Chapter 1: Writing
In order to make the case for writing signed languages, the
concept of writing must be explored so that the origins of existing
Sign Language...*Footnote 2... writing
systems are understood and their potential evolution can be considered.
There are also differences in opinion regarding what constitutes
a writing system, and this question will also be addressed.
*Footnote 2: Whenever Sign is capitalized,
it is in reference to a full language employed by native signers.
When sign is not capitalized, it refers to a lexical item or
a created system like Signed Exact English (SEE) which is not
a self-standing language.
For the purposes of reference and clarity I will define some
terms which I will use to describe various kinds of writing systems.
An alphabet refers to a writing system which has symbols
representing individual phonemes in a language, although this
does not mean that an alphabetic system always has a one-to-one
correspondence between the sounds and symbols. English and Spanish,
for example, use an alphabetic system. A consonantal system
is similar to an alphabet but does not include symbols for the
vowels found in the language. Hebrew uses such a system. A syllabary
is a third kind of writing system, in which the symbols represent
syllables, not individual phonemes in the language. Japanese,
which makes use of a combination of systems, employs syllabaries
and ideographs. An ideographic system involves symbols
that do not encode phonemic value but do encode morphosyllabic
This means that a symbol encodes meaning and sound. Such a system
employs symbols which represent the morphemes representing semantically
substantive references such as an object or concept, or grammatical/functional
meanings. Chinese uses this kind of system.
Defining a writing system
What is writing? Although a literate person might find this question
unnecessary, an exact answer is more difficult to find when one
begins to examine the question. A writing system is not merely
what we use to record language on paper (or other material) with
symbols. Just as most people rarely think about the miracle of
their acquisition and use of language, literate adults usually
take the complexity of writing systems for granted. To those
who can decipher the code, writing is often quite like air. It
is all around us and we use it every day, but we rarely think
about it despite its absolute importance in our life. Of course,
we could survive without writing ... or could we? Just exactly
how much does modern society depend on the successes of its written
One view of writing has been in direct relation to symbols and
spoken language, as Diringer exemplifies in his definition of
writing as "the graphic counterpart of speech" (1962:
13). Gelb calls writing a "system of human intercommunication
by means of conventional visible marks" (1963:5). Similarly,
Trager describes writing as "a conventional system of marks
or drawing of analogous artifacts which represent the utterances
of a language as such" (1974:374-496). Bloomfield offers
more simply that writing is a way of recording language (1935:21).
These definitions are too broad to exclude signs or symbols which
are clearly not writing, but which denote linguistic information,
like a picture of a person walking with a slash through it and
a red light flashing behind it ("don't walk" in English).
Furthermore, these kinds of definitions do not address the functions
of writing which lie beyond signifying linguistic communication.
Writing has a broader communicative power than spoken language.
The fact that a person can write has meaning just as the act
of producing a written document can be meaningful.
An earlier encyclopedic definition of writing describes it as
'the use of letters, symbols or other conventional characters,
for the recording by visible means of significant sounds' (Encyclopedia
Britannica 1911: 852). This definition would include musical
notation but not a writing system used for signed languages,
or even one which was mainly pictographic. The Microsoft Encarta
97 Encyclopedia on CD-ROM has a more detailed definition under
the topic of writing as a "method of human intercommunication
by means of arbitrary visual marks forming a system," stating
further that, "Writing can be achieved in either limited
or full systems, a full system being one that is capable of expressing
unambiguously any concept that can be formulated in language."
A full system would be one that can be used to signify anything
in a language.
DeFrancis (1989: 4) suggests two definitions: one that describes
writing as a system conveying some amount of thought and the
other describing writing as a system of symbols which can be
used to convey any and all thought. Harris (1995) discusses the
act of writing as having its own significance and shows how this
can be so irrespective of what is written down. For example,
a person may appear to be writing and, therefore, the viewer
interprets that the person appears to be educated and appears
to be engaged in an important act while he is actually scribbling
on a page. To fully explore what writing is, and all the facets
of what it can be, would occupy entire volumes dedicated to that
purpose, but one can succinctly outline some of these ideas in
order to stress the traditional and non-traditional ways
of thinking about writing in order to frame its extreme power
and, therefore, importance.
When Harris talks about the significance of the act of writing,
he uses an example of a particular situation in which someone
who does not actually know how to write is pretending to do so
in order to elevate himself in the eyes of illiterate peers.
Moreover, to people who have no concept of writing whatsoever,
the very piece of parchment on which a message is written can
seem to have magical properties. An outside observer who witnesses
someone staring at a piece of paper and gaining new information
could imagine that the paper had some way of conveying information.
Although writing is seldom thought of this way, Goody's (1986)
concept of writing as "that which makes speech an object"
taps into what gives writing its power in the human realm, because
language ceases to be ephemeral once written. Like any other
object it can be observed, used, or manipulated. Although, as
Harris claims, writing can be independent of speech, it is connected
to human intercommunication (Harris, 1986: 119, 127). In the
following sections, the kind of writing which will be
considered will be that which functions as a linguistic tool
and a linguistic object.
The duality principle, that all writing systems encode some amount
of phonological representation and are all mnemonic, is generally
accepted (DeFrancis, 1989: 253, Gelb, 1963:303-304). Chinese
may employ a writing system which relies heavily on memorizing
the forms of the characters, associating between the forms, meanings,
and sound values attached to them. Likewise, although Spanish
has a fairly consistent correspondence between the symbols of
its writing system and the sounds of the language, there is still
memorization involved in learning to spell Spanish words. DeFrancis
gives a list created on the basis of how much of a one-to-one
correspondence can be found between the writing system and the
pronunciation of words in a given language...*Footnote
*Footnote 3: 1. Finnish, Pinyin, romaji,
kana 2. Greek, Latin, Russian, German, Spanish 3. Hangul 4. French,
English 5. Cherokee, Vai, Yi 6. Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic 7.
Egyptian hieroglyphics 8. Japnaese kanji-cum-kana, Akkadian 9.
Chinese characters 10. Sumerian, Mayan.
Finnish is at the top of this list, Spanish is in the next
category, English follows soon after, Arabic comes later and
Chinese comes close to the bottom of the list (DeFrancis 1989:268).
This list came about in reference to the issue of what constitutes
a more expedient writing system, a topic which can be debated
but, interestingly seems to take care of itself as a writing
system evolves and becomes conventionalized. In other words,
no matter what kind of system a language starts out using, the
system, the language, or both can change to better fit each other
in terms of efficiency of reading and writing...*Footnote
*Footnote 4: In the case of English,
in which the language changed and the writing conventions did
not, although there is more difficulty in learning to spell these
words, there may be increased ease in reading these words similar
to the way in which Japanese continues to make use of Chinese
Basso states that a good writing system should be "judged
by the ability to permit someone who is unfamiliar with the code
but who is competent in the spoken language of which it
is an isomorph and familiar with the process of reading in general
to produce and decipher legible written messages"
(Basso 1989: 426). The above concept is presented to remind the
reader that a full pictographic writing system, while only on
one end of a scale in terms of the degree of phonetic
information encoded versus a richly mnemonic system, differs
from all of the alphabetic and syllabic systems in an important
way. No matter how much mnemonic device is encoded into the conventionalized
spelling system of the latter type writing system, the alphabetic
or syllabic nature of the system allows it to directly represent
the way people talk.
English employs a writing system which requires the learning
of many conventions, and it is a rather difficult system to use
well. It may be that the higher the degree of memorization involved
in writing a language (e.g., Chinese characters), the easier,
in terms of processing, it is to read that language. However,
the more a system employs a one-to-one sound symbol correspondence,
the more universally convenient it becomes.
Figure 1: Rebus Example
Although many consider language use to trace back to 35,000 B.C.,
archaeologists and philologists agree that writing developed
only around five thousand years ago, circa 3,300 B.C. in Sumer.
Some argue that the Sumerian writing system originally developed
out of accounting practices. More specifically, the clay tokens
which were used for trade were impressed into clay and, later,
these impressions seem to have led to the people deciding to
represent their tokens in two dimensional signs on clay tablets,
again for recording purposes. In its earliest stage, therefore
Sumerian pictographic writing contained many symbols representing
tokens. It is not clear, however, that their writing did develop
out of accounting as there are many more unrelated symbols found
in this early writing system, meaning that the appearance of
written signs for tokens may have developed alongside the development
of a writing system, not prior to it. It cannot be ascertained
exactly what sparked the development of this particular system.
Yet, it is certain that this writing system developed at least
in part out of the need of the traders in the area. Or, more
specifically, the system was some sort of aid when it developed,
as opposed to developing, as others may have, out of originally
more artistic endeavors. A writing system could develop this
way if people were drawing pictures which, over time, were repeated,
simplified and commonly drawn. Hoskin suggests that writing came
about when people realized how to read the symbols they
were using, i.e., when they learned to read the signs as equivalents
for spoken language instead of interpreting them abstractly and
loosely (Hoskin 1993:36).
It is interesting to consider that language use is thought to
have developed first, then art (cave paintings) and nearly thirty-two
thousand years later, the first pictographic writing systems
(Martin 1995: 30). The advent of language use is delineated by
the anatomy of man's brain, yet we have no way to confirm this
date (c.35,000 B.C.) (Sampson 1985:17). Likewise, we do not know
if man could conceive of objectifying thought through objects
before writing developed. It is plausible that a span of ten
thousand years might have been the necessary amount of time for
some slight change in language-enabled man, so that out of need
and ingenuity, writing developed.
Around a thousand years after the first writing began to develop
in Sumer, pictographic writing arose in China. Meanwhile, around
3100 B.C. the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics emerged and sometime
between 2800 and 2600 B.C. Sumerian writing became Cuneiform.
One evolutionary perspective on this moment in time offers that
writing developed out of art, hence its originally pictographic
nature, then lost its iconicity as it underwent the rebus principle
leading to the development of syllabaries and alphabetic writing
systems. The rebus principle would involve, for example, a picture
of an eye which would, in the case of English, over time come
to be used to signify the word "I" because of similar
pronunciation and lack of a good way to pictorially represent
the concept involved in representing the first person pronoun
(Matthews 1997: 309). See Figure 1.
This symbol would have been
first used for 'eye' and later for 'I.'
Around 1400 B.C., a Semitic cuneiform consonantal alphabet developed.
This type of writing system was no longer pictographic, because
each symbol represented a consonant sound in the language, but
none directly represented the vowels of the language. Another
five hundred years would result in the spread of the Phoenician
consonantal alphabet throughout the Mediterranean basin, around
a hundred years after which, the Greeks would encounter Phoenician
consonantal writing. Around 800 B.C. the Greeks adopted an alphabet,
based on the Phoenician alphabet, altering it to fit their language
by adding vowels. This was the creation of the first modern alphabet
with vowels, which many have claimed was one of the most important
developments in human civilization (Diringer 1962, Innis 1951,
Hitti 1961, Logan 1986, McLuhan 1962, 64). The variety found
among the world's writing systems do not reflect a singular evolutionary
path toward the alphabet. Chinese ideographic writing remains
and syllabaries are abundant.
This chapter has provided the background needed to deal with
the concept of writing. It has introduced the history of the
existence of writing and how writing has evolved. It has presented
various terms used to discuss a writing system and considered
what a writing system is. This chapter introduced the duality
principle of writing systems ultimately consisting of a combination
of sound (or sign) based symbols and the use of the memory. The
next chapter will discuss how systems can be more or less efficient
and the writing's import in modern society.