Linguistics Writing Systems
by
Amalia E. Gnanadesikan, Richard Sproat
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0221

Introduction

The study of writing systems, or grammatology, is concerned with the means by which languages are represented by graphic symbols. While language is a universal fact of human society, writing is a technology invented in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago, with a roughly contemporaneous (probably) independent invention in Egypt, and later independent inventions in China and Mesoamerica. At the core of the technology is linguistic analysis, by which the phonological and/or morphological units of a language (and sometimes other linguistic units as well) are identified and assigned to symbols. Writing is thus the oldest known and most consistently applied form of linguistic analysis. In relying on the abstraction of linguistic analysis, writing is crucially distinct from recording technology, in that a written text captures a linguistic message but not the particulars, such as voice quality, of a given utterance, whereas a recording captures the details without an analysis. In fact, most written texts exist in the absence of spoken utterances—i.e., the text was not first spoken and then transcribed. Writing preserves linguistic messages for the future, thus aiding the preservation and acquisition of knowledge. Within the field of linguistics, writing is especially useful to the study of historical linguistics, as evidence of historical forms is usually available only from written sources. Among literate people, much linguistic input is received in written form, making the study of literacy and the psycholinguistics of reading especially relevant. But students of linguistics are rarely taught about writing systems, apart perhaps from a short discussion of the topic in an introductory course. Some linguistics programs have a course in writing systems for undergraduates, but graduate courses are largely absent and most professional linguists have little interest in the topic. Yet writing is more central to linguistics than one might like to think. It has been claimed, for example, that the very concept of phoneme is an artifact of segmental writing systems, and while this is perhaps too strong a stance, it is clear that people’s knowledge of phonology is influenced by the written form. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the theory of phonology laid out in Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle’s The Sound Pattern of English (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) was heavily influenced by English orthography. On the other hand, the development of writing systems has given us insights into phonology and morphology, since writing systems are, if only crudely and unintentionally, theories of phonological structure and wordhood. The survey presented here touches in various places upon the connection between grammatology and linguistics as a whole.

Early Works

The earliest major treatment of writing systems in English is Taylor 1883, a detailed, two-volume work. Other fairly early general books include Diringer 1948 and Moorhouse 1953. All three are works of careful scholarship that were important contributions in their time, although they are now outdated in various ways. Although all three carry the term alphabet in their titles, and while the Greek and Roman alphabets and their Semitic ancestors do take special pride of place in these works, their coverage of the world’s writing systems is broader than the titles imply. Gelb 1963, originally published in 1952 (cited under General Overviews), brought a more scientific approach to grammatology, overshadowing the roughly contemporary Diringer 1948 and Moorhouse 1953. However, Diringer 1948 stands out for its comprehensive yet careful approach. Moorhouse 1953 is interesting for two reasons. First, it has little to say about Linear B, other than that the extant tablets were probably administrative archives rather than literary in nature. The year that it was printed also saw the publication of Ventris and Chadwick 1953, cited under Decipherment, which revolutionized the understanding of Aegean civilization and the history of writing. Second, though Moorhouse 1953 does cite sources that discuss Chinese characters, the few examples of Chinese characters (pp. 14–16) are apparently rendered in the author’s own hand and several of them are barely recognizable. Moorhouse also emphasizes the “ideographic” nature of Chinese writing and neglects the far more prevalent phonographic aspect, an issue that was certainly well understood in his day.

  • Diringer, D. 1948. The alphabet: A key to the history of mankind. New York: Philosophical Library.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important early and thorough overview of writing systems and their history. Despite the use of alphabet in its title, the work treats writing systems in general, with worldwide coverage, with mention made even of obscure writing systems such as the pseudo-hieroglyphs of Byblos, Maldivian Thaana, and the Bamun script of Cameroon. Typologically divides scripts into ideographic, syllabic, quasi-alphabetic, and alphabetic. Each script receives its own bibliography.

  • Moorhouse, A. 1953. The triumph of the alphabet: A history of writing. New York: H. Schuman.

    E-mail Citation »

    Moorhouse’s discussion comprises two parts. The first, longer part covers “prewriting,” the development of writing, the writing-speech connection, decipherment, and an in-depth discussion of various writing systems. He discusses “pre-alphabetic” scripts, meaning all scripts that are not descendants of the Semitic consonantal scripts; and alphabetic scripts, including Semitic scripts and their descendants. He only briefly discusses Brahmic scripts, and does not mention Hangul. The much shorter second part discusses the uses of writing.

  • Taylor, I. 1883. The alphabet: An account of the origin and development of letters. London: Kegan Paul, Trench.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first comprehensive overview of writing systems in English. Although dated, it is an impressive two-volume work of considerable detail, including many of the world’s scripts, both alphabetic and non-alphabetic. Outdated claims include the particulars of how the Semitic consonantal scripts (ancestors of the Greek and Roman alphabets) were inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs; and that the Brahmic scripts of South Asia descended from Sabean (Old South Arabian).

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