The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

Farrar. Mar. 2022. 304p. tr. from Italian by Todd Portnowitz. ISBN 9780374601621. $29. LIT
Ferrara’s (classical philology and Italian studies, Univ. of Bologna; Cypro-Minoan Inscriptions, Vols. 1 and 2) book discusses how written language came about, where it’s occurred and why, and how writing evolves. Her research group analyzes the invention of writing globally, using the customary techniques of translation, augmented by insights from linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, visual perception, digital imaging, and machine learning. Ferrara is an expert on the undeciphered Aegean writings (Cretan Hieroglyphic; Linear A; Cypro-Minoan) of the second millennium BCE, but her group also studies Chinese, Indian, Central American, and even Easter Islands (Rongorongo) texts. Here she writes about the problem of interpreting texts in tongues that aren’t cross-referenced to other already-known tongues (as with the Rosetta Stone). Writing starts with iconic signs: a picture of a falcon represents the word for falcon, Ferrara posits; when syllables in a pictograph are adapted to represent pure sounds, the leap is made to non-iconic syllables that can be combined to represent new things, jumping from object to object because they sound alike (homophony). This fascinating book bursts with new information and ideas.
VERDICT In the tradition of the best popular science writing, Ferrara expresses complex ideas in language understandable and appealing to the educated layperson.
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