Writing systems and language

Speech comes naturally, but writing does not. 

In 2018, around 32 million American adults were illiterate. In 2018, there were also 327.2 million Americans living in the United States, which means that around 9% of Americans were illiterate at the time. Even in literate societies, writing does not come naturally.

In fact, writing is a development that came relatively recently when compared to the advent of human language. Writing has only really developed around five thousand years ago, with the earliest being Mesopotamian cuneiform. Most languages are not written, even today.

But as different writing and speech are, they still share something in common: speech shares an arbitrary link between sound and meaning, and writing shares an arbitrary link between symbol and sound. Linguists call the set of conventions for writing down language it’s orthography, and they can be grouped into two basic types.


In a logographic writing system, symbols (logograms) represent actual morphemes or even entire words. 

It’s the oldest type of writing, going all the way back to Ancient Mesopotamiam cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and early Chinese characters.

continue to fall
like precise rain
along my way.

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Typography” (1964)

Nearly all writing systems today are part logographic in that they make use of abbreviations like &, %, $, or even numbers like 1, 2, 3, and the rest. One can even say that logographic systems can even be read independently from their original language, so long as you understand the meaning.


In a phonographic writing system, symbols represent syllables or phonemes. There are two categories of phonographic writing systems— syllabic and alphabetic.


Perhaps the most commonly known example of a syllabic writing system would be Japanese hiragana, each of which represent a single, discrete syllable. A set of syllabic signs is called a syllabary


Matsuo Bashō, “an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water” (1686)


In an alphabet, signs represent consonant and vowel segments, and among alphabets you can have two distinctions: abjads and abugidas.

Abjads and Abugidas

In an abjad writing system, like in Arabic and Hebrew, vowels are either completely absent or are optionally expressed with the help of something called a diacritic.

In an abugida writing system, all vowels are represented. But, they are marked by diacritics or modifications to the consonants. 

The abugida writing system Devanagari which is used for Hindi.
Arabic and Hebrew are both abjads.






3 responses to “Writing systems and language”

  1. pjhammon Avatar

    Nice post. I see you’ve updated your home page. Now I understand more about this website, and I enjoy it. Keep up the good work.

    1. ensemblelearner Avatar

      Thank you! 🙂

  2. Elizabeth S Avatar

    It is so interesting how writing forms came to be. Thanks for the post! Love your site!

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