Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Rated 1 out of 5 by from It didn't meet the criteria of its title. I've been a regular customer of Great Courses for years and had this been my first one, there never would have been another! The professor appears not to know his audience. As a sometime student of Chinese and Japanese and French, I thus far have learn nothing interesting. His lecture sorely needs many more graphics and graphics which stay visible for a longer time than he gives us. He doesn't even try to engage us in the topic in less than a pedantic manner. I could probably do a more interesting presentation on this subject!
Date published: 2020-04-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Study of "Visible Speech" Dr. Marc Zender knows his material thoroughly, and his presentation of it is nothing short of captivating! His course covers the history of writing as a much more recent human invention than spoken language, what the similarities and differences are among writing systems of the past and the present, the amazing detective work done by decipherers of otherwise “lost” ancient scripts, how particular writing systems correlate with the characteristics of the cultures using them, and how the forms and uses of writing might evolve in the future. Each lecture is packed with information, much of it accessible common sense, also much that simply had not received enough consideration before, and much that brings to light the impressive scholarship of epigraphic scientists. Dr. Zender draws all this together articulately, convincingly, and entertainingly. The course’s accompanying visuals and detailed guidebook are helpful pluses. Sincere praise is due for the abundant, fascinating content of this course. The Teaching Company would have increased the value of the entire package, though, by producing a longer series. Dr. Zender obviously had plenty more to share than twenty-four lectures permitted. On a few occasions, the professor seemed to hurry his delivery; e.g., during Lecture #6 on “Japanese—The World’s Most Complex Script.” Also, even though a glossary was provided in the Course Guidebook, it was challenging to follow straightaway some technical vocabulary, an experience not unlike digesting the specialized vocabulary of a mathematician. This Great Course is still highly recommended, and it is to be hoped that Dr. Zender will be engaged to present others.
Date published: 2019-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation on the Origins of Writing I bought the DVD set for "Writing and Civilization" because I am interested in the history and origins of writing, especially from the aspect of the earliest and most primitive forms of written communication passed on from antiquity to us today. It was a chance I had to take buying the Great Courses DVD set, not knowing whether I would like the DVD lectures presented in a sequence of talks. I thought it would be "so-so" and possibly dry or mundane, but, to my surprise, much better than I had expected or hoped for. The individual lectures (I went through the first two) run about 30 minutes each were very well delivered. The author, a professor of Anthropology from Canada resident at Tulane University, did amazingly well and spoke with clarity, presenting logical basis for many assertions made, e.g., that writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China developed quite independently of each other without interactions, mutual influence and exchange in the pre-historical and early phases of civilization. He made the entire subject interesting and the subject of historical development writing very attractive and perhaps even exciting for some. I have no regrets purchasing the DVD set.
Date published: 2019-11-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Presentations I was not seeking out this topic, but was enthralled from the first lesson.
Date published: 2019-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Almost shockingly entertaining and enlightening. I've enjoyed many Great Courses (some more than others), but none has been more entertaining, enlightening, or full of surprising insights than "Writing and Civilization." The subject was largely unexpected. I knew nothing about writing as a field all its own and purchased this course expecting something more about language. Instead, I learned that the field of writing is a distinct, exciting discipline with its own fascinating history, principles, methods, and rules. Most surprisingly, the field of writing has adventures, ranging from the pyramids of Egypt to the pyramids of Mexico, from nineteenth-century France to nineteenth-century Korea, from the Phoenician alphabet to Nordic runes. Learning that language and writing are two different things was interesting in its own right, but the course was tremendously enhanced by one of the best Great Courses lecturers I've had the pleasure of learning from, Dr. Marc Zender of Tulane University. His enthusiasm for his topic was infectious and his deep, intuitive understanding of his field was apparent in every episode. I highly recommend this not just for persons interested in literature, language, history, and civilizations, but for everyone seeking a broader, more fundamental understanding of our world. Highly, highly recommended.
Date published: 2019-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting beyond belief The best of the best, how our writing evolved and how many languages are related. Wonderful teacher. He kept the course moving right along.
Date published: 2018-11-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating topic, presentation uninspiring This course sheds light on a specific aspect of linguistic that I have not heard covered in other TGC courses to any great extent: scripts. Professor Brier does discuss the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics to some extent in his course on Ancient Egypt, and Professor Podani and Castor discuss Cuneiform script in their courses on Mesopotamia. Recently, a course dedicated to Egyptian Hieroglyphics (which I have not yet heard) presented by Professor Brier has been released. No course, however, attacks the subject from an analytical, integrative and comparative perspective as this course does. Professor Zender does a fabulous job in introducing us to writing scripts: most basically - how does this technology actually work (phonetically), and what is the history of scripts (to the limited extent that this is known)? When did people start to think of writing down information and why? Who were the first people to think of this new technology, and were certain scripts affected by already existing scripts? He also answered very comprehensively a very basic, but fascinating question: how did the English alphabet evolve? Professor Zender discusses quite profoundly the art of decipherment and what the five pillars necessary for successful decipherment of scripts are. He then tells the fascinating narratives of how these were employed for the most famous and groundbreaking decipherments over the past two centuries in the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, Linear B script, and Mayan Hieroglyphics. He also discusses quite at length other scripts that have not been deciphered and why. He explains why in some cases, successful decipherment will most probably not occur unless other archaeological or linguistic findings will supplement current sources. One of the most fascinating aspects for me was the non-trivial connection between the script and the underlying language that it is transcribing. The discussion of Japanese in this context was brilliant… Overall the course content was fascinating, well-structured, and put together. It really tied in a lot of loose ends from other history and linguistic courses. The Professor’s delivery was clear and easy to follow but dry and not thrilling at all. Usually I like Professors who present their course without too many bells and whistles, but in this case I found the delivery at times almost boring. Having said that, the course content was so original within the TGC library, important, and fascinating that the course was still easily worth the time and effort.
Date published: 2018-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Excellent course! I borrowed this from my local library and found it fascinating. The course made me think about things I'd never considered before. The instructor is very knowledgeable and has a pleasant lecture style. He did not seem to be reading from a teleprompter. His enthusiasm for the subject matter came across as genuine to me, not over-the-top. I hope to view more courses by this instructor in the future.
Date published: 2018-05-28
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Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity
Course Trailer
What Is Writing?
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.

31 min
The Origins and Development of Writing
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.

31 min
Where Did Our Alphabet Come From?
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.

29 min
The Fubark-A Germanic Alphabet
4: The Fubark-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.

30 min
Chinese-A Logosyllabic Script
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.

29 min
Japanese-The World's Most Complex Script
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.

30 min
What Is Decipherment?
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.

29 min
The Five Pillars of Decipherment
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.

30 min
Epigraphic Illustration
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.

28 min
The History of Language
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.

30 min
Proper Nouns and Cultural Context
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.

30 min
Bilinguals, Biscripts, and Other Constraints
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.

29 min
Egyptian-The First Great Decipherment
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.

30 min
What Do Egyptian Hieroglyphs Say?
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.

30 min
Old Persian-Cuneiform Deciphered
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.

31 min
What Does Cuneiform Say?
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.

32 min
Mycenaean Linear B-An Aegean Syllabary
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.

32 min
Mayan Glyphs-A New World Logosyllabary
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.

30 min
What Do the Mayan Glyphs Say?
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.

30 min
Aztec Hieroglyphs-A Recent Decipherment
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.

31 min
Etruscan and Meroitic-Undeciphered Scripts
21: Etruscan and Meroitic-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.

31 min
Han'gul, Tengwar, and Other Featural Scripts
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.

31 min
Medium and Message
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.

31 min
The Future of Writing
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.

32 min
Marc Zender

The invention and development of writing is a fascinating subject; it sheds light on human ingenuity, complexity, and even on civilization itself.


University of Calgary


Tulane University

About Marc Zender

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 writing systems, especially those of the Maya and Aztecs (Nahuatl). He has done archaeological and epigraphic fieldwork throughout Mexico and Central America and currently works as an epigrapher for both the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project and the Proyecto Arqueologico de Comalcalco in Tabasco, Mexico. Professor Zender is the coauthor of Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. He is the director of Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, an associate editor of The PARI Journal, and a contributing editor to Mesoweb, a major Internet resource for the study of Classic Maya civilization. His research has been featured in several documentaries on The History Channel and by the BBC. As a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in anthropology at Harvard from 2004 to 2011, Professor Zender was a seven-time recipient of the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching. He also received the distinguished Petra T. Shattuck Excellence in Teaching Award in 2008.

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