Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity Course

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24 episodes in this series

Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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 episode takes…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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,…
Episode 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…
Episode 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,…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…
Episode 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"…
Episode 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…
Episode 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…

Related videos

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…
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…
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 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.
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…
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…
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…
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…
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.…
Etruscan Language and Literature
Episode 13 of The Mysterious Etruscans
The Etruscan language survives in more than 13,000 texts, from religious transcriptions on mummy linens to fascinating legal contracts written in stone. Because the Etruscans had a primarily oral culture, their writing tended to be analytical and straightforward, yet from it we can deduce much.
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…
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…