Writing system

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A writing system is a symbolic system used to represent elements or statements expressible in language.


General properties

Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that the reader must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text. In contrast, other possible symbolic systems such as information signs, painting, maps and mathematics often do not require prior knowledge of a spoken language.

Every human community possesses language, which many regard as an innate and defining condition of mankind. However, the development of writing systems, and the process by which they have supplanted traditional oral systems of communication has been sporadic, uneven and slow. Once established, writing systems generally change more slowly than their spoken counterparts. Thus, they often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language. The great benefit of writing systems is their ability to maintain a persistent record of information expressed in a language, which can be retrieved independently of the initial act of formulation.

All writing systems require:

  • at least one set of defined base elements or symbols, individually termed characters and collectively called a script;
  • at least one set of rules and conventions (orthography) understood and shared by a community, which arbitrarily assigns meaning to the base elements (graphemes), their ordering and relations to one another;
  • at least one language (generally spoken) whose constructions are represented and able to be recalled by the interpretation of these elements and rules;
  • some physical means of distinctly representing the symbols by application to a permanent or semi-permanent medium, so they may be interpreted (usually visually, but tactile systems have also been devised).

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