For other uses, see Write (disambiguation).

Writing, in its most general sense, is the preservation and the preserved text on a medium, with the use of signs or symbols. In that regard, it is to be distinguished from cave drawings and paintings on the one hand, and tape recordings, and film or movies, on the other.




Writing, more particularly, refers to two activities: writing as a noun, the thing that is written down; and writing as the verb, designates the activity of writing. It refers to the inscription of characters 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. 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 that is made in the arts and sciences; for example, in speech, or speaking: public speaking is a distinctly different activity, as is poetry reading; the former is governed by the rules of rhetoric, while the latter by poetics.

The person who composes text is generally styled a writer, or an author. However, more specific designations exist, which are dictated by the particular nature of the text; for example, poet, essayist, novelist, and the list goes on.

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 writing. The fact is, however, that the only known writing is human writing.

Writing also presupposes, at a minimum, three other activities.

It used to pressupose penmanship, and in earlier times, there were professional scribes who were especially talented in that regard. In more recent times, a new requirement emerged - the skill of typing. But today, one-, or two-fingered typing is sufficient, though inefficient, a new skill is presupposed, though not necessary: the knowledge of dedicated software, such as WordPerfect, and Word. The elements of such writing are, of course, the letters of the alphabet and the alphanumeric character set included within the standardized ASCII family of signs or sysmbols.

The next skill required is the ability to spell words, or significant knowledge of the contents of a dictionary, and the rules of grammar. However, with the advent of the computer a useful new tool has emerged, the so-called spell check, which automatically checks, and, or, corrects, often both spelling and grammatical mistakes or errors.

But the most important skill in writing is considered to be talent, which is believed to be an inborn ability. Nevertheless, courses and schools exist which, if they do not promise to teach one how to become a writer, at least are recognized as being able to improve one's technical skills on the road to improving one's writing ability.


Writing, in Historical Perspective

Although the existence of the alphabet was not required to the development of writing, it is irrefutable that without one writing remains tremendously hindered in its absence.

Historians are generally in agreement that the dominant and essentially earliest alphabets were the Middle Bronze Age alphabets, developed among the semitic peoples of the Middle East, out of which emerged, among others, the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Cyrilic, and Sogdian alphabets. As a result, the study of writing has a strong tendency to focus on the West, were these alphabets took root, and writing possible.

It is the early development, as well as the entrenchment, of this alphabet, which leads to the dominance of focus on writing in the West, rather than ethnocentrism.

Discoveries about writing, relating to language, and its development, developed in Europe in the Nineteenth Centuary. A classic study of it is by Holger Pedersen, translated by John Webster Spargo, entitled The Discovery of Language, 1st ed. 1931 in Danish, 2nd ed. 1959, 3rd ed. 1962, 4th pr. 1967 (Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press).

A major change occurred in the history of writing when Gutenberg introduced, through his invention and development of a new printing press, the technology of the process of printing with movable type was introduced all over Europe, in the 1450s, with the first printed book, the Bible, in particular, the Gutenberg Bible. The book was thereby mass produced, and the manuscript was passed to printer in the intermediary process of book production. The special skill of the scribe, his superb skills in penmanship became redundant. [1]


Means for recording information


Writing systems

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 6th, pictographic, is insufficient to represent language on its own, but often forms the core of logographies.



A logogram 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, cuneiform, 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 used to represent the syllable "ka" whenever clarification was needed. However, such phonetic elements complement the logographic elements, rather than vice versa. The main logographic system in use today is Chinese, 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.



A syllabary 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.



See also: History of the alphabet

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 other, 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 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.


Featural scripts

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.



(See methods of representing text)

Writing in historical cultures

It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with History of writing. (Discuss)


The original Mesopotamian writing system was initially derived from a system of clay tokens used to represent commodities. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, this had evolved into a method of keeping accounts, using a round-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. About 2600 BC cuneiform began to represent syllables of spoken Sumerian. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers. By the 26th century BC, this script had been 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.



In China 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 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 has 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[2]. 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 Valley

The Indus Valley script (circa 2000-1500 BC) is a mysterious aspect of ancient Indian culture as it has not yet been deciphered. Although there are many examples of the Indus script, without true understanding of how the script works and what the inscriptions say, it is impossible to understand the importance of writing in the Indus Civilization.


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. This alphabet in turn was adapted by various peoples to write their own language, resulting in the Etruscan alphabet, and its own descendants, such as the Latin alphabet and Runes. 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 are descended.

The Tifinagh script (Berber languages) is descended from the Libyco-Berber script which is assumed to be of Phoenecian origin.



Many other systems have been developed independently, for example the complex Mayan system.


Creation of text or information









Writers will often search out others to evaluate or criticize their work. This can give the writer a better product in the end. To this end, many writers join writing circles, often found at local libraries or bookstores. With the evolution of the internet, writing circles have started to go online.


See also


Further reading



  1. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), ISBN 0-521-29955-1
  2. China Daily, 12 June 2003, , http://www.china.org.cn/english/2003/Jun/66806.htm
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