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Starlyte

Investigating The Death Of Ancient Writing Systems

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When a system of writing begins to die, people probably don't even notice at first. Maybe the culture that spawned it loses its vitality, and the script decays along with it. Maybe the scribes or priests decide that most ordinary people aren't able to learn it, so they don't teach it.

Or a new, simpler system may show up -- an alphabet, perhaps -- that can be easily learned by aggressive upstarts who don't speak the old language and don't care to learn its fancy pictographic forms.

Or perhaps invaders take over. They decide the old language is an inconvenience, the old culture is mumbo jumbo and the script that serves it is subversive. The scribes are shunned, discredited and, if they persist, obliterated.

In the first study of its kind, three experts in the study of written language have described the common characteristics that caused three famous scripts -- ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern cuneiform and pre-Columbian Mayan -- to disappear.

"Thousands of languages have come and gone, and we've studied that process for years," said Brigham Young University archaeologist Stephen D. Houston, the study's Maya specialist. "But throughout history, maybe 100 writing systems have ever existed. We should know more about why they disappear."

The collaboration among Houston, University of Cambridge Egyptologist John Baines and Assyriologist Jerrold S. Cooper of Johns Hopkins University began at a meeting that Houston hosted earlier this year to discuss the origins of writing. What resulted was "Last Writing," an essay on script death published recently in the British journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. Its basic conclusion: Writing systems die when those who use them restrict access to them.

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