A writing system
is a method of visually representing verbal communication
, based on a script
and a set of rules regulating its use. A writing system, according to anthropologist Harriet Ottenheimer
is also one's way to graphically represent a language. While both writing
are useful in conveying messages
, writing differs in also being a reliable form of information
storage and transfer
. Writing systems require a mutually intelligible
, or shared, understanding between writers and readers
of the meaning behind the sets of characters
that make up a script. Writing is usually recorded onto a durable medium
, such as paper or electronic storage
, although non-durable methods may also be used, such as writing on a computer display
, on a blackboard, in sand, or by skywriting
. Reading a text can be accomplished purely in the mind as an internal process, or expressed orally
Writing systems can be placed into broad categories such as alphabets
, or logographies
, although any particular system may have attributes of more than one category. In the alphabetic category, a standard set of letters
represent speech sounds
. In a syllabary, each symbol correlates to a syllable
. In a logography, each character represents a semantic unit such as a word or morpheme
. Alphabets typically use a set of less than 100 symbols to fully express a language, whereas syllabaries can have several hundred, and logographies can have thousands of symbols. Many writing systems also include a special set of symbols known as punctuation
which is used to aid interpretation and help capture nuances and variations in the message's meaning that are communicated verbally by cues in timing
The best-known examples are:
The invention of the first writing systems is roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Bronze Age
(following the late Neolithic
) in the late 4th millennium BC
. The Sumerian
archaic cuneiform script
closely followed by the Egyptian hieroglyphs
are generally considered the earliest writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400 to 3200 BC with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC
. It is generally agreed that the historically earlier Sumerian writing was an independent invention; however, it is debated whether Egyptian writing was developed completely independently of Sumerian, or was a case of cultural diffusion
A similar debate exists for the Chinese script
, which developed around 1200 BC. The Chinese script is probably an independent invention, because there is no evidence of contact between China and the literate civilizations of the Near East, and because of the distinct differences between the Mesopotamian and Chinese approaches to logography
and phonetic representation.
A hieroglyphic writing system
used by pre-colonial Mi'kmaq
, which was observed by missionaries from the 17th to 19th centuries, is thought to have developed independently. There is some debate over whether or not this was a fully formed system or just a series of mnemonic pictographs.
The first true alphabet is the Greek script
which consistently represents vowels
since 800 BC. The Latin alphabet
, a direct descendant, is by far the most common writing system in use. Today, the Greek alphabet is only used in Greece, however it is the "root script of most of the scripts used today in the western world".
Chinese characters (漢字) are morpho-syllabic. Each one represents a syllable with a distinct meaning, but some characters may have multiple meanings or pronunciations
Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication
systems in that a writing system is always associated with at least one spoken language
. In contrast, visual representations such as drawings, paintings, and non-verbal items on maps, such as contour lines, are not language-related. Some symbols on information signs, such as the symbols for male and female, are also not language related, but can grow to become part of language if they are often used in conjunction with other language elements. Some other symbols, such as numerals
and the ampersand
, are not directly linked to any specific language, but are often used in writing and thus must be considered part of writing systems.
Every human community possesses language, which many regard as an innate and defining condition of humanity. However, the development of writing systems, and the process by which they have supplanted traditional oral
systems of communication, have been sporadic, uneven and slow. Once established, writing systems generally change more slowly than their spoken counterparts. Thus they often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language. One of the great benefits of writing systems is that they can preserve a permanent record of information expressed in a language.
All writing systems require:
- at least one set of defined base elements or symbols, individually termed signs and collectively called a script;
- at least one set of rules and conventions (orthography) understood and shared by a community, which assigns meaning to the base elements (graphemes), their ordering and relations to one another;
- at least one language (generally spoken) whose constructions are represented and can be recalled by the interpretation of these elements and rules;
- some physical means of distinctly representing the symbols by application to a permanent or semi-permanent medium, so they may be interpreted (usually visually, but tactile systems have also been devised).
In the examination of individual scripts, the study of writing systems has developed along partially independent lines. Thus, the terminology employed differs somewhat from field to field.
Text, writing, reading and orthography
The generic term text
refers to an instance of written or spoken material with the latter having been transcribed in some way. The act of composing and recording a text may be referred to as writing
and the act of viewing and interpreting the text as reading
refers to the method and rules of observed writing structure (literal meaning, "correct writing"), and particularly for alphabetic
systems, includes the concept of spelling
Grapheme and phoneme
is a specific base unit of a writing system. They are the minimally significant
elements which taken together comprise the set of "building blocks" out of which texts made up of one or more writing systems may be constructed, along with rules of correspondence and use. The concept is similar to that of the phoneme
used in the study of spoken languages. For example, in the Latin
-based writing system of standard contemporary English, examples of graphemes include the majuscule
forms of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet (corresponding to various phonemes), marks of punctuation
(mostly non-phonemic), and a few other symbols such as those for numerals
(logograms for numbers).
An individual grapheme may be represented in a wide variety of ways, where each variation is visually distinct in some regard, but all are interpreted as representing the "same" grapheme. These individual variations are known as allographs
of a grapheme (compare with the term allophone
used in linguistic study). For example, the minuscule letter a
has different allographs when written as a cursive
, or typed
letter. The choice of a particular allograph may be influenced by the medium used, the writing instrument
, the stylistic choice of the writer, the preceding and following graphemes in the text, the time available for writing, the intended audience, and the largely unconscious features of an individual's handwriting
Glyph, sign and character
Complete and partial writing systems
Writing systems may be regarded as complete
according to the extent to which they are able to represent all that may be expressed in the spoken language, while a partial
writing system is limited in what it can convey.
Writing systems, languages and conceptual systems
Writing systems can be independent from languages, one can have multiple writing systems for a language, e.g., Hindi and Urdu
and one can also have one writing system for multiple languages, e.g., the Arabic script
. Chinese characters were also borrowed by other countries as their early writing systems, e.g., the early writing systems
of Vietnamese language
until the beginning of the 20th century.
This textbook for Puyi
shows the English alphabet
. Although the English letters run from left to right, the Chinese explanations run from top to bottom then right to left, as traditionally written
Several approaches have been taken to classify writing systems, the most common and basic one is a broad division into three categories: logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic (or segmental); however, all three may be found in any given writing system in varying proportions, often making it difficult to categorize a system uniquely. The term complex system is sometimes used to describe those where the admixture makes classification problematic.
Classification by Daniels
is a single written character which represents a complete grammatical word. Most traditional Chinese characters
are classified as logograms.
As each character represents a single word (or, more precisely, a morpheme
), many logograms are required to write all the words of language. The vast array of logograms and the memorization of what they mean are major disadvantages of logographic systems over alphabetic systems. However, since the meaning is inherent to the symbol, the same logographic system can theoretically be used to represent different languages. In practice, the ability to communicate across languages only works for the closely related varieties of Chinese
, as differences in syntax reduce the crosslinguistic portability of a given logographic system. Japanese
uses Chinese logograms
extensively in its writing systems, with most of the symbols carrying the same or similar meanings. However, the grammatical differences between Japanese and Chinese are significant enough that a long Chinese text is not readily understandable to a Japanese reader without any knowledge of basic Chinese grammar
, though short and concise phrases such as those on signs and newspaper headlines are much easier to comprehend.
While most languages do not use wholly logographic writing systems, many languages use some logograms. A good example of modern western logograms are the Arabic numerals
: everyone who uses those symbols understands what 1
means whether they call it one
, or jedan
. Other western logograms include the ampersand &
, used for and
, the at sign @
, used in many contexts for at
, the percent sign %
and the many signs representing units of currency ($
and so on.)
Logograms are sometimes called ideograms
, a word that refers to symbols which graphically represent abstract ideas, but linguists avoid this use, as Chinese characters are often semantic
compounds, symbols which include an element that represents the meaning and a phonetic complement
element that represents the pronunciation. Some nonlinguists distinguish between lexigraphy
and ideography, where symbols in lexigraphies represent words and symbols in ideographies represent words or morphemes.
Syllabic systems: syllabary
Another type of writing system with systematic syllabic linear symbols, the abugidas, is discussed below as well.
As logographic writing systems use a single symbol for an entire word, a syllabary
is a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables
, which make up words
. A symbol in a syllabary typically represents a consonant
sound followed by a vowel
sound, or just a vowel alone.
In a "true syllabary", there is no systematic graphic similarity between phonetically related characters (though some do have graphic similarity for the vowels). That is, the characters for /ke/, /ka/ and /ko/ have no similarity to indicate their common "k" sound (voiceless velar plosive). More recent creations such as the Cree syllabary
embody a system of varying signs, which can best be seen when arranging the syllabogram set in an onset
Syllabaries are best suited to languages with relatively simple syllable structure, such as Japanese. The English language
, on the other hand, allows complex syllable structures, with a relatively large inventory of vowels
and complex consonant clusters
, making it cumbersome to write English words with a syllabary. To write English using a syllabary, every possible syllable in English would have to have a separate symbol, and whereas the number of possible syllables in Japanese is around 100, in English there are approximately 15,000 to 16,000.
However, syllabaries with much larger inventories do exist. The Yi script
, for example, contains 756 different symbols (or 1,164, if symbols with a particular tone diacritic are counted as separate syllables, as in Unicode
). The Chinese script
, when used to write Middle Chinese
and the modern varieties of Chinese
, also represents syllables, and includes separate glyphs for nearly all of the many thousands of syllables in Middle Chinese
; however, because it primarily represents morphemes
and includes different characters to represent homophonous morphemes with different meanings, it is normally considered a logographic script rather than a syllabary.
Segmental systems: alphabets
is a small set of letters
(basic written symbols), each of which roughly represents or represented historically a segmental phoneme
of a spoken language
. The word alphabet
is derived from alpha
, the first two symbols of the Greek alphabet
The first type of alphabet that was developed was the abjad
. An abjad is an alphabetic writing system where there is one symbol per consonant. Abjads differ from other alphabets in that they have characters only for consonantal
sounds. Vowels are not usually marked in abjads. All known abjads (except maybe Tifinagh
) belong to the Semitic family of scripts, and derive from the original Northern Linear Abjad
. The reason for this is that Semitic languages
and the related Berber languages
have a morphemic structure
which makes the denotation of vowels
redundant in most cases. Some abjads, like Arabic and Hebrew, have markings for vowels as well. However, they use them only in special contexts, such as for teaching. Many scripts derived from abjads have been extended with vowel symbols to become full alphabets. Of these, the most famous example is the derivation of the Greek alphabet
from the Phoenician abjad. This has mostly happened when the script was adapted to a non-Semitic language. The term abjad
takes its name from the old order of the Arabic alphabet
'alif, bā', jīm, dāl, though the word may have earlier roots in Phoenician
. "Abjad" is still the word for alphabet in Arabic
, Malay and Indonesian
is an alphabetic writing system whose basic signs denote consonants with an inherent vowel
and where consistent modifications of the basic sign indicate other following vowels than the inherent one. Thus, in an abugida there may or may not be a sign for "k" with no vowel, but also one for "ka" (if "a" is the inherent vowel), and "ke" is written by modifying the "ka" sign in a way that is consistent with how one would modify "la" to get "le". In many abugidas the modification is the addition of a vowel sign, but other possibilities are imaginable (and used), such as rotation of the basic sign, addition of diacritical marks
and so on. The contrast with "true syllabaries
" is that the latter have one distinct symbol per possible syllable, and the signs for each syllable have no systematic graphic similarity. The graphic similarity of most abugidas comes from the fact that they are derived from abjads, and the consonants make up the symbols with the inherent vowel and the new vowel symbols are markings added on to the base symbol. In the Ge'ez script
, for which the linguistic term abugida
was named, the vowel modifications do not always appear systematic, although they originally were more so. Canadian Aboriginal syllabics
can be considered abugidas, although they are rarely thought of in those terms. The largest single group of abugidas is the Brahmic family
of scripts, however, which includes nearly all the scripts used in India
and Southeast Asia
. The name abugida
is derived from the first four characters of an order of the Ge'ez script used in some contexts. It was borrowed from Ethiopian languages as a linguistic term by Peter T. Daniels
script represents finer detail than an alphabet. Here symbols do not represent whole phonemes, but rather the elements (features) that make up the phonemes, such as voicing
or its place of articulation
. Theoretically, each feature could be written with a separate letter; and abjads or abugidas, or indeed syllabaries, could be featural, but the only prominent system of this sort is Korean hangul
. In hangul, the featural symbols are combined into alphabetic letters, and these letters are in turn joined into syllabic blocks, so that the system combines three levels of phonological representation.
Many scholars, e.g. John DeFrancis
, reject this class or at least labeling hangul as such.
The Korean script is a conscious script creation by literate experts, which Daniels calls a "sophisticated grammatogeny
These include stenographies
and constructed scripts
of hobbyists and fiction writers (such as Tengwar
), many of which feature advanced graphic designs corresponding to phonologic properties. The basic unit of writing in these systems can map to anything from phonemes to words. It has been shown that even the Latin script has sub-character "features".
Most writing systems are not purely one type. The English writing system, for example, includes numerals and other logograms such as #, $, and &, and the written language
often does not match well with the spoken one. As mentioned above, all logographic systems have phonetic components as well, whether along the lines of a syllabary, such as Chinese ("logo-syllabic"), or an abjad, as in Egyptian ("logo-consonantal").
Some scripts, however, are truly ambiguous. The semi-syllabaries
of ancient Spain were syllabic for plosives
such as p
, but alphabetic for other consonants. In some versions, vowels were written redundantly after syllabic letters, conforming to an alphabetic orthography. Old Persian cuneiform
was similar. Of 23 consonants (including null), seven were fully syllabic, thirteen were purely alphabetic, and for the other three, there was one letter for /Cu
/ and another for both /Ca
/ and /Ci
/. However, all vowels were written overtly regardless; as in the Brahmic abugidas, the /Ca
/ letter was used for a bare consonant.
phonetic glossing script for Chinese divides syllables in two or three, but into onset
, and rime
rather than consonant and vowel. Pahawh Hmong
is similar, but can be considered to divide syllables into either onset-rime or consonant-vowel (all consonant clusters and diphthongs are written with single letters); as the latter, it is equivalent to an abugida but with the roles of consonant and vowel reversed. Other scripts are intermediate between the categories of alphabet, abjad and abugida, so there may be disagreement on how they should be classified.
Perhaps the primary graphic distinction made in classifications is that of linearity
. Linear writing systems are those in which the characters are composed of lines, such as the Latin alphabet
and Chinese characters
. Chinese characters are considered linear whether they are written with a ball-point pen or a calligraphic brush, or cast in bronze. Similarly, Egyptian hieroglyphs
and Maya glyphs
were often painted in linear outline form, but in formal contexts they were carved in bas-relief
. The earliest examples of writing are linear: the Sumerian script
of c. 3300 BC was linear, though its cuneiform
descendants were not. Non-linear systems, on the other hand, such as braille
, are not composed of lines, no matter what instrument is used to write them.
was probably the earliest non-linear writing. Its glyphs were formed by pressing the end of a reed stylus into moist clay, not by tracing lines in the clay with the stylus as had been done previously.
The result was a radical transformation of the appearance of the script.
Braille is a non-linear adaptation of the Latin alphabet that completely abandoned the Latin forms. The letters are composed of raised bumps on the writing substrate
, which can be leather (Louis Braille
's original material), stiff paper, plastic or metal. Letters, otherwise known as a braille cell,
written in braille
consist of no more than six dots combined together either horizontal, vertical, or both.
There are also transient non-linear adaptations of the Latin alphabet, including Morse code
, the manual alphabets
of various sign languages
, and semaphore, in which flags
are positioned at prescribed angles. However, if "writing" is defined as a potentially permanent means of recording information, then these systems do not qualify as writing at all, since the symbols disappear as soon as they are used. (Instead, these transient systems serve as signals
Overview of the writing directions used in the world
Scripts are graphically characterized by the direction in which they are written. Egyptian hieroglyphs were written either left to right or right to left, with the animal and human glyphs turned to face the beginning of the line. The early alphabet could be written in multiple directions:
horizontally (side to side), or vertically (up or down). Prior to standardization, alphabetical writing was done both left-to-right (LTR or sinistrodextrally
) and right-to-left (RTL or dextrosinistrally
). It was most commonly written boustrophedonically
: starting in one (horizontal) direction, then turning at the end of the line and reversing direction.
The Greek alphabet
and its successors settled on a left-to-right pattern, from the top to the bottom of the page. Other scripts, such as Arabic
, came to be written right-to-left
. Scripts that incorporate Chinese characters
have traditionally been written vertically (top-to-bottom), from the right to the left of the page, but nowadays are frequently written left-to-right, top-to-bottom, due to Western
influence, a growing need to accommodate terms in the Latin script
, and technical limitations in popular electronic document
formats. Chinese characters sometimes, as in signage, especially when signifying something old or traditional, may also be written from right to left. The Old Uyghur alphabet
and its descendants are unique in being written top-to-bottom, left-to-right; this direction originated from an ancestral Semitic direction by rotating the page 90° counter-clockwise
to conform to the appearance of vertical Chinese writing. Several scripts used in the Philippines
, such as Hanunó'o
, are traditionally written with lines moving away from the writer, from bottom to top, but are read horizontally left to right; however, Kulitan
, another Philippine script, is written top to bottom and right to left. Ogham
is written bottom to top and read vertically, commonly on the corner of a stone.
Left-to-right writing has the advantage that since most people are right-handed, the hand does not interfere with the just-written text, which might not yet have dried, since the hand is on the right side of the pen.
In computers and telecommunication systems, writing systems are generally not codified as such,[clarification needed]
but graphemes and other grapheme-like units that are required for text processing are represented by "characters
" that typically manifest in encoded
form. There are many character encoding standards and related technologies
, such as ISO/IEC 8859-1
(a character repertoire and encoding scheme oriented toward the Latin script), CJK
(Chinese, Japanese, Korean) and bi-directional text
. Today, many such standards are re-defined in a collective standard, the ISO
10646 "Universal Character Set
", and a parallel, closely related expanded work, The Unicode Standard
. Both are generally encompassed by the term Unicode
. In Unicode, each character, in every language's writing system, is (simplifying slightly) given a unique identification number, known as its code point
. Computer operating systems
use code points to look up characters in the font
file, so the characters can be displayed on the page or screen.
is the device most commonly used for writing via computer. Each key is associated with a standard code which the keyboard sends to the computer when it is pressed. By using a combination of alphabetic keys with modifier keys
such as Ctrl
, various character codes are generated and sent to the CPU
. The operating system
intercepts and converts those signals to the appropriate characters based on the keyboard layout
and input method
, and then delivers those converted codes and characters to the running application software
, which in turn looks up the appropriate glyph
in the currently used font file, and requests the operating system to draw these on the screen
Humans and Computers
When computers communicate information, they do so in a way that is similar to how humans communicate. There are three major parts that are involved that make the communication aspect possible amongst computers. The three major parts include, "visual, audio, and physical"
. Visual refers to the animation and text that appears on the screen, audio refers to the sounds made, and physical refers to any interaction a human does to the hardware of the computer such as turning it on.
This is similar to how humans communicate because we also use visual, audio, and physical ways to communicate with each other. Visually, for example, humans communicate with gestures
to demonstrate language. For example, instead of saying "hello" humans will gesture a hand wave to demonstrate the word. Humans use audio as a way to communicate with each other as well. An example of this would be during a conversation one could make the sound "mhmm" to notify the speaker that he/she is listening to what the speaker is saying. Physically, humans use body language on a daily basis. For example, if someone wants to demonstrate they are upset or sad, one can tell through the person "frown-like" facial features that he/she is feeling that way.
- ^ "Harriet J Ottenheimer - Bio". www.harrietottenheimerbooks.com. Retrieved 2021-05-10.
- ^ Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing systems. An introduction. Cambridge University Press. pg. 35.
- ^ David Crystal (2008), A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th Edition, p. 481, Wiley
- ^ Hadumod Bußmann (1998), Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, p. 1294, Taylor & Francis
- ^ Hadumod Bußmann (1998), Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, p. 979, Taylor & Francis
- ^ Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer (2012), The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, p. 194, Cengage Learning
- ^ "Is it plausible to have two written forms of one spoken language that are so different as to be indecipherable?". Worldbuilding Stack Exchange.
- ^ Metaphor and Analogy in the Sciences, p. 126, Springer Science & Business Media (2013)
- ^ Daniels and Bright 1996, p. 4
- ^ See Primus, Beatrice (2004), "A featural analysis of the Modern Roman Alphabet" (PDF), Written Language and Literacy, 7 (2): 235–274, doi:10.1075/wll.7.2.06pri, retrieved 2015-12-05
- ^ Cammarosano, Michele. "Cuneiform Writing Techniques". cuneiform.neocities.org. Retrieved 2018-07-18.
- ^ Cammarosano, Michele (2014). "The Cuneiform Stylus". Mesopotamia. XLIX: 53–90 – via https://osf.io/dfng4/.
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- ^ "How Humans Communicate with Computers,". Retrieved 2021-05-11.
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- Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell encyclopedia of writing systems. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing systems. An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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