. I have one comment. In the second last lecture he discusses the inevitable demise of books as ebooks take over. He states that ebooks have advantages over books, such as convenience and lower cost. He compares this to the adoption of codices and books over papyrus scrolls. Fair enough, but I would like to point out that there is one feature of ebooks that is new: the purchaser doesn't necessarily have full control over their ebook. There have been examples of Amazon unilaterally and remotely deleting ebooks from people's tablet without warning or recourse. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2012/oct/22/amazon-wipes-customers-kindle-deletes-account http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html My point is just that this is a new aspect of buying books, being introduced with ebooks. We'll see how it all turns out over time. In the mean time I'll continue to clutch my precious paper books close to my chest.
Date published: 2014-04-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from DO NOT BUY THIS COURSE IN AUDIO A really interesting course, especially if you enjoy linguistics and/or archeology. BUT< because of the significant amount of course material that involves visual identification--hieroglyphics, syllabaries, alphabets etc.-- it is a big problem if you opt to purchase as audio only. Lecturer is knowledgeable and does a reasonable job in making dense material digestible. Great Courses should NOT offer this specific course in audio form.
Date published: 2014-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Thorough Exploration I was overjoyed to see The Great Courses publish a DVD set on the history of writing. It's a terrific complement to John McWhorter's linguistics courses and delves into subjects I hadn't had much exposure to, such as Mayan hieroglyphics, how scripts develop over time, and encode both semantic and phonetic information. I was also happy to see Professor Zender advance as a presenter, obviously taking notes from the producer after his early lecture session and eliminating a few tics that could have distracted from his presentation had they continued through the course.
Date published: 2014-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I found the material and Professor Zender's presentation both excellent. As soon as I saw the course in your catalog, I knew I had to get it, and I was not disappointed. I thought that the pace of delivery was just about right. As one reviewer mentioned, I wished for more discussion of the development of modern writing systems, but I realize that the course length had to be limited. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in writing systems and/or linguistics.
Date published: 2014-03-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Necessary DVD format, which I enjoyed because I found it meaningful to see the scripts and artifacts being discussed. This course is absolutely necessary for anyone interested in the history and culture of ancient times or other civilizations. Most of the lectures concentrate on the mechanics and challenges of decipherment, which is routinely mentioned by professors of ancient history without much mention of how we can (or cannot, as the case may be) read and understand the writings of vanished civilizations. There could be more coverage of the evolution of modern scripts, of typography, etc., but given the time constraints of this course, I think to emphasis was well chosen.
Date published: 2014-03-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Knowledgeable and Enthusiastic The Professor is extremely knowledgeable of this very interesting topic. The only negative I have is his constantly looking one way and then another every couple of minutes along with moving his position. Maybe others are not bothered by this tactic, which is obviously a tactic. It continuously interrupted my train of thought as I was trying to listen to him. I never did get used to it. Stand still!
Date published: 2014-02-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but not what I'd anticipated I enjoyed this course and found it very interesting, but I have to admit I was expecting something else. I was looking for more about the history of writing and the evolution of various scripts, regionally and through history. What this turned out to be is about the archaeology of writing and the history of and challenges of decipherment. The development of writing itself was glossed over, I felt. For example, there was no mention (that I recall) of south Asian scripts or discussion of how the Roman and Cyrillic scripts "speciated" into their current forms, with tildes in Spanish and the Scandinavian "å" and umlauts and whatever. "Modernity" also got short shrift, e.g., no discussion of the shift from the medieval "gothic"-style lettering to the more modern form. And a too-brief discussion of Elvish missed a chance to discuss other "invented" scripts like Klingon and the artistic challenge of creating such a script. Don't get me wrong, it held my interest, for what it was, it did it well. I was just disappointed because I had a different expectation.
Date published: 2014-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Rewarding Journey DVD Format. Though a course in writing systems, it's also a journey through five thousand years of history and legacy of great civilizations, a legacy thankfully left behind in their writing. Professor Zender guides us through the major writing cultures with this whirlwind tour, a solid introduction to the values of mankind, carefully recorded on clay, stone, papyrus and wood by the great scribes and minds of the day. (One could spend years on one writing system alone). Though brief, the 24 lectures are comprehensive, well-organized and packed with information. Professor Zender is very intelligent, articulate and professional in his lectures. It is obvious that he has had a thorough grounding in languages and writing systems, through which he shares many insights and useful comparisons. Sure, there are necessary gaps in the covering of such a vast topic, but you will finish with a solid foundation. In this course, I got much more than I expected and plan to review it from time to time. This "five star" course is well worth the time. Best regards, jkh
Date published: 2014-02-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing! Potential buyers should be warned that the title for this series of 24 lectures is a major misnomer. In the first few lectures, Professor Marc Zender does, briefly, speak of the history of writing and, more abundantly, of the various alphabets and scripts that exist in various cultures. But this is only an introduction to what clearly is a passion for him: deciphering. Lectures 7 to 22 are spent strictly on this potentially entertaining but somewhat light topic. Indeed, once a text is deciphered, the point is to examine what it reflects of the culture that produced it! Hardly anything in that line of thought is presented. The result is that very little time is actually spent on the topic announced by the series’ title: the link between writing and civilization. The course will thus be of interest to those fascinated more by word games than by history or culture in general.
Date published: 2014-02-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Skims the Surface of a Great Topic The history and analysis of the world's writing systems is an inherently fascinating topic, and "Writing and Civilization" is an enjoyable peek into this field. Unfortunately, it is frustratingly superficial, and for that reason - for me - was ultimately not worth the time. Perhaps the prime reason for this is an attempt to cover far too much material in too few sessions. Commendably, many different scripts (writing systems) from around the globe are discussed, but most receive no more than a single 30 minute lecture, and often less. Even the few which merit a full hour's attention - Egyption, Cuneiform, and Mayan - could only be portrayed in the broadest strokes. And I felt the significant time given to simplistic introductory discussions (e.g., "What is Writing?", "What is Decipherment?", and other general topics) added little while detracting appreciably from the time available for more specific and enlightening analysis of particular systems. Professor Zender is a very knowledgeable, clear, and enthusiastic teacher, whose love of his topic shines through in each lecture. His organization could have been tighter, however. And I especially wish that more time had been spent on the specifics of how various scripts were deciphered, as well as on more extensive examples and translations. The Course Guidebook is fairly complete, and does a good job reviewing the material in the lectures, but should have had far more illustrations depicting and explaining the various scripts discussed. Let me be clear - this course is fun and interesting, as far as it goes, as a brief introduction. I enjoyed and appreciated the material which was covered. I only hope that a longer and deeper course along similar lines will be offered in the future.
Date published: 2014-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from solid, well presented course Good information, well presented, extremely interesting. I am learning various ancient languages, because I find it fun to read ancient texts in their original language. i wanted to understand more about the academic knowledge on transliterating and deciphering ancient languages and more on what we know about ancient languages. The professor is passionate about his subject and has a clear and full grasp of the concepts and the presentation is easy to understand. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2014-01-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Uninterestng and Dull It's rare when I write a negative or neutral review about a Great Courses offering, but I had trouble keeping interest in these series of lectures. The lectures were informative and Dr. Zender is authoritative and agreeable enough, but there was no "wow" moment for me in this course. I think the viewer has to be already interested in this material to get a lot out of it. And for me, when you talk about writing, you inevitably talk about words. And when you talk about words, only one presenter comes to mind - John McWhorter. I found his courses far more interesting. It will make a nice reference on my GC bookself, but that's about it.
Date published: 2014-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course and Presentation I have been studying writing systems for a few years now, and this course still taught me many things. Dr. Zender is a great lecturer, and each session is well-organized and clearly presented. He obviously knows the material and presents it in a way that is easy to understand. From his discussion of the Five Pillars of Decipherment (which I have seen before but not listed as being so key to the process -- I think this may be the greatest insight to come from this course) through the key decipherments of the past, as well as his discussion of how the Chinese, Japanese, and other scripts works, I learned so much and will continue to revisit these lectures to learn even more.
Date published: 2013-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from informative, wide-ranging and fascinating I learned a lot from this course, which left me quite satisfied that I had spent my time well. It's utterly fascinating to learn so much about the nature of writing, and amazing to me that modern people have been able to reconstruct and understand so much of certain ancient writing systems. The details of some of these decipherments are exciting, and real testimonials to the power of human creativity coupled with dogged determination. I got a lot out of every lecture, though Lecture 9 struck me as having some needless filler when Prof. Zender talked about storage capacity of computer disk drives and the like (in the context of storing scans of hieroglyphs and so on). Prof. Zender is a superb lecturer -- a real joy to listen to. I add that "Writing and Civilization" is an excellent complement to Prof. McWhorter's TC courses on human languages (which I have taken and greatly enjoyed and which Prof. Zender plugs in this course). One can take them in any order.
Date published: 2013-12-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing course and incredible professor I'm a long-time customer of the Teaching Company, and I've watched dozens of the Great Courses, especially those touching on languages and history/archaeology, which are my passions. Also, and in the interests of full disclosure, I had high hopes for this particular course, since I was privileged to take Professor Zender's course "Historical Linguistics, Ancient Inscriptions, and Archaeology" back in 2009 when he still taught at Harvard, and which I enjoyed immensely. Even so, I have to admit that I was completely unprepared for just how amazing this course actually is. Professor Zender is still the same insightful, charming and hilarious lecturer I remember, but the production values of "Writing and Civilization" are simply unbelievable. Not only is the set charmingly "Old World" — but with relevant inscription-bearing artifacts, with which the professor frequently interacts — but there are animations, sumptuous photographs, and numerous close-up views of ancient texts painted on walls and sculpted in stone. The professor doesn't just offhandedly mention the world's writing systems in this course: you see them, up close and personal, and he reads them to you. There are clear and crisp drawings of nearly all of the inscriptions discussed (many of them by the professor himself) and they're often animated sign-by-sign as Professor Zender discusses them, reads them aloud, and (seemingly) effortlessly translates them. And this for almost two dozen different writing systems (and as many languages) from around the world! I've *never* seen Egyptian hieroglyphs and Achaemenid Persian cuneiform literally read sign-by-sign like this before, in any medium. Surely this must be a first. The guidebook, too, is an incredible resource and a thing of beauty. (I honestly never thought I'd say that about a Great Courses guidebook; they're very helpful, of course, but usually not all that attractive in their own right.) But this guidebook contains about two dozen really useful images and tables illustrating key points from the lectures, a detailed 15-page glossary defining important terms from linguistics and grammatology (comparative writing), and a 21-page annotated bibliography providing the professor's thoughts on more than 150 cited books and journal articles. I've actually been carrying it around with me for a few days now, dipping in often during my commute, and actually reflecting (for the first time ever) on the "Questions to Consider" at the end of each chapter: many of these are really insightful questions and helped me to recognize patterns and comparisons I hadn't thought to make between the different scripts and languages covered in the lectures. All of this really made me recognize how much I'd learned through watching these lectures. Overall, I really can't recommend this course highly enough. Whatever your background and interests, I'm sure you'll find Professor Zender's passionate interest in decipherment, dead languages, and ancient cultures and civilizations infectious, and you'll appreciate his practical hands-on approach to the decipherment of ancient scripts, his careful myth-busting (e.g., writing was independently invented several times, and it didn't develop for accounting or administration, and it doesn't have anything to do with numbers or mathematics), and his many insightful views on the past, present, and future of writing (e.g., e-books are here to stay, so we'd best just get used to them).
Date published: 2013-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! If you've ever been fascinated by Maya or Egyptian hieroglyphs, or any other writing system than ours, this is the course for you! Not only does Prof. Zender describe the origin of our alphabet, review half a dozen other writing systems and tell the wonderful stories of how some of them were deciphered, he gives you the linguistic framework to make sense of it all. And he does it with such enthusiasm, clarity and humour that you can tell this course was a real labour of love. Yet another glimpse into the wonderful breadth of human experience. Best of all, there are still a dozen ancient scripts that remain to be deciphered!
Date published: 2013-12-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good puzzle-solving approach This course on writing emphasizes a combination of how writing solves problems and adjusts to changing requirement and how experts can decipher long-forgotten scripts. This approach keeps things interesting as Professor Zender goes through a variety of different languages without having to slog through mere descriptions. He also does some mythbusting (no language is purely pictorgraphic) and he explains things in the light of the scientific method (or points out the lack of it in past decipherment attempts). Professor Zender enjoys his topic, having done a lot of his own work in decipherment, and this enthusiasm comes through in his lectures.
Date published: 2013-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A truly wonderful course As a published author I have a deep interest in writing so this course really caught my eye the first time I saw it. I was hooked from the first lecture. This man knows way way too much about words, language, and writing and not only did he pronounce all the foreign terms correctly (which not all instructors do), but he even teaches a course on speaking Aztec. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his opinions carefully considered, and he makes sure to distinguish that which we know from that which we surmise or guess. I watched the entire course in 2 days - I could not stop. It was far and away too interesting. If I lived anywhere near Tulane University I would find a way to take a course from this instructor there.
Date published: 2013-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very Great Course I found the course material interesting and well presented. I watched this course in a few days because each lecture left me wanting more. I would have liked to have seen more detail on each language and decipherment . I hope the professor does more courses, maybe with more depth on separate languages.
Date published: 2013-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Better than I Expected! This course is so fascinating. Having no background in writing systems, other than a strong curiosity, this course really delivered! The guidebook alone is worth the price. What an amazing resource. It is VERY thick and VERY thorough. Prof. Zender brings a joyful enthusiasm to the lectures and is so adept at drawing the audience into the material. I am only disappointed that there are not more than 24 lectures. Highly recommend to anyone, regardless of background knowledge level.
Date published: 2013-10-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing I was looking so much to this course, but managed barely to get through the first disc and then returned it. My disappointment grew with each lecture I watched. Some of Prof. Zender's statements were simply erroneous - like that of Mao's effort at simplifying Chinese failed. Really? Having the simplified Chinese as the official written language of the biggest (by population) country in the world counts as a failed effort? Pronounciation of the names of Japanese "alphabets", namely, hiragana and katakana was totally incorrect... After a few lectures I simply gave up...
Date published: 2013-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Interesting! I own a lot of excellent Great Courses, but this one is my favorite. It is chock full of information on ancient scripts and their decipherment and the scientific principles used to uncover their structure and meaning. I've always had a keen interest in ancient scripts, but didn't have the thorough background that is necessary to understand how this process of decipherment works. This course gives that to me and Prof. Zender is excellent in conveying it. Hope he'll do another course, this time focusing solely on his specialty--Mayan script, art, history and language. Would really love to see such a course taught by him. I highly recommend this present course for anyone interested in ancient scripts and the systematic approach to their decipherment.
Date published: 2013-10-14
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