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Written language

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A Specimen of typeset fonts and languages, by William Caslon, letter founder; from the 1728 Cyclopaedia.

A written language is the representation of a language by means of writing. This involves the use of visual symbols, known as graphemes, to represent linguistic units such as phonemes, syllables, morphemes, or words. However, written language is not merely spoken or signed language written down, though it can approximate that. Instead, it is a separate system with its own norms, structures, and stylistic conventions, and it often evolves differently than its corresponding spoken or signed language.

Written languages serve as crucial tools for communication, enabling the recording, preservation, and transmission of information, ideas, and culture across time and space. The specific form a written language takes – its alphabet or script, its spelling conventions, and its punctuation system, among other features – is determined by its orthography.

The development and use of written language have had profound impacts on human societies throughout history, influencing social organization, cultural identity, technology, and the dissemination of knowledge. In contemporary times, the advent of digital technology has led to significant changes in the ways we use written language, from the creation of new written genres and conventions to the evolution of writing systems themselves.

Comparison with spoken and signed language[edit]

Written language, spoken language, and signed language are three distinct modalities of communication, each with its own unique characteristics and conventions.[1]

Spoken and signed language is often more dynamic and flexible, reflecting the immediate context of the conversation, the speaker's emotions, and other non-verbal cues. It tends to use more informal language, contractions, and colloquialisms, and it is typically structured in shorter sentences.[2] Spoken and signed language often includes false starts and hesitations. Because spoken and signed language tend to be interactive, they include elements that facilitate turn taking, including prosodic features, such as trailing off, and fillers that indicate the speaker/signer is not yet finished their turn.

In contrast, written language is typically more structured and formal. It allows for planning, revision, and editing, which can lead to more complex sentences and a more extensive vocabulary. Written language also has to convey meaning without the aid of tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language, which often results in more explicit and detailed descriptions.[3] It may include typographic elements like typeface choices, font sizes, and bold face. The types of errors found in the modalities also differ.

The author of a written text is often difficult to discern simply by reading the printed text, even if the author is known to the reader, though stylistic elements may help to identify them. In contrast a speaker is typically more identifiable from their voice. In written language, handwriting is a similar identifier.

Moreover, written languages generally change more slowly than their spoken or signed counterparts. This can lead to situations where the written form of a language maintains archaic features or spellings that no longer reflect current pronunciation.[4] Over time, such divergence may lead to a situation known as diglossia.

Despite their differences, spoken, signed, and written language forms do influence each other, and the boundaries between them can be fluid, particularly in informal written contexts such as text messaging or social media posts.[5]


There are too many grammatical differences to address, but here is a sample. In terms of clause types, written language is predominantly declarative (e.g., It's red.) and typically contains fewer imperatives (e.g., Make it red.), interrogatives (e.g., Is it red?), and exclamatives (e.g., How red it is!) than spoken or signed language. Noun phrases are generally predominantly third person, but they are even more so in written language. Verb phrases in spoken English are more likely to be in simple aspect than in perfect or progressive aspect, and almost all of the past perfect verbs appear in written fiction.[6]

Information packaging[edit]

Information packaging is the way that information is packaged within a sentence, that is the linear order in which information is presented. For example, On the hill, there was a tree has a different informational structure than There was a tree on the hill. While, in English, at least, the second structure is more common, the first example is relatively much more common in written language than in spoken language. Another example is that a construction like it was difficult to follow him is relatively more common in written language than in spoken language, compared to the alternative packaging to follow him was difficult.[7] A final example, again from English, is that the passive voice is relatively more common in writing than in speaking.[8]


Written language typically has higher lexical density than spoken or signed language, meaning there is a wider range of vocabulary used and individual words are less likely to be repeated. It also includes fewer first and second-person pronouns and fewer interjections. Written English has fewer verbs and more nouns than spoken English, but even accounting for that, verbs like think, say, know, and guess appear relatively less commonly with a content clause complement (e.g., I think that it's OK.) in written English than in spoken English.[9]


Diglossia is a sociolinguistic phenomenon where two distinct varieties of a language – often one spoken and one written – are used by a single language community in different social contexts.[10]

The so-called "high variety", often the written language, is used in formal contexts, such as literature, formal education, or official communications. This variety tends to be more standardized and conservative, and may incorporate older or more formal vocabulary and grammar.[11] The "low variety", often the spoken language, is used in everyday conversation and informal contexts. It is typically more dynamic and innovative, and may incorporate regional dialects, slang, and other informal language features.[12]

Diglossic situations are common in many parts of the world, including the Arab world, where Modern Standard Arabic (the high variety) coexists with local varieties of Arabic (the low varieties).[13]

The existence of diglossia can have significant implications for language education, literacy, and sociolinguistic dynamics within a language community.[14]


Diagraphia obtains when a language may be written in different scripts. Serbian, for instance, may be written in Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Another example is Hindustani, which may be written in Urdu alphabet or in Devanagari.


The first writing can be dated back to the Neolithic era, with clay tablets being used to keep track of livestock and commodities. However, the first example of written language can be dated to Uruk, at the end of the 4th millennium BCE.[15] An ancient Mesopotamian poem tells a tale about the invention of writing.

"Because the messenger's mouth was heavy and he couldn't repeat, the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and put words on it, like a tablet. Until then, there had been no putting words on clay." —Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, c. 1800 BCE.[16]

Scholars mark the difference between prehistory and history with the invention of the first written language.[17] However, that leaves the argument of what is and is not a written language, an argument over the transition of history to pre-history being whether a piece of writing in proto-writing, or genuine writing, making the matter largely subjective,[18] leaving the line in a gray-area. A general consensus is that writing is a method of recording information, composed of graphemes, which also may be glyphs, and it should represent some form of spoken language as well, falling hand in hand with containing information, allowing numbers to be counted as writing as well.[19]

Origins of written language[edit]

The origins of written language are tied to the development of human civilization. The earliest forms of writing were born out of the necessity to record trade transactions, historical events, and cultural traditions.[20]

A clay tablet with cuneiform writing.

The first known true writing systems were developed during the early Bronze Age (late 4th millennium BC) in ancient Sumer, present-day southern Iraq. This system, known as cuneiform, was pictographic at first, but later evolved into an alphabet, a series of wedge-shaped signs used to represent language phonemically.[21]

Simultaneously, in ancient Egypt, hieroglyphic writing was developed, which also began as pictographic and later included phonemic elements.[22] In the Indus Valley, an ancient civilization developed a form of writing known as the Indus script around 2600 BC, although its precise nature remains undeciphered.[23] The Chinese script, one of the oldest continuously used writing systems in the world, originated around the late 2nd millennium BC, evolving from oracle bone script used for divination purposes.[24]

Writing systems evolved independently in different parts of the world, including Mesoamerica, where the Olmec and Maya civilizations developed scripts in the 1st millennium BC.[25]

Types of writing systems[edit]

Writing systems around the world can be broadly classified into several types: logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, and featural.[26] There are also phonetic systems, which are used only in technical applications. Also, writing systems for signed languages have been developed, but, apart from SignWriting, none is in general use.[27]

The distinctions are based on the predominant type of grapheme used. In linguistics and orthography, a grapheme is the smallest unit of a writing system of any given language. It is an abstract concept, similar to a character in computing or a glyph in typography.[28] It differs, though, in that a grapheme may be composed of multiple characters. For example, in English, th is a grapheme composed of the characters t and h. When they occur together, they are typically read /θ/ (as in bath) or /ð/ (as in them). Different writing systems may combine elements of these types. For example, Japanese uses a combination of logographic kanji, syllabic kana, and Arabic numerals.

Logographic systems[edit]

In these systems, each grapheme more or less represents a word or a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language). Arabic numerals are examples of logographs. Upon seeing the numeral 3, for instance, the reader understands both the intended number and its pronunciation in the appropriate language. Chinese characters, Japanese kanji, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are more general examples of logographic writing systems.[29] The Japanese word kanji, for instance, may be written 漢字. The first character is read kan and means roughly "Chinese", while the second is read ji and means roughly "character".

Syllabic systems[edit]

A syllabary is a set of graphemes that represent syllables or sometimes mora and can be combined to write words. Examples include the Japanese kana scripts and the Cherokee syllabary.[30] For example, in Japanese, kanji can be written かんじ, with か being the syllable ka, ん being a syllabic n, and じ being ji. Unlike the kanji, the individual kana denote only sounds, and are not associated with any particular words or meanings.

Alphabetic systems[edit]

These systems are composed of graphemes that mainly represent phonemes (distinct units of sound). The English alphabet, Greek alphabet, and Russian alphabet are all examples of alphabetic systems.[31]

Featural systems[edit]

In featural writing systems, the shapes of the characters are not arbitrary but encode features of the modality they represent. The Korean Hangul script is a prime example of a featural system.[32] For example, in Hangul, the phoneme /k/, which is represented by the character 'ㄱ', is articulated at the back of the mouth. The shape of the character 'ㄱ' mimics the shape of the tongue when pronouncing the sound /k/. Similarly, the phoneme /n/, represented by the character 'ㄴ', is articulated at the front of the mouth, and the shape of the character 'ㄴ' is reminiscent of the tongue's position when pronouncing /n/.[33] SignWriting is another featural system, which represents the physical formation of signs.


Orthography is the conventional elements of the writing system of a language.[34] It involves the use of graphemes and the standardized ways these symbols are arranged to represent words, including spelling. In the kanji examples above, it was noted that the word is typically written as 漢字, though it may also be written as かんじ. This conventionalized fact is part of Japanese orthography. Similarly, the fact that sorry is spelled as it is and not some other way (e.g., sawry) is an orthographic fact of English.

In some orthographies, there is a one-to-one correspondence between phonemes and graphemes, as in Serbian and Finnish.[35] These are known as shallow orthographies. In contrast, orthographies like that of English and French are known as deep orthographies due to the complex relationships between sounds and symbols. For instance, in English, the phoneme /f/ can be represented by the graphemes f (as in fish), ph (as in phone), or gh (as in enough).[36]

Orthographic systems can also include rules about punctuation, capitalization, word breaks, and emphasis. They may also include specific conventions for representing foreign words and names, and for handling spelling changes to reflect changes in pronunciation or meaning over time.[37]

Relationship between spoken, signed, and written languages[edit]

Spoken, signed, and written languages are integral facets of human communication, each with its unique characteristics and functions. They often influence each other, and the boundaries between them can be fluid. For example, in spoken and written language interaction, speech-to-text technologies convert spoken language into written text, and text-to-speech technologies do the reverse.

Understanding the relationship between these language forms is essential to the study of linguistics, communication, and social interaction. It also has practical implications for education, technology development, and the promotion of linguistic diversity and inclusivity.[38]

In spoken language[edit]

Spoken language is the most prevalent and fundamental form of human communication. It is typically characterized by a high degree of spontaneity and is often shaped by various sociocultural factors.[39] Spoken language forms the basis of written language, which allows for communication across time and space. Written language often reflects the phonetic and structural characteristics of the spoken language from which it evolves. However, over time, written language can also develop its own unique structures and conventions, which can in turn influence spoken language.[40]

An example of written language influencing spoken language can be seen in the general advice to speakers to avoid fillers and their general deprecation. For example, in the article "We, um, have, like, a problem: excessive use of fillers in scientific speech",[41] the authors mock their use:

Based on this large sample size of observations, we believe that when it comes to scientific speaking, we, um… have, er… a problem. Like, a big problem, you know? If you are unaware of this problem, then speaking for those of us who are all too conscious of the issue, we are envious.

It is also the case that formal written registers are often perceived as prestige varieties, and that speakers are encouraged to mimic them. For example, the common English dialect in Singapore is often derided as "Singlish", and Singaporean children are typically taught Standard English in schools and are often corrected when they use features of Singlish. The government has also run campaigns to promote the use of Standard English over Singlish, reflecting a societal preference for the formal register of English that is more closely aligned with written language.[42]

But spoken languages clearly continue to influence written languages throughout their lives too. For example, written Chinese is standardized on the basis of Mandarin, specifically the Beijing dialect, which is the official spoken language in China. But spoken Cantonese has had an increasing influence on the written language of Cantonese speakers. One example is 咗 (jo2), which is a verb particle indicating completed action. While this word does not exist in Standard Chinese, it is commonly used in written Cantonese.[43]

In signed language[edit]

Signed languages, used predominantly by the Deaf community, are visual-gestural languages that have developed independently of spoken languages and have their own grammatical and syntactical structures.[44] Yet, they also interact with spoken and written languages, especially through the process of code-switching, where elements of a spoken or written language are incorporated into signed language.[45]

A notable example of this can be seen in American Sign Language (ASL) and English bilingual communities. These communities often include deaf individuals who use ASL as their primary language but also use English for reading, writing, and sometimes speaking, as well as hearing individuals who use both ASL and English. In these communities, it is common to see code-switching between ASL and English. For instance, a person might adopt English word order for some particular purpose or expression, or use fingerspelling (spelling out English words using ASL handshapes) for an English word that does not have a commonly used sign in ASL. This is especially common in educational settings, where the language of instruction is often English, and in written communication, where English is typically used.[46]

Written language and society[edit]

The development and use of written language has had profound impacts on human societies, influencing everything from social organization and cultural identity to technology and the dissemination of knowledge.[47]

Though these are generally thought to be positive, in his dialogue "Phaedrus", Plato, through the voice of Socrates, expressed concern that reliance on writing would weaken the ability to memorize and understand, as written words would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories." He further argued that written words, being unable to answer questions or clarify themselves, are inferior to the living, interactive discourse of oral communication.

Written language facilitates the preservation and transmission of culture, history, and knowledge across time and space, allowing societies to develop complex systems of law, administration, and education.[48] For example, the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia enabled the creation of detailed legal codes, like the Code of Hammurabi.[49]

The advent of digital technology has revolutionized written communication, leading to the emergence of new written genres and conventions, such as texting and social media interactions. This has implications for social relationships, education, and professional communication.[50]

Literacy and Social Mobility[edit]

Literacy can be understood in various dimensions. On one hand, it can be viewed as the ability to recognize and correctly process graphemes, the smallest units of written language. On the other hand, literacy can be defined more broadly as proficiency with written language, which involves understanding the conventions, grammar, and context in which written language is used. Of course, this second conception presupposes the first.

This proficiency with written language is a key driver of social mobility. Firstly, it underpins success in formal education, where the ability to comprehend textbooks, write essays, and interact with written instructional materials is fundamental. High literacy skills can lead to better academic performance, opening doors to higher education and specialized training opportunities.[51]

In the job market, proficiency in written language is often a determinant of employment opportunities. Many professions require a high level of literacy, from drafting reports and proposals to interpreting technical manuals. The ability to effectively use written language can lead to higher paying jobs and upward career progression.[52]

At the societal level, literacy in written language enables individuals to participate fully in civic life. It empowers individuals to make informed decisions, from understanding news articles and political debates to navigating legal documents. This can lead to more active citizenship and democratic participation.[53]

However, disparities in literacy rates and proficiency with written language can contribute to social inequalities. Socio-economic status, race, gender, and geographic location can all influence an individual's access to quality literacy instruction. Addressing these disparities through inclusive and equitable education policies is crucial for promoting social mobility and reducing inequality.[54]

Marshall McLuhan's perspective[edit]

Marshall McLuhan's ideas about written language are primarily found in "The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man".[55] In this work, McLuhan argued that the invention and spread of the printing press, and the shift from oral to written culture that it spurred, fundamentally changed the nature of human society. This change, he suggested, led to the rise of individualism, nationalism, and other aspects of modernity.

McLuhan proposed that written language, especially as reproduced in large quantities by the printing press, contributed to a linear and sequential mode of thinking, as opposed to the more holistic and contextual thinking fostered by oral cultures. He associated this linear mode of thought with a shift towards more detached and objective forms of reasoning, which he saw as characteristic of the modern age.

Furthermore, McLuhan theorized about the effects of different media on human consciousness and society. He famously asserted that "the medium is the message", meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

While McLuhan's ideas are influential, they have also been critiqued and debated. Some scholars argue that he overemphasized the role of the medium (in this case, written language) at the expense of the content of communication.[56] It has also been suggested that his theories are overly deterministic, not sufficiently accounting for the ways in which people can use and interpret media in varied ways.[57]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Ankerl, Guy (2000). Global communication without universal civilization. INU societal research. Vol. 1: Coexisting contemporary civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Geneva: INU Press. pp. 59–66, 235–236. ISBN 2-88155-004-5.