Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language
and emotion with signs and symbols. In most languages, writing is a
complement to speech or spoken language.
Writing is not a language,
but a tool used to make languages be read. Within a language system,
writing relies on many of the same structures as speech, such as
vocabulary, grammar, and semantics, with the added dependency of a
system of signs or symbols. The result of writing is called text, and
the recipient of text is called a reader. Motivations for writing
include publication, storytelling, correspondence, record keeping and
Writing has been instrumental in keeping history, maintaining
culture, dissemination of knowledge through the media and the
formation of legal systems.
As human societies emerged, the development of writing was driven by
pragmatic exigencies such as exchanging information, maintaining
financial accounts, codifying laws and recording history. Around the
4th millennium BCE, the complexity of trade and administration in
Mesopotamia outgrew human memory, and writing became a more dependable
method of recording and presenting transactions in a permanent
form. In both ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, writing may have
evolved through calendric and a political necessity for recording
historical and environmental events.
1 Means for recording information
1.1.5 Historical significance of writing systems
1.2 Tools and materials
2.1 Neolithic writing
2.3 Elamite scripts
2.3.1 Cretan and Greek scripts
2.6 Indus Valley
2.7 Central Asia
2.8 Phoenician writing system and descendants
2.10 South America
3 Modern importance
4 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Means for recording information
H.G. Wells argued 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. It made a continuous historical
consciousness possible. The command of the priest or king and his seal
could go far beyond his sight and voice and could survive his
Alphabetic writing is a frequent category in human communication.
The major writing systems—methods of inscription—broadly fall into
five categories: logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, featural, and
ideographic (symbols for ideas). A sixth category, 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.
A vast number of logograms are needed to write Chinese characters,
cuneiform, and Mayan, where a glyph may stand for a morpheme, a
syllable, or both—("logoconsonantal" in the case of hieroglyphs).
Many logograms 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 the various languages or dialects of China,
Japan, and sometimes in Korean despite the fact that in South and
North Korea, the phonetic
Hangul system is mainly used.
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 a 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 abugida, has fused
consonants and vowels together to the point where it is learned as if
it were a syllabary.
History of the alphabet
An alphabet is a set of symbols, each of which 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 writing systems of the Middle East, it is usually only
the consonants of a word that are written, although vowels may be
indicated by the addition of various diacritical marks. Writing
systems based primarily on marking the consonant phonemes alone date
back to the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Such systems are called
abjads, derived from the Arabic word for "alphabet".
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,
although abugidas and abjads may also be accepted as alphabets.
Because of this use, Greek is often considered to be the first
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" and "d" are not labial. In Korean hangul, however, all four labial
consonants are based on the same basic element, but 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 J.R.R. Tolkien's
Historical significance of writing systems
Olin Levi Warner, tympanum representing Writing, above exterior of
main entrance doors, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC, 1896.
Historians draw a sharp 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 they are not considered true writing because they did not
represent language directly.
Writing systems develop and change based on the needs of the people
who use them. Sometimes the shape, orientation, and meaning of
individual signs 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 the script changed over time.
Tools and materials
See also: writing implements
The many tools and writing materials used throughout history include
stone tablets, clay tablets, bamboo slats, papyrus, wax tablets,
vellum, parchment, paper, copperplate, styluses, quills, ink brushes,
pencils, pens, and many styles of lithography. The
Incas used knotted
cords known as quipu (or khipu) for keeping records.
The typewriter and various forms of word processors have subsequently
become widespread writing tools, and various studies have compared the
ways in which writers have framed the experience of writing with such
tools as compared with the pen or pencil.
History of writing
Amulet of the
Tărtăria tablets, the earliest found example of the
Old European script
Old European script and of human writing in the world generally,
dating to 5500–5300 BC. It is a product of the
Cucuteni-Trypillian culture that was in
Romania and neighbouring
By definition, the modern practice of history begins with written
records. Evidence of human culture without writing is the realm of
Dispilio Tablet (Greece) and
(Romania), which have been carbon dated to the 6th millennium BC, are
recent discoveries of the earliest known neolithic writings.
While neolithic writing is a current research topic, conventional
history assumes that the writing process first evolved from economic
necessity in the ancient Near East.
Writing most likely began as a
consequence of political expansion in ancient cultures, which needed
reliable means for transmitting information, maintaining financial
accounts, keeping historical records, and similar activities. 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
Globular envelope with a cluster of accountancy tokens, Uruk period,
from Susa. Louvre Museum
Denise Schmandt-Besserat determined the link between
previously uncategorized clay "tokens", the oldest of which have been
found in the Zagros region of Iran, and the first known writing,
Mesopotamian cuneiform. In approximately 8000 BC, the
Mesopotamians began using clay tokens to count their agricultural and
manufactured goods. Later they began placing these tokens inside
large, hollow clay containers (bulla, or globular envelopes) which
were then sealed. The quantity of tokens in each container came to be
expressed by impressing, on the container's surface, one picture for
each instance of the token inside. They next dispensed with the
tokens, relying solely on symbols for the tokens, drawn on clay
surfaces. To avoid making a picture for each instance of the same
object (for example: 100 pictures of a hat to represent 100 hats),
they 'counted' the objects by using various small marks. In this way
the Sumerians added "a system for enumerating objects to their
incipient system of symbols".
Mesopotamian writing system (believed to be the world's
oldest) was derived around 3600 BC from this method of keeping
accounts. By the end of the 4th millennium BC, the Mesopotamians
were using a triangular-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay to record
numbers. This system was gradually augmented with using a sharp stylus
to indicate what was being counted by means of pictographs.
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 by the 29th century BC also for phonetic
elements. Around 2700 BC, cuneiform began to represent syllables of
spoken Sumerian. About that time,
Mesopotamian cuneiform became a
general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers.
This script was adapted to another
Mesopotamian language, the East
Semitic Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) around 2600 BC, and then to
others such as Elamite, Hattian, Hurrian and Hittite. Scripts similar
in appearance to this writing system include those for Ugaritic and
Old Persian. With the adoption of Aramaic as the 'lingua franca' of
Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–609 BC), Old Aramaic was also adapted
Mesopotamian cuneiform. The last cuneiform scripts in Akkadian
discovered thus far date from the 1st century AD.
Over the centuries, three distinct Elamite scripts developed.
Proto-Elamite is the oldest known writing system from Iran. In use
only for a brief time (c. 3200–2900 BC), clay tablets with
Proto-Elamite writing have been found at different sites across Iran.
Proto-Elamite script is thought to have developed from early
cuneiform (proto-cuneiform). The
Proto-Elamite script consists of more
than 1,000 signs and is thought to be partly logographic.
Linear Elamite is a writing system attested in a few monumental
inscriptions in Iran. It was used for a very brief period during the
last quarter of the 3rd millennium BC. It is often claimed that Linear
Elamite is a syllabic writing system derived from Proto-Elamite,
although this cannot be proven since Linear-Elamite has not been
deciphered. Several scholars have attempted to decipher the script,
most notably Walther Hinz and Piero Meriggi.
Elamite cuneiform script was used from about 2500 to 331 BC, and
was adapted from the Akkadian cuneiform. The
Elamite cuneiform script
consisted of about 130 symbols, far fewer than most other cuneiform
Cretan and Greek scripts
Further information: Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B
Cretan hieroglyphs are found on artifacts of
millennium BC, MM I to MM III, overlapping with
Linear A from MM IIA
at the earliest). Linear B, the writing system of the Mycenaean
Greeks, has been deciphered while
Linear A has yet to be
deciphered. The sequence and the geographical spread of the three
overlapping, but distinct writing systems can be summarized as
Cretan hieroglyphs were used in
Crete from c. 1625
to 1500 BC;
Linear A was used in the
Aegean Islands (Kea, Kythera,
Melos, Thera), and the
Greek mainland (Laconia) from c. 18th century
to 1450 BC; and
Linear B was used in
Crete (Knossos), and mainland
(Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns) from c. 1375 to 1200 BC.
Oracle bone script
Oracle bone script and Bronzeware script
The earliest surviving examples of writing in China—inscriptions on
so-called "oracle bones", tortoise plastrons and ox scapulae used for
divination—date from around 1200 BC in the late Shang dynasty. A
small number of bronze inscriptions from the same period have also
survived. Historians have found that the type of media used had an
effect on what the writing was documenting and how it was
In 2003, archaeologists reported discoveries of isolated
tortoise-shell carvings dating back to the 7th millennium BC, but
whether or not these symbols are related to the characters of the
later oracle-bone script is disputed.
Narmer Palette, with the two serpopards representing unification of
Upper and Lower Egypt, 3000 B. C.
The earliest known hieroglyphic inscriptions are the Narmer Palette,
dating to c. 3200 BC, and several recent discoveries that may be
slightly older, though these glyphs were based on a much older
artistic rather than written tradition. The hieroglyphic script was
logographic with phonetic adjuncts that included an effective
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 appears to have been developed by
Canaanite turquoise miners in the Sinai desert around the mid-19th
century BC. Around 30 crude inscriptions have been found at a
mountainous Egyptian mining site known as Serabit el-Khadem. This site
was also home to a temple of Hathor, the "Mistress of turquoise". A
later, two line inscription has also been found at Wadi el-Hol in
Central Egypt. Based on hieroglyphic prototypes, but also including
entirely new symbols, each sign apparently stood for a consonant
rather than a word: the basis of an alphabetic system. It was not
until the 12th to 9th centuries, however, that the alphabet took hold
and became widely used.
Main article: Indus script
Indus script refers to short strings of symbols associated with the
Indus Valley Civilization
Indus Valley Civilization (which spanned modern-day
Pakistan and North
India) used between 2600 and 1900 BC. In spite of many attempts at
decipherments and claims, it is as yet undeciphered. The term 'Indus
script' is mainly applied to that used in the mature Harappan phase,
which perhaps evolved from a few signs found in early
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 that an
agglutinative language underlies the script.
Archaeologists have recently discovered that there was a civilization
Central Asia using writing c. 2000 BC. An excavation near Ashgabat,
the capital of Turkmenistan, revealed an inscription on a piece of
stone that was used as a stamp seal.
Phoenician writing system and descendants
Proto-Sinaitic script, in which
Proto-Canaanite is believed to
have been first written, is attested as far back as the 19th century
BC. The Phoenician writing system was adapted from the Proto-Canaanite
script sometime before the 14th century BC, which in turn borrowed
principles of representing phonetic information from Hieratic,
Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. This writing system was an odd
sort of syllabary 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 and Runes. Other descendants
Greek alphabet include Cyrillic, used to write Bulgarian,
Russian and Serbian, among others. The Phoenician system was also
adapted into the Aramaic script, from which the Hebrew and the Arabic
scripts are descended.
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, known as the Cascajal Block,
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 by approximately 500 years. It is thought
to be Olmec.
Of several pre-Columbian 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 is identified, Maya dates
to the 3rd century BC. Maya writing used logograms complemented by
a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern
Incas had no known script. Their quipu system of recording
information—based on knots tied along one or many linked cords—was
apparently used for inventory and accountancy purposes and could not
encode textual information.
Three stone slabs were found by Romanian archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa,
in the mid-20th century (1961) in
Tărtăria (present-day Alba County,
Transylvania), Romania, ancient land of Dacia, inhabited by Dacians,
which were a population who may have been related to the Getaes and
Thracians. One of the slabs contains 4 groups of pictographs divided
by lines. Some of the characters are also found in Ancient Greek, as
well as in Phoenician, Etruscan, Old Italic and Iberian. The origin
and the timing of the writings are disputed, because there are no
precise evidence in situ, the slabs cannot be carbon dated, because of
the bad treatment of the
Cluj museum. There are indirect carbon dates
found on a skeleton discovered near the slabs, that certifies the
5300–5500 BC period.
In the 21st century, writing has become an important part of daily
life as technology has connected individuals from across the globe
through systems such as e-mail and social media.
Literacy has grown in
importance as a factor for success in the modern world. In the United
States, the ability to read and write are necessary for most jobs, and
multiple programs are in place to aid both children and adults in
improving their literacy skills. For example, the emergence of the
writing center and community-wide literacy councils aim to help
students and community members sharpen their writing skills. These
resources, and many more, span across different age groups in order to
offer each individual a better understanding of their language and how
to express themselves via writing in order to perhaps improve their
Other parts of the world have seen an increase in writing abilities as
a result of programs such as the World
Literacy Foundation and
Literacy Foundation, as well as a general push for
increased global communication.
Foreign language writing aid
List of writers' conferences
Creation of the Sequoyah syllabary
Writing in the United States
Writing in space
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Wikiquote has quotations related to: Writing
Wikimedia Commons has media related to People writing.
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Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Fiction technique
Look up writing in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Writing and Alphabet: An Interview with Christophe Rico
Damqatum 3 (2007)
"Signs – Books – Networks", virtual exhibition of the German
Museum of Books and
Writing i.a. with a thematic module on sounds,
symbols and script
Pictopen: Modern written communication based on pictograms
Palm-leaf manuscript (
Ola leaf (manuscript) (C. umbraculifera)
Birch bark manuscript
Wax tablet (wood)
Parabaik (S. asper)
Bamboo and wooden slips
Samut khoi kraing (paper usu.
Mulberry bark, metals, other)
Inherently impermanent material
Electronic visual display
Paper data storage media
Writing on papyrus (c. 3000 BCE)
Paper (105 CE)
Railroad/Transit Punch Photograph (1880s)
Punched card (1890)
Edge-notched card (1896)
Optical mark recognition
Optical character recognition (1929)
History of communication
Intercultural / Interpersonal / Intrapersonal communication
Models of communication
Text and conversation theory
Mediated cross-border communication
Philosophy of language
Sociology of culture