writing system

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

writing system
The aim of an alphabetic writing system is to represent the spoken language in visible form. (Gideon Mendel/Getty Images)


writing system is a symbolic method for visually recording language. The English language has an alphabetic writing system. 

The term script refers to the graphic form of the units of a writing system; the individual units are called letters.

According to linguist Henry Rogers, "Writing is systematic in two ways: it has a systematic relationship to language, and it has a systematic internal organization of its own" (Writing Systems, 2005).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "In our study of writing systems, we might assume that there is a simple, one-to-one relationship between written symbols and language: for example, that a writing system has a distinct symbol for each phoneme, and that these symbols are used to write utterances. In such a situation, an automatic conversation would, in principle, be possible between writing and language. Anyone who has learned to write English, however, is more than aware that this situation does not hold for English. We need only consider such pairs as one and won with exactly the same pronunciation and very different spellings to confirm this. There are, to be sure, some writing systems which are fairly regular, but none is perfect. Varying degrees of complexity are the norm."
    (Henry Rogers, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. Blackwell, 2005)
  • The First Writing System
    "So far as we know, the first true writing system was invented by the Sumerians, in what is now Iraq, about 5200 years ago. The use of writing spread out from there, and writing was much later independently invented in a few other places, including at least China and Mexico. . . .

    "In a true writing system, any utterance of the language can be adequately written down, from On this day the King crushed his enemies to I love you, snugglebunny. If you can't write down anything you can say, then you don't have a true writing system."
    (Robert Lawrence Trask, Language: The Basics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 1999)
  • The Alphabet as a Writing System
    - "Most alphabetic systems in use today derive from the Greek system. The Etruscans knew this alphabet and through them it became known to the Romans, who used it for Latin. The alphabet spread with Western civilization, and eventually most nations of the world had the opportunity to use alphabetic writing.

    "According to one view, the alphabet was not invented, it was discovered. If language did not include discrete individual sounds, no one could have invented alphabetic letters to represent them. When humans started to use one symbol for one phoneme, they were making more salient their intuitive knowledge of the phonological system of the language."
    (Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams, An Introduction to Language, 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)

      - "The alphabet has generally been considered as the revolutionary breakthrough in the development of writing and literacy and thus as the writing system that is superior to any other. The advantages of the alphabet seem obvious, indeed. It is easy to learn, because it has fewer units than any other writing system; and it is applicable to any language, thanks to its phonemic character. Yet the story of the alphabet is not as simple as that, as careful investigations clearly show. . . . [A]lphabetic writing is subject to historical changes, and it is at least questionable whether or not the structural advantages of the alphabet are preserved throughout these changes and in the course of the historical development of the phonological and the orthographic systems of a language."
    (Florian Coulmas and Konrad Ehlich, Introduction. Writing in Focus. Walter de Gruyter, 1983)
  • Transparent and Opaque Writing Systems
    "In contrast to transparent systems, in which the letter corresponds one-to-one to the sounds of the language, in opaque writing systems the correspondence between the sounds and letters is not one-to-one. Two writing systems that tend toward opacity are Russian and French. However, English is usually considered the opaque writing system par excellence."
    (Barbara M. Birch, English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007)
  • Writing Systems and Transcription
    "Writing systems are conventionalized techniques of segmenting linguistic utterances in such a way that the resulting units can be interpreted as linguistic constructs such as words, morphemes, syllables, phonemes, as well as higher-level units such as clauses and sentences. In contrast, transcription, ideally, focuses on sound alone disregarding grammar. Transcription is a scientific procedure based on the insights of phonetics and phonology, which, in contradistinction to conventional orthographies, does not assume that the reader knows the language."
    (Florian Coulmas, Writing Systems: An Introduction to Their Linguistic Analysis. Cambridge University Press, 2003)