Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols (known as a writing system). It is distinguished from illustration, such as cave drawing and painting, and the recording of language via a non-textual medium such as magnetic tape audio.
Writing began as a consequence of the burgeoning needs of accounting. Around the 4th millennium BC, the complexity of trade and administration outgrew the power of memory, and writing became a more dependable method of recording and presenting transactions in a permanent form (Robinson, 2003, p. 36).
Writing as a category
, more particularly, refers to two things: writing
as a noun
, the thing
that is written; and writing
as a verb
, which designates the activity
of writing. It refers to the inscription
on a medium, thereby forming words
, and larger units of language
, known as texts. It also refers to the creation of meaning and the information
thereby generated. In that regard, linguistics
(and related sciences
) distinguishes between the written language
and the spoken language
. The significance of the medium by which meaning and information is conveyed is indicated by the distinction made in the arts and sciences. For example,
while public speaking
and poetry reading
are both types of speech
, the former is governed by the rules of rhetoric
and the latter by poetics
A person who composes a message or story in the form of text is generally known as a writer or an author. However, more specific designations exist which are dictated by the particular nature of the text such as that of poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, journalist, and more. A person who transcribes, translates or produces text to deliver a message authored by another person is known as a scribe, typist or typesetter. A person who produces text with emphasis on the aesthetics of glyphs is known as a calligrapher or graphic designer.
Writing is also a distinctly human activity. It has been said that a monkey, randomly typing away on a typewriter (in the days when typewriters replaced the pen or plume as the preferred instrument of writing) could re-create Shakespeare-- but only if it lived long enough (this is known as the infinite monkey theorem). Such writing has been speculatively designated as coincidental. It is also speculated that extra-terrestrial beings exist who may possess knowledge of writing. The fact is that the only known writing is human writing.
Means for recording information
Wells argues that writing has the ability to "put agreements, laws, commandments on record. It made the growth of states larger than the old city states possible. The command of the priest or king and his seal could go far beyond his sight and voice and could survive his death" (Wells in Robinson, 2003, p. 35).
The major writing systems
– methods of inscription – broadly fall into four categories: logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, and featural.
Another category, ideographic
(symbols for ideas), has never been developed sufficiently to represent language. A sixth category, pictographic
, is insufficient to represent language on its own, but often forms the core of logographies.
is a written character which represents a word or morpheme
. The vast number of logograms needed to write language, and the many years required to learn them, are the major disadvantage of the logographic systems over alphabetic systems. However, the efficiency of reading logographic writing once it is learned is a major advantage.
No writing system is wholly logographic: all have phonetic components as well as logograms ("logosyllabic" components in the case of Chinese characters
, and Mayan
, where a glyph may stand for a morpheme, a syllable, or both; "logoconsonantal" in the case of hieroglyphs), and many have an ideographic component (Chinese "radicals", hieroglyphic "determiners"). For example, in Mayan, the glyph for "fin", pronounced "ka'", was also used to represent the syllable "ka" whenever the pronunciation of a logogram needed to be indicated, or when there was no logogram. In Chinese, about 90% of characters are compounds of a semantic (meaning) element called a radical
with an existing character to indicate the pronunciation, called a phonetic.
However, such phonetic elements complement the logographic elements, rather than vice versa.
The main logographic system in use today is Chinese characters, used with some modification for various languages of China, Japanese, and, to a lesser extent, Korean in South Korea. Another is the classical Yi script.
is a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables
. A glyph in a syllabary typically represents a consonant followed by a vowel, or just a vowel alone, though in some scripts more complex syllables (such as consonant-vowel-consonant, or consonant-consonant-vowel) may have dedicated glyphs. Phonetically related syllables are not so indicated in the script. For instance, the syllable "ka" may look nothing like the syllable "ki", nor will syllables with the same vowels be similar.
Syllabaries are best suited to languages with relatively simple syllable structure, such as Japanese. Other languages that use syllabic writing include the Linear B script for Mycenaean Greek; Cherokee; Ndjuka, an English-based creole language of Surinam; and the Vai script of Liberia. Most logographic systems have a strong syllabic component. Ethiopic, though technically an alphabet, has fused consonants and vowels together to the point that it's learned as if it were a syllabary.
An alphabet is a small set of symbols, each of which roughly represents or historically represented a phoneme of the language. 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. 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 most of the alphabets of the Mid-East, only consonants are indicated, or vowels may be indicated with optional diacritics. Such systems are called abjads. In most of the alphabets of India and Southeast Asia, vowels are indicated through diacritics or modification of the shape of the consonant. These are called abugidas. Some abugidas, such as Ethiopic and Cree, are learned by children as syllabaries, and so are often called "syllabics". However, unlike true syllabaries, there is not an independent glyph for each syllable.
Sometimes the term "alphabet" is restricted to systems with separate letters for consonants and vowels, such as the Latin alphabet. Because of this use, Greek is often considered to be the first alphabet.
A featural script notates the building blocks of the phonemes that make up a language. For instance, all sounds pronounced with the lips ("labial" sounds) may have some element in common. In the Latin alphabet, this is accidentally the case with the letters "b" and "p"; however, labial "m" is completely dissimilar, and the similar-looking "q" is not labial. In Korean hangul
, however, all four labial consonants are based on the same basic element. However, in practice, Korean is learned by children as an ordinary alphabet, and the featural elements tend to pass unnoticed.
Another featural script is SignWriting, the most popular writing system for many sign languages, where the shapes and movements of the hands and face are represented iconically. Featural scripts are also common in fictional or invented systems, such as Tolkien's Tengwar.
Historical significance of writing systems
Historians draw a distinction between prehistory and history, with history defined by the advent of writing. The cave paintings and petroglyphs of prehistoric peoples can be considered precursors of writing, but are not considered writing because they did not represent language directly.
Writing systems always develop and change based on the needs of the people who use them. Sometimes the shape, orientation and meaning of individual signs also changes over time. By tracing the development of a script it is possible to learn about the needs of the people who used the script as well as how it changed over time.
Tools and materials
The many tools and writing materials used throughout history include stone tablets
, clay tablets
, wax tablets
, ink brushes
, and many styles of lithography
. It is speculated that the Incas might have employed knotted threads known as quipu
(or khipu) as a writing system.
For more information see writing implements.
History of early writing
By definition, history
begins with written records; evidence of human culture without writing is the realm of prehistory
The writing process involved from economic necessity in the ancient near east. Archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat determined the link between previously uncategorized clay "tokens" and the first known writing, cuneiform. The clay tokens were used to represent commodities, and perhaps even units of time spent in labor, and their number and type became more complex as civilization advanced. A degree of complexity was reached when over a hundred different kinds of tokens had to be accounted for, and tokens were wrapped and fired in clay, with markings to indicate the kind of tokens inside. These markings soon replaced the tokens themselves, and the clay envelopes were demonstrably the prototype for clay writing tablets.
The original Mesopotamian
writing system was derived from this method of keeping accounts, and by the end of the 4th millennium BC
, this had evolved into using a triangular-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay for recording numbers. This was gradually augmented with pictographic writing using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing was gradually replaced by writing using a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform
), at first only for logograms
, but evolved to include phonetic elements by the 29th century BC. Around the 26th century BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of spoken Sumerian
. Also in that period, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers, and this script was adapted to another Mesopotamian language, Akkadian
, and from there to others such as Hurrian
, and Hittite
. Scripts similar in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic
and Old Persian
An unknown civilization in Central Asia 4,000 years ago, hundreds of years before Chinese writing developed. An excavation near Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, revealed an inscription on a piece of stone that was used as a stamp seal.
historians have found out a lot about the early Chinese dynasties from the written documents left behind. From the Shang Dynasty
most of this writing has survived on bones or bronze implements. Markings on turtle shells
(used as oracle bones
) have been carbon-dated to around 1500 BC. Historians have found that the type of media
used had an effect on what the writing was documenting and how it was used.
There have recently been discoveries of tortoise-shell carvings dating back to c. 6000 BC, but whether or not the carvings are of sufficient complexity to qualify as writing is under debate. If it is deemed to be a written language, writing in China will predate Mesopotamian cuneiform, long acknowledged as the first appearance of writing, by some 2000 years.
The earliest known hieroglyphic
inscriptions are the Narmer Palette
, dating to c.3200 BC, and several recent discoveries that may be slightly older, though the glyphs were based on a much older artistic tradition. The hieroglyphic script was logographic
with phonetic adjuncts that included an effective alphabet
Writing was very important in maintaining the Egyptian empire, and literacy was concentrated among an educated elite of scribes. Only people from certain backgrounds were allowed to train to become scribes, in the service of temple, pharaonic, and military authorities. The hieroglyph system was always difficult to learn, but in later centuries was purposely made even more so, as this preserved the scribes' status.
The world's oldest known alphabet was developed in central Egypt around 2000 BC from a hieroglyphic prototype, and over the next 500 years spread to Canaan and eventually to the rest of the world.
Indus script refers to short strings of symbols associated with the Indus Valley Civilization used between 2600–1900 BC. In spite of many attempts at decipherments and claims, it is as yet undeciphered. The script generally refers to that used in the mature Harappan phase, which perhaps evolved from a few signs found in early Harappa after 3500 BC,, and was followed by the mature Harappan script. The script is written from right to left, and sometimes follows a boustrophedonic style. Since the number of principal signs is about 400-600, midway between typical logographic and syllabic scripts, many scholars accept the script to be logo-syllabic (typically syllabic scripts have about 50-100 signs whereas logographic scripts have a very large number of principal signs). Several scholars maintain that structural analysis indicates an agglutinative language underlies the script. However, this is contradicted by the occurrence of signs supposedly representing suffixes at the beginning or middle of words.
Phoenician writing system and descendants
The Phoenician writing system
was adapted from the Proto-Caananite script in around the 11th century BC, which in turn borrowed ideas from Egyptian hieroglyphics
. This writing system was an abjad
— that is, a writing system
in which only consonants are represented. This script was adapted by the Greeks
, who adapted certain consonantal signs to represent their vowels. The Cumae alphabet
, a variant
of the early Greek alphabet gave rise to the Etruscan alphabet
, and its own descendants, such as the Latin alphabet
. Other descendants from the Greek alphabet
include the Cyrillic alphabet
, used to write Russian
, among others. The Phoenician system was also adapted into the Aramaic script
, from which the Hebrew script
and also that of Arabic
The Tifinagh script (Berber languages) is descended from the Libyco-Berber script which is assumed to be of Phoenician origin.
A stone slab with 3,000-year-old writing was discovered in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and is an example of the oldest script in the Western Hemisphere preceding the oldest Zapotec
writing dated to about 500 BC.
Of several pre-Colombian scripts in Mesoamerica, the one that appears to have been best developed, and the only one to be deciphered, is the Maya script. The earliest inscriptions which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BC, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century AD. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing.
Creation of text or information
Writers sometimes search out others to evaluate or criticize their work. To this end, many writers join writing circles
, often found at local libraries
. With the evolution of the Internet
, writing circles have started to go online.
- A History of Writing: From Hieroglyph to Multimedia, edited by Anne-Marie Christin, Flammarion (in French, hardcover: 408 pages, 2002, ISBN 2-08-010887-5)
- In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language. By Joel M. Hoffman, 2004. Chapter 3 covers the invention of writing and its various stages.
- Origins of writing on AncientScripts.com
- Museum of Writing: UK Museum of Writing with information on writing history and implements
- On ERIC Digests: Writing Instruction: Current Practices in the Classroom; Writing Development; Writing Instruction: Changing Views over the Years
- Children of the Code: The Power of Writing - Online Video
- Rogers, Henry. 2005. Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-23463-2 (hardcover); ISBN 0-631-23464-0 (paperback)
- Ankerl, Guy Global communication without universal civilization. Geneva: INU Press.
- Robinson, Andrew "The Origins of Writing" in David Crowley and Paul Heyer (eds) Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society (Allyn and Bacon, 2003).