Script typology and print-capitalism

But these varied idiolects were capable of being assembled, within definite limits, into print-languages far fewer in number. The very arbitrariness of any system of signs for sounds facilitated the assembling process. (At the same time, the more ideographic the signs, the vaster the potential assembling zone. One can detect a sort of descending hierarchy here from algebra through Chinese and English, to the regular syllabaries of French or Indonesian.)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2006), pp. 43-44

I’ve been rereading Anderson for the first time in at least a dozen years, and found this little gem which has bearing on much of the work I do (which requires that one replace ‘algebra’ – a technique – with ‘numerals’ – a representational system). Here he’s asserting that the process of standardization that accompanies the rise of capitalism and printing is most invasive where the script being printed is more ideographic rather than more phonetic. Numerals, being thoroughly trans-linguistic, should spread as widely as possible. One central argument of my forthcoming book holds that the present domination of Hindu-Arabic (Western) numerals is largely not a product of technological ‘natural selection’ but is dependent on a set of social processes accompanying the rise of the world-system in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

But I’m still dissatisfied with Anderson’s proposition, because it goes beyond his detailed consideration of early modern social, economic and technological processes (which he calls ‘print-capitalism’) and postulates a generalization (dare I say ‘law’) about the role of script type (and orthographic-phonetic correspondence) generally correlates with the tendency of script traditions to become standards across wide regions. This may be intuitive, and invites evidentiary justification, but is, as it stands, ‘not proven’ in the Scottish legal sense. As far as I know, no one has actually attempted to demonstrate Anderson’s proposition (which is, if not central to his thesis, certainly not incidental), but it is this sort of empirical work, unifying the technical study of writing systems with the sociopolitical interests near and dear to Anderson’s heart, and mine.



  1. I’m quite curious about your algebra/numerals theory — an area I know nothing about. I’m more than a little skeptical about Anderson’s “continuum”, though, esp. in regards to Chinese. Unless I’m confused (entirely possible) his seems like the sort of misunderstanding that’s been perpetrated for centuries: namely, the idea that the meaning of Chinese characters are divorced from the sounds of the language. The reasons for the spread of characters across the region are complex, but I’d venture to guess the phenomenon had little to do with the “ideographic” nature of the script — see DeFrancis, et al.

    Enjoying the blog, which I just came across through Ideophone.

  2. One can detect a sort of descending hierarchy here from algebra through Chinese and English, to the regular syllabaries of French or Indonesian.

    French and Indonesian aren’t written in a syllabary They’re both written using the Latin alphabet. I agree with Beijing Sounds, take a look at John DeFrancis’ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.

  3. zmjezhd: I’ve read DeFrancis, which is excellent, of course. But I should clarify that Anderson is not using ‘syllabary’ in the sense in which it is used in script typology, but rather, as a rather odd way of noting that Indonesian and French have highly phonemic orthographies, whereas English is less so, and Chinese less so still.

    But really there is some considerable confusion on Anderson’s part between orthography and script, because he is not an expert on this topic at all. What I think he is saying is that when there is a trans-linguistic component to a script or orthography, that it tends to diffuse more widely, but the confusion between an orthographic system and a writing system is making it hard to see how this could possibly be so.

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