The Study of Writing: definitions and classifications

      Until the 1800's, writing, not spoken language, was thought to be of primary importance in the study of language.  Speech was often ignored.  The truth is that the phenomenon of writing, despite the greater prestige usually accorded it, is secondary to spoken language in three significant ways.

      1) Human children naturally acquire fluent language without being taught. The phenomenon of becoming a fluent speaker of one's native language seems not to be connected with individual differences in intelligence and is completely independent of any level of formal education. This is not true with written language, which must be taught and consciously learned. Many people have special difficulty in learning how to write and education plays a crucial role. People below a certain intelligence level seem incapable of being taught written language at all, although most acquire fluent speech.

      2) All human groups ever encountered possess spoken language.  The spoken language of every society is a fully developed and complex system--an intellectual marvel.  As far as is known, the native language of every group--past or present--is equal in expressive potential to the languages spoken by the most technologically complex societies.  Aside from pidgin languages that are no one's native language, there are no primitive, or incomplete languages.  

      Writing, on the other hand, is far from universal among the peoples of the world.  Even today, the majority of the world's spoken languages are not written or have only been recorded by linguists using the IPA or a similar phonetic alphabet.

      3) Finally, the origin of spoken language is buried deep in the past.  There is not even a generally accepted theory about how speech first developed.  Humans have probably been speaking for as long as there have been anatomically modern Homo sapiens in the world.  Some of the hominid precursors of modern humans may also have had some form of spoken or gesture-based language.

      The origin of writing, on the other hand, is a relatively recent event.  We know a great deal about the history of the developement of writing.  Although anatomically modern humans have been on earth for over 100,000 years, Homo sapiens began drawing pictures only 30 or 40 thousand years ago, as far as we know. And the first true writing systems began to develop less than 6000 years ago, well after the start of the Neolithic Revolution, when humans began to farm and settle in towns.  Before that time, although each tribe of humans undoubtedly had a highly complex spoken language, there was no true writing anywhere in the world.   

      First let's define the distinction between pictures and true writing.

      1) A picture denotes a concept apart from any single, particular linguistic expression.  One does not really read pictures, one verbalizes about them, or interprets them with words.  True writing also conveys ideas and concepts, but conveys them by referring to specific units of language.  (Give examples from Chinese:  liang vs. er for the concept "two").  True writing always represents specific syllables or specific single sounds of a language.  True writing, represents meaning through the medium of particular sounds.   

      2) Pre-writing is limited in its linguistic expressive potential. The signs tend to denote only tangible concepts or concepts that can be expressed figuratively with relatively little ambiguity.  Without true writing it is impossible to graphically symbolize abstract concepts in their many fine shades of meaning.  Prewriting is an inherently incomplete system: only certain types of thoughts can be expressed using it.  True writing, being a representation of language, is an open system: it can--like spoken language--convey anything that can be imagined by the human mind.

      Now let's look at the origin and development of writing.  True writing undoubtedly has its roots in pictures for concepts--called pictograms. Pictograms and ideograms are iconic symbols still used in many societies today, both literate and illiterate.

      Thousands of years ago humans drew pictures of animals and hunters on cave walls. (Lascaux, France)  These pictures seem to have been pictograms: that is, pictures representing objects through direct physical resemblance.  In Pierce's classification of signs, pictograms are icons, displaying a non-arbitrary relation between form and meaning.  Icons, or picture writing used today's industrialized societies include comic strips and political cartoons (minus the captions).  It is not known what the pictograms of the Cro Magnon or other ancient groups were used for, but it is certain that they depicted ideas or events and were not a way of symbolizing the sounds of any language.

      Perhaps we can better guess at the meaning of cave drawings by examining pictographic signs used in more recent times. Many tribal societies have used visual memory aids.  This was the function of the native American wampum belts, which symbolized the main points of treaties, and of the Inca quipu, or mnemonic knotted strings. 

      What is the difference between pictures and other visual memory aids and true writing. The pictures denote ideas, concepts or events directly, not through the medium of the sounds of any particular language. (Give the example of a face with a grimace, which could conceivably be used to convey any concept associated with unpleasant emotion.)  Although their meanings can also be described using the words of a language, the pictograms do not themselves express any specific units of language.  (Contrast reading history out of a book vs. retelling it using ideograms and pictograms as mnemonic devices.)  The use of pictures and signs for expressing ideas, independent of specific words or sounds of a language is not true writing.  Linguists refer to the use of such signs as pre-writing. 

    Let's look at some basic ways of categorizing different forms of true writing.

      All true writing somehow represents units of sound.  Representation of particular sounds is the primary function of the symbols of true writing.  Through the medium of graphic symbols which represent sound, true writing represents concepts and ideas.  So, in the case of all true writing there is present the correlation:

graphic symbol (grapheme) = sound unit of a language

John DeFrancis calls true writing visible speech.  There are many writing systems, but all of them denote units of sound directly, and concepts only indirectly, through the medium of sound. There are many different types of writing systems, but all of them share this one fundamental trait, which DeFrancis calls the diverse oneness of writing.

Classification of writing systems (14 major systems in use today)

1. Basic unit of sound

      Writing systems can be classified according to the type of sound units the symbols represent.  There are two basic types. The first type of system is the syllabary. These are systems in which all or most of the graphemes represent syllables of sound. As we will see tomorrow, the first writing systems to develop were types of syllabaries (Sumerian cuneiform by 3100BC, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese characters by 1200BC, Mexico by 200BC (Olmec, Maya glyphs).  Chinese today uses a type of syllabary (all 30,000+ characters represent syllables except one, /r/; Japanese uses two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana--each with about 40 symbols, in which all symbols represent syllables of sound except /n/. A few Native American languages use syllabaries developed during the last 200 years: Cherokee, Cree, Greenland Inuit. The Cherokee writing system is often called an alphabet, but technically, it is a syllabary (only /s/ is represented alphabetically).

      The second type of writing system is the alphabet. In the second type of system, the graphemes represent or mostly represent single sounds rather than entire syllables. As we will see, the first alphabet developed out of a syllabary in Southwest Asia (by 1800BC). And today alphabets are the most widespread type of writing in use. Most languages that are written with some type of alphabet.  Modern alphabets include:  Ancient Phonecian, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin (and its many varieties:  English, Spanish, French, etc.), Cyrillic (Russian, Bulgarian, etc.), Georgian, Armenian; Ethiopic; the Devanagari and its many daughter alphabets in India and South-East Asia.  Once again, some graphemes in an alphabet may represent entire syllables:  Russian ya, yo, yu; or alphabets may include digraphs, two symbols used together for a single sound:  th, ng, sh. But a writing system is considered an alphabet if a preponderance of the graphemes represent single sounds. 

      There are two other types of possible writing systems besides the syllabary and alphabet. A symbol may stand for an entire word--this would yield a logographic, or word writing system.  The characters of Chinese often do stand for entire words, but only if the word is monosyllable, disyllabic Chinese words are written with two characters, tri-syllabic with three characters. There are no true logographic systems in use (they would require tens of thousands of symbols).

      Finally, here is a third type of writing system, one based on phonetic features rather than entire phones. Even the IPA does not represent phonetic features completely regularly (t, d, g--no single mark to denote voicing) In some writing systems individual phonetic features do receive their own specific graphic representation, and both syllabaries and alphabets may have this featural quality to varying degrees (Japanese use of '' to denote voicing, Spanish tilda for nasalization.) The English alphabet does not have any such featural markers. Korean Hangul shows the most extensive example of featural representation and might be considered a featural system as well as an alphabet. 

2. Regularity

      Another way to classify writing systems is by the degree of regularity of their grapheme-sound correspondence. Some systems are highly regular; others are highly irregular. For instance, the perfect alphabet would have only one symbol for every meaningfully distinct sound.  Few alphabets actually have a perfect one to one correspondence between symbol and sound.  We have seen that English certainly does not.  There may be two ways of conveying the same sound:  c/k, ph/f.  Or an alphabet may denote two or more different phonemically distinct sounds with the same symbol or set of symbols:  a or th in English.  Thus, in terms of regularity of symbol/sound correspondence, the Latin based alphabet used to write English is one of the least regular alphabets in the world;  French is almost as irregular;  Spanish and German are much more regular;  and the Georgian alphabet is nearly 100% regular.  Nevertheless, because the correlation of single symbol to single sound is the most prevalent correlation in all these systems, they are all considered alphabets.

      Syllabaries may also be irregular to varying degrees. Syllabaries may be highly regular phonetically:  with an invariant and predictable one to one correspondence between symbol and sound (the Japanese Kana; Cherokee come close, but is less so:  go/ko).  Or they may be highly irregular, with the meaning of words and morphemes being taken into account in the writing of the sound of each syllable:  this is the case with Japanese Kanji and modern Chinese characters, as we shall discuss tomorrow, as it was with all the earliest syllabaries in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mexico. 

3. Frame

      Another way to characterize writing systems is by frame, the way the units are grouped on a page to create larger units.

      In some systems the word is the frame; symbols are normally grouped together as words. Both alphabets and syllabaries may use the word as the frame: English, Cherokee syllabary.  One or more symbols can be grouped together as a single word. 

      In some systems the syllable is the frame.  In Chinese, the frame is the syllable, not the word, which is not set off. Each grapheme is its own frame. (Write English using a syllabic frame). Modern Korean is written using an alphabet written with a syllabic frame.

      In some older styles of writing European languages, the letter of the alphabet was the frame, with no word breaks at all. Or the sentence was the frame, with a break only between sentences.

      Sometimes, there are more than one frame in use at the same time. In some alphabetic systems, each symbol itself consists of parts (letters of the Korean alphabet consist of featural symbols--Korean, then is a featural system that uses the phone as a frame and the syllable as a larger frame. Also, the symbols of the writing systems of Ethiopia and South Asia use graphemes for syllables, but each grapheme consists of a recognizable mark for the consonant plus a mark for the vowel sound. These systems are, then alphabets which use the syllable as a frame. These syllabic frames may then be arranged in word frames.

4. Arrangement

      Finally, writing systems differ in whether the graphemes are written from left to write (the alphabets of Europe) or from right to left (Arabic and Hebrew); or alternating, like some forms of Ancient Greek--a style called boustrophedon, or ox-plowing style. Also are the graphemes written horizontally (as most Western alphabets) or vertically, as Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian often are.