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Publisher's Summary

At just over 5,000 years old, writing is actually a relatively recent invention. It has become so central to the way we communicate and live, however, that it often seems as if writing has always existed.
But the question remains: Who invented writing, and why?
In these 24 fascinating lectures, you'll trace the remarkable saga of the invention and evolution of "visible speech," from its earliest origins to its future in the digital age. Your guide is an accomplished professor and epigrapher who whisks you around the globe to explore how an array of sophisticated writing systems developed, then were adopted and adapted by surrounding cultures.
Along the way, you'll visit the great early civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Japan, and the Americas, and you'll see how deciphering ancient scripts is a little like cracking secret codes - only far more difficult.
You'll be spellbound as you hear accounts of the breathtaking moments when the decipherment of ancient scripts broke centuries of silence. And you'll marvel at fascinating objects once shrouded in mystery, including the iconic Rosetta stone.
Writing and Civilization offers the chance to not only discover the history of ancient writing systems, but also the rare opportunity to actually hear those scripts read aloud and to learn the meaning of their messages hidden in plain sight.
©2013 The Great Courses (P)2013 The Teaching Company, LLC
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Customer Reviews

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By Jacobus on 07-10-14

A Spellbinding survey of writing systems

It has happened more than once that I had to consider either buying the ‘Audible’ audio version of a ‘Great Courses’ course or the downloadable video version of the same course. What was I thinking not buying this a course on writing in video format with an accompanying .pdf guide!? The content of Prof Marc Zender’s ‘Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity’ is so gripping, it left me spellbound. (That said, I do have a thorough background in Semitic and Classical Languages… but he was able to broaden my understanding of writing systems.)

He takes the listener through a journey of writing signs and systems in 24 lectures which are intricately connected and completely mesmerising! I think this course is probably one of the best structured courses I have listened yet. Starting with the basic concept of writing, dispelling myths surrounding Futhark (the runic alphabet), he proceeds to more difficult scripts such as that of the Chinese. Subsequently the listener is introduced to the decipherment of different ancient writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cuneiform and later on Mayan hieroglyphs. By comparing the properties of different systems of writing, he is able to illustrate some fascinating universal aspects of writing. (He convincingly argues and illustrates that writing systems were invented at different times in different places, but also that some peoples borrowed their writings from others.) Prof Zender discusses failed attempts of decipherment, the reasons thereto, as wells as invented scripts and languages such as those of JRR Tolkien.

This course is a highly accessible as well as an excellent overview of writing over the ages. It is presented professionally. Yet I refrain from giving it 5 stars under ‘story’ and overall because not being able to see the examples that Prof Zender used, kept me an outsider to complete insights. While I do understand that Audible does not provide the accompanying .pdf guide to any of ‘The Great Courses’ not being able to follow the Mayan or Egyptian hieroglyphic examples in the course felt utterly frustrating. I believe that a shortened .pdf file without all the contents of the regular guide could be made available to give the listener the best value for his/her money.

All said, ‘Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity’ is a brilliant course, splendidly arranged, highly engaging, well presented and highly relevant for anyone interested in languages and its writing systems.

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16 of 16 people found this review helpful


By Stacey on 01-20-14

Loved it!

Where does Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Definitely in the top 20.

What did you like best about this story?

Fascinating detail about how writing systems from all over the world and their commonalities and differences

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5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

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By Catriona on 03-29-16

Accessible and entertaining

Any audiobook which has me choosing to listen to it rather than Radio 4 when I'm driving must be good.

Initially the information given was more along the lines of what I'd already heard and half remembered or sometimes what seemed obvious once explained; but more and more the course took me into unfamiliar territory, yet remained easy to listen to.

It certainly also swept away some preconceptions that I had about Mayan and Aztec scripts which I gphad not particularly thought about, but had not realised were so developed.

I would say the one draw back is that although there is a PDF which can be downloaded with the book this must be the audio track of a video course. There are a number of references in later sections where it is clear Zender is showing something, for example he spoke of different styles of copying Mayan script, but we only have the final version in the pdf. This should should not put off those who have a general interest in the subject as he gives a good verbal description, but might be more of a problem to someone who is listening as part of a formal study programme. This is the only reason I've marked it down slightly.

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful


By Patrick on 10-30-17

A fascinating overview of writing

This is a fascinating review of a complex evolving science that affects us all. The lectures explore writing in socio-historical contexts and examine a wide range of scripts. The narration is clear abd informative.

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