The return of the human in the study of writing

Chief Juan Datahan (†) in front of a chart showing Eskayan ancestors labelled in the Eskayan script.

Chief Juan Datahan (†) in front of a chart showing Eskayan ancestors labelled in the Eskayan script.

Piers Kelly
University of New England

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the study of writing systems. Much of the new impetus has come from linguists investigating the interactions between graphic structure and linguistic structure. Yet practitioners hailing from classics, archaeology, anthropology and elsewhere are examing writing as a social as much as a linguistic phenomenon. These developments have not been universally welcomed. In his introduction to An exploration of writing (2018), Peter Daniels wrote that “area specialists seem to have abandoned questions of how writing relates to language in favor of how writing relates to society. I find this move to be premature: the comparative and typological exploration of the connections between writing and language is far from completed […]” (Daniels 2018, 5). Here I want to lend weight to Daniels’ observation that a perceptible shift in focus has been unfolding in the study of writing systems, and to agree that we are far from having exhausted traditional grapholinguistic questions. What I reject, however, is the assumption that the social realities of writing are of secondary importance to linguistic analysis, or that a synthesis cannot be imagined until we’ve sorted out the nuts and bolts of how writing systems work.

As it happens, anthropologists and archaeologists were once seriously invested in the relationship of writing to society, a relationship that was (unfortunately) theorised and systematised to support 19th-century social evolutionist theory. While this progressivist paradigm has long been discredited, it is only recently that researchers have returned to the social dimension of writing with fresh eyes, better information and new theoretical insights. In this blog post I want to try to make sense of this positive moment and to try to chart a way forward.

Current research

Part of the difficulty in tracing any paradigm shifts, let alone slow-moving research trends in this area, is the fact that the study of writing does not keep within established disciplinary boundaries. Writing is taught and researched within linguistics, art history, archeology and area studies, as well as in the study of specific languages that have strong written traditions, such as Chinese. The general course on ‘Writing Systems’ offered at the University of Toronto is coded as JAL or ‘Joint Archaeology and Linguistics’. This does not mean that scholars of writing systems are confused about their field of study. If anything the intersections between adjacent fields of study have simply opened up new perspectives and productive modes of analysis. But in the shadow of better-established disciplines that have their own course codes and departmental tea rooms, it is harder to project a sense of coherence and shared destiny.

I want to make the case that despite such administrative invisibility, and the comparatively low number of people working in this field, there has been a concerted turn towards the human at the centre of written production. This is a turn that appears most pronounced in the study of ancient as opposed to modern writing systems, perhaps because these require more critical attention in terms of recovering the societies and environments in which they were used. I’m reluctant to list individual scholars who embody this trend because I don’t want to miss anyone out, but it’s worth drawing attention to the collective activities of the CREWS research group at Cambridge whose very name—Contexts of and Relations between Early Writing Systems—stresses a fundamentally embedded approach. A glance at their blog, especially this post by group leader Pippa Steele, reveals an emphasis on written practice not to mention hands-on experimentation (served with a side order of gingerbread and Lego). In Bologna, the INSCRIBE group has been probing the age-old question of writing’s origins. Yet in addition to exploring the mechanisms of how visual signs model language, the group is concerned with contextual and cognitive preconditions for writing as well as the real-world applications of written practice. Tellingly, INSCRIBE has brought undeciphered writing systems into this conversation, highlighting the fact that non-linguistic evidence has a great deal of relevance to the question of how writing relates to society. Meanwhile, the Scripta group in Paris has set out five research areas that are all concerned with social practices and productions of writing. Even their primary field, ‘Writing and Languages’, focuses on the extra-linguistic range of scripts in their capacity to do social, political and discursive work.

Earlier approaches to writing-and-society

What these research groups have in common is an emphasis on context and practice, and an understanding that writing is just one aspect of a bigger story of how people organise and understand their worlds. On its own, none of this is necessarily new of course. In fact, earlier theorists in a more materialist mode were squarely fixed on the relationship between writing and society, and that their efforts did not produce a proud intellectual legacy. Consider, for example, the ways that 18th– and 19th-century thinkers in Europe drew a deterministic line between writing and social organisation, and used the presence or absence of writing as a diagnostic marker for sorting human societies into racial hierarchies. The Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin (discussed within this post by Margaret Thomas) was among the few early scholars who challenged this model, making the case in 1885 that Egyptian writing was a thoroughly African invention generated by a black civilisation that, at its apex, far outshone ‘primitive’ Europe (Firmin 1885). A similar argument was made much later by O. G. S. Crawford (1935). Although both scholars refuted scientific racism, the premise that literacy and written practice marked a society as ‘higher’ got a free pass.

By the post-war period, the social evolutionist model had become an embarrassment to anthropology, yet it was at this time that I. J. Gelb produced his A study of writing (1952), an influential book built on unambiguously progressivist foundations. Within archaeology, neo-evolutionists like V. Gordon Childe and colleagues repackaged social evolutionist ideas into a new stadialism in which writing was again proposed as universal telos among other technologies. In fact, of the eight inventions regarded as pivotal human achievements Childe identified both ‘writing’ in general and ‘the alphabet’ in particular, as equally momentous. For these thinkers, the invention of writing was represented as the inevitable outcome of the economic circumstances that demanded it, rather than the product of any creative human effort. But because Childe insisted that writing was a civilisational milestone that could only be reached after societies had acquired a degree of technological complexity he was to be utterly confounded by the ancient Maya who apparently had a calendar and writing system, but lacked metal tools, wheeled vehicles and intensive agriculture (Childe 1951, 26-27).

Archaeology versus palaeography

In post-war archaeology, a widening gap between materialist and idealist positions preceded a flowering of new methodologies and perspectives and a general uptick in the sophistication of middle-range theory. These bold new ideas did not seem to get any real purchase in writing systems research. I have a vision of mild-mannered epigraphers tracing over their inscriptions while the archaeologists next door were forming themselves into warring bands of processualists, postprocessualists, Marxists, feminists and poststructuralists. Similar convulsions within anthropology, over questions of agency, structure, subjectivity and practice theory, did not seem to disturb the palaeographic atmosphere.

It would be easy to explain this stasis by pointing out that written artefacts call for historiographic interpretations with very different evaluative criteria to stones, bones and potsherds. Yet the wider conversations about, for example, ecologies, interpretive constraints, and social dynamics (especially belief-systems, gender and class) were by no means irrelevant to the study of writing. Inscriptions might be impressive in their capacity to provide rich historical evidence, or to reveal the systematic principles by which visual marks are made to model aspects of linguistic structure, but the presence of linguistic information does not render an artefact self-explanatory in any context-independent way. A terrific account of the historical divergence between archaeology and epigraphy is given by Philip Boyes in the lecture embedded below, which illustrates the productive potential of human-centred methods.

Agency and its limits

If writing is recognised as a human product that is created and used with intention in a range of contexts, then straightforward grapholinguistic typologies will not tell us very much about what it means as an intellectual tool. After all, writing did not simply materialise in the early Bronze Age landscape like moss on a stone. Nor was it, as Noël-Antoine Pluche once imagined, the one-off inspired invention of a ‘fortunate genius’ who lived before Moses (Pluche [1732] 1752). It has been created, multiply and independently, within already-rich symbolic environments where it has been applied to astonishingly diverse ends. Moreover, its trajectory from conventional notation to full linguistic representation was surprisingly rapid, as Boltz, DeFrancis and Handel have observed for Chinese writing, Fischer and Baines for Egyptian, and Michalowski and Glassner for Mesopotamian systems.

Of course, origins are not destiny, and efforts to understand the beginnings of writing, however satisfying, will not tell us what writing means any more than a word’s etymology reveals it’s ‘true’ sense. When the very existence and persistence of writing as a technology cannot be accounted for solely in economic or functional terms, as Michael Erard argues in this article for Aeon, then idealist viewpoints must be taken seriously. Without wishing to overstate the role of individual or group agency I find myself sympathetic Houston and Rojas’ view of graphic innovation driven by the desire to assert a political identity (forthcoming), or to Ferrara’s characterisation of writing as an “intimate process of creation” (Ferrara 2015).

Ways forward

If we are content to approach writing as a tool that can be taken apart and reassembled to see how it works, then there is nothing to prevent us reflecting on how such a tool is actually used and what its intended and unintended effects may be. No doubt there is a danger that probing such questions leads us back towards old pitfalls, especially the deterministic view of writing as either a societal telos (per Morgan 1877, Tylor [1865] 1878), or as an engine of autonomous social change (per Ong [1982] 2001, Goody 1986). What characterises these earlier paradigms is that they treat societies as passive recipients of writing, powerless to resist its transformative effects. A more balanced view would at least acknowledge the agentive capacity for human beings to make decisions about writing and how it might be developed, exploited, left alone or even rejected.

Written production generates new practices but it is also an activity that is recruited into existing social routines. These routines might be concerned with the management of labour and its products, the projection of political power, the elaboration of myth, and the performance of ritual including communications with the supernatural world. In effect, writing is a practice that is seemingly bound up in the reproduction and maintenance of social orders, as Lévi-Strauss (1955) understood. It can, however, escape from state or religious monopolies and be deployed to challenge or undermine social orders (Kelly 2018). Its potential may also be expanded by specialists with diverse class interests as Ben Haring shows in his account of Egyptian workmen’s identity marks (Haring 2018).

Now that the more aggressive debates within anthropology and archaeology have largely subsided, palaeographers can pick over the battlefield to salvage any methodological tools that look especially promising. For my part, I’m interested in the potential of the chaîne opératoire framework, in particular the version of it articulated by the archaeologist Marcia-Anne Dobres (2000) in which the life history of an artefact is probed to reveal routines conditioned by existing technological competencies, social patterns and belief systems. Ethnographic analogy, as pioneered by Lewis Binford (1978), provides opportunities for informed speculation about the non-material dimension of ancient writing practices on the basis of comparison with modern literate practices. After all, writing has been actively appropriated in recent times by non-state societies with different languages, patterns of subsistence, politics and belief systems. An analysis of these contemporary examples shows us that writing is very much a culturally relative activity and that its applications are not always predictable or transparent. Yet discernible crosscultural similarities between, for example, ideologies of literacy or strategies for modelling language, may point to aspects of literacy practice that transcend the particularities of place and language and which might be projected back in time. When it comes to ransacking the anthropological toolkit, I’m attracted to Ortner’s reinvention of practice theory à la Bourdieu, with its focus on regularities of behaviour and its promise of reconciling the tension between structure and agency, or tradition and innovation (Ortner 2006). None of this is to the exclusion of exploring the relationship between language and writing, nor of writing’s internal evolutionary dynamics. Indeed, there is much of value to learn when social context is extrapolated away so that factors that are not contextually-conditioned can be better discerned (for example, Kelly et al. forthcoming).

Towards the end of Trigger’s A history of archaeological thought (2008) there is a fascinating account of how the fuller decipherment of the Maya script influenced the direction of Maya studies. When the script could not be satisfactorily read, Maya culture was approached in a culture-historical and later a processual frame that produced cautious reconstructions of architectural sequences, subsistence systems, settlement patterns and social dynamics. After the script’s decipherment, epigraphers began to claim intellectual primacy in understanding the Maya past, particularly in terms of belief systems and their purported continuities. Meanwhile, Mayanist archaeologists pushed back against the premise that a small number of Maya texts contained all the answers at the back of the book, arguing that the literate elite represented only a fraction of Maya society and that this elite was, moreover, invested in projecting and maintaining power, as opposed to producing accurate historical representations. Despite these early tensions, epigraphers and archaeologists are now cooperating by testing their hypotheses against each other’s evidence.

Judging by the programs of recent conferences, standard grapholinguistic questions of how writing relates to languages are still attracting a lot of interest and there is no sign that this caravan is slowing down. The emerging—or rather re-emerging—interest in the relationship between writing and society is, I suspect, more of a complementary trend rather than an antagonistic one. In line with Baines’ famous assertion that “[a]rchaeology and writing complement each other’s silences.” ([1988] 2005, 203), I believe that the return to the human subject at the centre of written practice is a welcome expansion to a research program that will never run out of new questions.


Baines, John. [1988] 2005. “Literacy, social organization, and the archaeological record: the case of early Egypt.” In State and society: The emergence and development of social hierarchy and political centralization, edited by J Gledhill, B Bender and M. T Larsen, 187-208. London & New York: Routledge.

Binford, Lewis R. 1978. Nunamiut ethnoarchaeology. New York: Academic Press.

Childe, V. Gordon. 1951. Social evolution. London: Watts & Co.

Crawford, O.G.S. 1935. “The writing of Njoya.”  Antiquity 9 (36):435-442.

Daniels, Peter T. 2018. An exploration of writing. Sheffield: Equinox.

Dobres, Marcia-Anne. 2000. Technology and social agency: Outlining a practice framework for archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ferrara, Silvia. 2015. “The beginnings of writing on Crete: Theory and context.”  The Annual of the British School at Athens 110:27-49.

Firmin, A. 1885. De l’égalité des race humaines: Anthropologie postive. Paris: F. Pichon.

Goody, Jack. 1986. The logic of writing and the organization of society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haring, Ben. 2018. From single sign to pseudo-script: An ancient Egyptian system of workmen’s identity marks. Vol. 93, Culture and History of the Ancient Near East. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Houston, Stephen D, and Felipe Rojas. Forthcoming. “Sourcing novelty: On the ‘secondary invention’ of writing.” In Signs of writing, edited by Christopher Woods and Edward Shaughnessy. Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications.

Kelly, Piers. 2018. “The art of not being legible: Invented writing systems as technologies of resistance in mainland Southeast Asia.”  Terrain 70:38-61. doi: 10.4000/terrain.17103.

Kelly, Piers, James Winters, Helena Miton, and Olivier Morin. forthcoming. “The predictable evolution of letter shapes: An emergent script of West Africa recapitulates historical change in writing systems.” Current Anthropology

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. Tristes tropiques. Paris: Plon.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1877. Ancient society. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company.

Ong, Walter J. [1982] 2001. Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London & New York: Routledge.

Ortner, Sherry B. 2006. Anthropology and social theory: Culture, power, and the acting subject. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Pluche, Noël-Antoine. [1732] 1752. Le spectacle de la nature: Ou entretiens sur les particularités de l’histoire naturelle qui on parut le plus propres a rendres les jeunes-gens curieux, & à leur former l’esprit. Vol. 4.

Trigger, Bruce G. 2008. A history of archaeological thought. 2 ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tylor, Edward B. [1865] 1878. Researches into the early history of mankind and the development of civilization. Boston: Estes & Lauriat.

How to cite this post

Kelly, Piers. 2020. The return of the human in the study of writing. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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One comment on “The return of the human in the study of writing
  1. […] have a new blog post at History and Philosophy of the Language sciences on how the study of writing is returning to […]

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