Writing system

A writing system, also called a script, is a type of symbolic communication system used to represent elements or statements expressible in some spoken language, for the purpose of communication.


General properties

Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that one must usually understand something of the related spoken language in order to successfully read and comprehend the text. Contrast this with other possible symbolic systems such as information signs, painting, maps, and mathematics, which do not necessarily depend upon prior knowledge of a given language in order to extract associated meaning.

Every human community possesses a spoken language, a feature regarded by many as an innate and defining condition of humankind. However, the development and adoption of writing systems has occurred only variously. Once established, writing systems on the whole are modified much more slowly over time than their spoken language counterparts, and often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the discourse of the speech community. The great benefit conferred by writing systems is their ability to maintain a persistent record of information expressed in some language, which can be retrieved independently of the initial act of formulation.

All writing systems require:

  • a set of defined base elements or symbols (termed characters or graphemes);
  • a set of rules and conventions understood and shared by a community, which arbitrarily assign meanings to the base elements, their ordering, and relations to one another;
  • a spoken language whose constructions are represented and able to be recalled by the interpretation of these elements and rules;
  • some physical means of distinctly representing its symbols by application to a permanent or semi-permanent medium, so that they may be interpreted (usually visually, but tactile systems have also been devised).

Basic terminology

The generic term text may be used to refer to any given instance produced using a writing system. The act of composing a text may be referred to as writing, and the act of interpreting the text as reading. Orthography is the study of writing systems, their rules and relations, and also serves as a term which describes the set of elements and rules themselves.

The generic word for symbols in a writing system is a "grapheme", while a "glyph" is a graphical representation of a grapheme. The glyphs of most writing systems are made up of lines (or strokes) and are therefore called linear, but there are glyphs in non-linear writing systems made up of other types of marks.

Writing systems are conceptual systems, as are the spoken languages to which they refer. 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.

History of writing systems

The invention of the first writing systems is roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the late 4th millennium BC, i.e. the earliest writing systems may be considered as dating to the late Neolithic. The first writing system is generally believed to have been the Sumerian script, which developed into cuneiform. Egyptian hieroglyphs date to approximately the same time. Other early writing systems probably influenced by these innovations were the undeciphered Proto-Elamite script and the Indus valley script . The status as an actual writing system of the latter is unclear. Similarly, it is disputed whether the late neolithic Old European script should be considered a sort of proto-writing-system, or whether it is purely ornamental. The first alphabets emerge around 2000 BC, see Middle Bronze Age alphabets. The Chinese script may have evolved independently, around 1200 BC.

Types of writing system

The oldest-known forms of writing were primarily pictographic or ideographical in nature. Most writing systems can be broadly divided into three categories: logographic, syllabic and alphabetic; however, all of these feature types may be found in any given writing system in varying proportions, often making it difficult to categorise a system uniquely. The term complex system is sometimes used to describe those where the admixture makes classification problematic.

Type of writing systemWhat each symbol representsExample
LogographicmorphemeChinese Hanzi
Abugidaconsonant+vowel, vowelDevanagari
Featuralphonetic featureHangul

Logographic writing systems

Main article: Logogram

A logogram is a single written character which represents a complete grammatical word. Most 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 the major disadvantage of the 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, this is only true for closely related languages, like the dialects of Chinese, as syntactical constraints reduce the portability of a given logographic system. Both Korean and Japanese use Chinese logograms in their writing systems, and many of the symbols carry the same meaning in the different languages. However, they are different enough from Chinese that a Chinese text is not easily understood by a Japanese or Korean reader.

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 he or she calls it one, eins, uno, or ichi. Other western logograms include the ampersand &, used for and, and the at sign @ , used in many contexts for at.

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 semanticphonetic compounds, symbols which include an element that represents the meaning and 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.

The most important (and, to a degree, the only surviving) modern logographic writing system is the Chinese one, whose characters are used, with varying degrees of modification, in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other east Asian languages. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Mayan writing system are also logographic systems, although they have since faded from use.

See List of writing systems for the complete list of logographic writing systems.

Syllabic writing systems

Main article: Syllabary

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"-ness. Compare abugida, where each grapheme typically represents a syllable but where characters representing related sounds are similar graphically (typically, a common consonantal base is annotated in a more or less consistent manner to represent the vowel in the syllable).

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 relative 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 no more than one hundred or so, in English there are many thousands.

Other languages that use syllabic writing include Mycenaean Greek (Linear B) and Native American languages such as Cherokee. Several languages of the Ancient Near East used forms of cuneiform, which is a syllabary with some non-syllabic elements.

See List of writing systems for a complete list of syllabaries.

Alphabetic writing systems

Main article: Alphabet

An alphabet is a small set of letters — basic written symbols — each of which roughly represents or represented historically a phoneme of a spoken language. The word alphabet is derived from alpha and beta, the first two symbols of the Greek alphabet.

In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling. Each language has general rules that govern the association between letters and phonemes, but, depending on the language, these rules may or may not be consistently followed.

Perfectly phonological alphabets are very easy to use and learn, and languages that have them (for example, Finnish) have much lower barriers to literacy than languages such as English, which has a very complex and irregular spelling system. As languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language. In modern times, when linguists invent a writing system for a language that didn't previously have one, the goal is usually to make perfectly phonological alphabet. An example of such writing systems is the "IPA" (International Phonetic Alphabet).

See alphabet for more information about alphabets. See List of writing systems for a list of all alphabets.


Main article: Abjad

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 regular alphabets in that they only have characters for consonantal sounds. Vowels are not usually marked in abjad.

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, but only use them in special contexts, such as for teaching. Many scripts derived from abjads have been extended with vowel symbols to become full alphabets, the most famous case being 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's consonants Alif, B, Jim, Dl, though the word may have earlier roots in Phoenician or Ugaritic.

Abjad is still the word for alphabet in Arabic and Indonesian.

See List of writing systems for a list of all abjads.


Main article: Abugida

An abugida 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 is no sign for "k", but instead 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 obvious contrast is with syllabaries, which have one distinct symbol per possible syllable, and the signs for each syllable have no systematic graphic similarity. The graphic similarity comes from the fact that most abugidas 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.

The Ethiopic script is an abugida, although the vowel modifications in Ethiopic are not entirely systematic. Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics can be considered an 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 Ethiopic script used in some religious contexts. The term was coined by Peter T. Daniels.

See List of writing systems for a list of all abugidas.

Featural writing systems

In a featural writing system, each part of each symbol corresponds to a phonetic feature. That is, sounds that are phonetically related have symbols that are related, and different phonetic features, like place of articulation or voicing, will be represented the same way for different sounds. The most prominent featural writing system is Korean Hangul, which also incorporates aspects of logographic writing systems and alphabets in addition to features.

There are also systems for recording sign languages, such as SignWriting, where symbols stand for particular features of signs, the symbols often resembling those sign features they stand for.

See List of writing systems for a list of all featural writing systems.


Different scripts are written in different directions. The early alphabet could be written in any direction: either horizontal (left-to-right or right-to-left) or vertical (up or down). It could also be written boustrophedon: starting horizontally in one direction, then turning at the end of the line and reversing direction. Egyptian hieroglyph is one such script, where the beginning of a line written horizontally was to be indicated by the direction in which animal and human idiograms are looking.

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 and Hebrew, came to be written right-to-left. Many East Asian scripts, such as Chinese and Japanese, are written top-to-bottom, from the right to the left of the page. There are even scripts that are written from bottom to top, such as those formerly used in the Philippines and other Western Pacific Islands.

See also

  • For technical aspects of computer support for multiple writing systems, see the articles CJK and BiDi.

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