Last modified on 16 September 2016, at 22:18

Written Language

Written Language is the symbolic representation of language in some physical medium, often with an alphabet but also possible with hieroglyphs or other pictographic characters. Unlike unrecorded speech, it is a form of communication that has a lasting nature, in that it still exists or can be seen after it is completed. This makes it much easier to share knowledge with other people, since many people can read the same book and there is no danger of the author's original intention being misunderstood through transfer of knowledge by word of mouth.


For more information, see History of Written Language.

The forerunners to writing were carved sticks or knotted cords that conveyed information. Prehistoric writing took the form of cave art such as found in France. The cultures that developed in Egypt and Sumeria both started with pictorial forms which led to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform. The Hittites, Egyptians and Mesopotamians all devised symbols for specific sounds known as phonetic writing. During the 2nd millennium B.C., Semitic alphabets emerged allowing writing as know it. The Greeks and the Romans both copied these earlier alphabets.

Writing in Mesoamerica had developed into a fully articulated system by 900 BC.

In India, the Indus Valley civilization used a logographic writing system over 35 hundred years ago.

Kinds of Writing

There are two primary kinds of writing: alphabetic and logographic. Alphabetic systems use a single symbol to express a single sound, and thus by writing these symbols next to each other, a string of sounds is described which create a word in the language being written. In a logographic system, a single symbol can be used to refer to an idea or a syllable, depending on the context, and frequently the syllables or other sound symbols will provide the intangible framework (i.e., thinking, when?, etc.) for the concrete ideas (tree, house, etc.) which are expressed by single symbols.

Alphabetic Writing Systems:

  • Latin Alphabet
  • Cyrillic Alphabet
  • Greek Alphabet
  • Arabic Alphabet
  • Korean Alphabet

Logographic Writing Systems:

  • Chinese Writing
  • Japanese Writing



The New American Desk Encyclopedia, Penguin Group, 1989