Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

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
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good course, but not as advertised I enjoyed some of this course, but I (like many others) thought that it would focus more on the link between writing and culture than it does. It is largely a history of decipherment, and while this is an interesting topic, it's not what I bought the course to learn. The professor's delivery is not always very engaging (though this may have been because I was listening to the audio version, rather than seeing him speak--he may be more suited to a video lecture). There are also several instances where there is clearly a visual element being shown for those watching the course, and the professor offers little explanation for those of us listening on audio. Overall, I would not recommend this course if you are interested in the link between writing and civilization, and would instead recommend it if you want to learn about the history of decipherment and the history of how we in western societies have perceived other writing systems. I would also not recommend it in audio as I found the lecturer hard to pay attention to and felt I was missing material.
Date published: 2018-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from OUTSTANDING LECTURES the professor is great lecturer who speaks clearly and shows great enthusiasm for the subject matter. There are many illustrations of the alphabets discussed. I recommend this as one the best courses from Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-05-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not as expected I agree with another reviewer who said that this course is not as expected. I wanted to hear more about the development of writing as a tool for communication, not so much how we deciphered ancient texts. That said, it's interesting enough to keep me engaged. Two points about the lecturer: 1) in one of the earlier lectures he refers to "modern day Lebanon and Palestine." Um, it's Israel. If you are going to refer to countries, please do so correctly and not politically. 2) In the first decipherment lecture he spends too much time on the work done at Bletchly Park. It could've been summarized more. But, if you're going to go into detail MENTION THE WOMEN WHO WORKED THERE rather than naming three white men who led the project. The decoding rested on the backs of the women who worked tirelessly (and probably for less pay than the men!!). I fear that the lecturer lets too much of his own bias and politics seep into this course.
Date published: 2018-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good content, very interesting I thought the professor to be quite knowledgeable in this field and he conveyed that information well. It was interesting to learn how some systems were such as Egyptian were deciphered and the history of that process. The course also made me think about writing in society. He made the obvious, though often not thought of, importance of writing and how often it is used and the different ways that it has been used. Considering my love of writing, it was wonderful to learn some of the history behind it. It also gets me interested in learning some of the systems that were taught in the course. I also enjoyed learning how writing was either spread or borrowed from one system to another. Learning how we came by our alphabet was intriguing. I never would have guessed the origins. However, it did bother me at time in the beginning when he kept saying what would be discussed in future lectures. I just wanted to focus on what was being taught now and not on what would be taught. This is my only complaint for the course. The professor was otherwise clear, concise, and, I thought, kept the courses interesting.
Date published: 2018-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Writing and Civilization Marc Zender does a fine job in introducing and explaining the history of writing. I have picked up insights and quotes that are already helping me in my work as an educator. The visuals are fascinating and aid in his presentation.
Date published: 2018-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I've only gotten to lecture 9, but it's all extremely interesting. The professor speaks clearly and pleasantly.
Date published: 2018-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Subject I learned a lot from this course. Ancient writing systems and ours aren't as dissimilar as you might think. The professor takes you through a writing journey that is very very interesting. Not hard to follow at all. If you're at all interested in the how ancient writing relates to ours, this course is for you.
Date published: 2017-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Writing is so much more than ABC This course covers written language from its earliest extant examples through the potential future of writing. Its emphasis is on the decipherment of ancient scripts, some of which we understand fairly well; others which we may never have enough information to ever know. In both cases – decipherment or the unknowable – Dr. Zender explains how epigraphers (those who study inscriptions) base their work on five essential pillars, each of which receives its own explanatory lecture. Without all five, decipherment may ultimately prove impossible. This course is a wonderful complement to another Great Course – “The Story of Human Language,” by John McWhorter – in that both deal with changes that languages undergo with time. In the case of writing, knowing how something was pronounced is of little help if one doesn’t understand sound changes that may have occurred since the inscription was written. Likewise, changes in language usage – grammar – can also help to obscure the meanings of ancient texts. Dr. Zender does a masterful job of explaining how these potential obstacles are overcome. To properly understand ancient texts, one must know the kind of writing used – in other words, are the symbols single sounds, syllables, or aids to understanding previous symbols. One myth that is dispelled is that ancient written language was strictly pictographic. These 24 lectures are an amazing insight in the development of written language. Dr. Zender is a confident, well-spoken, and extremely knowledgeable instructor. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2017-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm very happy. It's more than I expected. I love History and I enjoy everything about our civilization
Date published: 2017-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! A course you can revisit with joy. This is an excellent course and, one that you can listen to over and over again. The topic is fascinating and the instructor brings his wealth of knowledge to the lectures in a clear, informative style. You'll leave the course wanting to explore the subject matter and references he cites in further depth.
Date published: 2017-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This excellent course combines my love of history and my love of languages with a very scientific and methodical explanation of the processes of coding/decoding the spoken word into written form, showing how difficult such a process can be without the right resources -- and a little bit of luck sometimes.
Date published: 2016-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Get It In Video I am listening to the audio version now, and kicking myself that I didn't get it in video. There are long stretches in the lectures when Professor Zender is clearly referring to images, pointing out specific features and comparing them, particularly in the lectures about cuneiform. And the images are not in the course guidebook. While you can get a lot of the concepts on audio only, you are clearly missing a lot of important information. This is a fascinating course wonderfully presented, but I'm not getting some of the best stuff because I got it on audio. This course should really have been offered in video format only.
Date published: 2016-09-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Remarkable Course Frankly, I didn't think I was going to like this course. Wow! Was I ever wrong! Professor Zender is a mesmerizing teacher. The course is simple enough for the curious but non-expert student and technical enough to bring out the complexities and subtitles of languages both ancient and modern. It blew away some myths I had had for years. At 66, you really can teach an old dog new tricks! Great job professor.
Date published: 2016-08-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Technically dense 1. It was essential that The Great Courses offered this course as part of the portfolio of courses addressing ancient history and archaeology. 2. Professor Zender is an engaging lecturer. 3. The difficulty arises from the material itself. It is a very technical field and dominated by technical minutiae. Thus, difficult to be absorbed and retained by lay amateurs. If you are a committed (amateur) student of ancient history and civilization, you need to watch this course and do your best to place it in its larger context. If you are a casual student with a passing interest, you will find this course difficult.
Date published: 2016-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I loved this course I really enjoyed this course. It was very informative. The teacher has a great style. It had a lot of history to go along with writing and decipherment .
Date published: 2016-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting, Well-Presented Course The topic is very interesting and the course content is very logically organized. The professor is extremely knowledgeable, clearly has a passion for his topic, and has a great sense of humor. We learned a lot and enjoyed this course very much!
Date published: 2016-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best courses offered This course is well presented, with many illustrations of his points. The areas covered are broad and the subjects interesting and thought-provoking at times. He is very good in showing how writing and language is not in a vacuum and very much a product of the culture(s) in which you find it. He is also good in exposing what we don't know about various writing systems. I loved this course and plan to watch it again.
Date published: 2016-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A really superb course! The course presents really fascinating material and the professor is really tops in manner and speaking. I really loved it and leaned a lot from it. I'm not always so complementary, but I found this course to be just excellent. If the subject matter interests you at all (and it should) then I recommend this course most highly. One of the very best.
Date published: 2016-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Informative Prof. Marc Zender is an excellent presenter - no worries there. The scope of the course is broad in terms of time and space as well as content. I learned a lot, but this is not a specialty area of expertise for me! I found some of the historical connections fascinating. There were a few technical lingo terms which I don't remember now, but nothing too intimidating, certainly nothing which disrupts the "learning flow". Recommended.
Date published: 2016-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, absorbing, and any other superlative Prof Zender's delivery is captivating from the first moment. The complexities he describes are made clear by his excellent presentation. This is a course that can be an on-going reference source. Absolutely superb !
Date published: 2015-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating topic presented by a true expert! Highly recommended. This course is presented by a true expert who clearly loves his work and is happy to share what he knows with others. The content is comprehensive and panoramic. The presentation persuasive and compelling. And we're reminded by listening and watching something we all forget every day — how critical and important the technology is writing is and has been to man's cultural progression over the millennia. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super Survey of an Interesting Topic I'm very happy with the knowledge I gained about language and writing from this course. My spouse is a linguistics major and I have never studied writing systems yet we both gained a lot of insight from this course. I'm pleased that Asian writing systems were included. The historical background provided about writing was amazing and I appreciated the graphical information that was presented. There was never a dull moment in this course.
Date published: 2015-05-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Should not be a audio download! This is an excellent course but if you do not have the pictures he talks about, you miss a lot. I should have ordered the DVD version instead of the download audio. Enjoyed it but felt like I missed a lot. PKG
Date published: 2015-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I order the audio version. The course has peaked my interest in languages. I felt the audio version fell short due to the lack of visual reference. Therefore i would recommend the video version of this course. Over all it is an excellent course. This is going to prompt me to get the video version.
Date published: 2015-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from help with ancient languages this course is helping me as work my through middle egyptian a grammar on reading new kingdom hieroglyphs. It is very useful in understanding the decipherment of scripts and languages and how language and writing evolved. It is a bit dry at times but that is the nature of thoughtful learning in this field.
Date published: 2015-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent for Those Interested in the Subject If you are interested in writing and civilization as human constructs, I recommend this course. The professor's presentation is very good, and his knowledge of the subject seems to be very good. It is somewhat specialized and will not appeal to everyone, of course, outside the subject field, but within the subject field it is very good.
Date published: 2015-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course With One Quibble When I purchased this course, I wasn't really sure what to expect other than it would talk about languages and writing. I was very impressed on how much I learned from this course about writing and the different types of writing systems. I was even able to use the knowledge that I took from this course during my recent trip to Japan which broadened much more my interest in languages. The only quibble that I have with Professor Zender was his constant mispronunciation of French words which I found strange because it seemed that he had no problem whatsoever pronouncing words in other languages. Other than that, an excellent course that I would recommend to anyone.
Date published: 2015-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fascinating Guide to Decipherment Dr. Zender is an impressively versatile scholar, officially a professor of anthropology, but also a field archaeologist, epigrapher, philologist, Mayanist and as demonstrated in this course, a highly accomplished lecturer. His rapid, polished speaking style in complex yet eminently coherent syntax might suggest reliance on a teleprompter, yet his screen presence belies use of this prop, perhaps reflecting the superior verbal skills of a natural linguist. This course is primarily a detailed account of how the writings of numerous ancient languages have been deciphered and the limitations imposed on those that have not yet been successfully decoded. I agree with other reviewers who have characterized as misleading the word “modernity” in the course title, since aside from one lecture each on the origins and development of current-day Chinese and Japanese (the latter cited as “the world’s most complex script”), virtually all languages covered are ancient and no longer in use. I found the most valuable single lecture to be #8, which describes the five pillars of decipherment: 1) script type: (e.g. alphabet, syllabary, pictograph, or mixed); 2) corpus (the body of written work available); 3) language (whether known or unknown); 4) cultural context; and 5) accompaniment of a bilingual script, e.g. the famous Rosetta Stone. Without all or most of these elements present, decipherment is severely limited or even impossible. Dr. Zender describes in fascinating detail how various ancient writings were revealed by their principal decipherers using these analytical components: Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-Francois Champollion, Mycenaean Linear B by Michael Ventris, and Mayan by Yuri Knorosov, as well as others. He notes the failure to decipher Minoan Linear A and Etruscan and other lesser known scripts because of insufficient examples, absence of a bilingual script, or because they represent an unknown language. In the final lecture, Dr. Zender traces the development of progressive modes of preserved writings, from stone or clay tablets, to papyrus scrolls, to codices and handwritten manuscripts to published books, and today back to tablets (of the electronic kind). He speculates that e-books may well replace printed books in the next generation or so. I’m not so sure, since any book that requires an obsolescent electronic device to be read has a lifespan limited to that of its delivery mechanism. If an archaeologist were to dig up an iPad or Kindle a few hundred years from now, how would she be able to read its contents?
Date published: 2015-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I have given this course a high rating because I enjoyed everything about it from the teacher's presentation style to the course content. The course had the right mixture of visuals and teacher lecturing that appealed to my husband and me. Complex language and writing concepts were explained in a way that helped me understand the concepts and remember what I learned later on. He provides examples from the "new" and "old" worlds, modern languages/scripts, ancient deciphered languages, and still unknown languages (writing is known but what language?). How the Mayan language was deciphered was interesting from a language perspective, politics of the time (cold war), and so forth. This course is a survey in the sense that it covers enough information so that if you want to concentrate on one of the areas you have enough information to make an informed decision. Professor Zender doesn't have any annoying habits that interfered with my learning the information. All in all, this is the best course I have watched/listened to so far.
Date published: 2015-01-20
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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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