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What Is a Written Language?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Written language refers to a language that is written down and used for recording events, ideas and feelings. The opposite of written language is spoken language and there are a number of differences between the two. Accessing and exploiting the written word requires two key language skills: writing and reading. Without these two, especially reading, it becomes almost impossible to understand what has been written even though the majority of words will be understood aurally.

Writing developed spontaneously in a number of cultures around the world and spread or mixed with other writing systems. In the modern world, a number of scripts have come to dominate, the most common being the Latin script that dominates Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Oceania. There is also the Arabic script that dominates the Middle East and northern Africa and the Chinese script that dominates East Asia.

Many scripts owe their existence to pictographs. These are actual representations of objects, people and animals. It is supposed that cave paintings such as those at the Chauvet cave in France were used for education. These developed into Chinese hanzi and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is thought that Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic scripts are offshoots of Phoenician and Egyptian.

The development of a written language allowed communities and people to record stories such as Homer’s “Iliad” and the Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh.” It also allowed Kingdoms to interact as seen in the letters between the Egyptians and the Hittites and for Kingdoms to organize themselves bureaucratically. Many surviving scripts and inscriptions are used to record taxes, properties, wills and burials.

Written language was first and foremost used by the wealthy and the educated. In early medieval times, this was usually church priests and the odd king. This meant that written language became the language of the educated and did not necessarily represent the way normal people speak. This means, therefore, there is often a large distinction between written language and spoken language.

Modern technology has increased the gap between the two. As well as mixing in modern slang and terms into the written lexicon, modern technology has seen a fad where people abbreviate and contradict phrases. This has seen a new written vocabulary that includes ‘laugh out loud’ becoming ‘LOL.'

Archaic and dead languages only survive because of written records. Some of these are written in alphabets we do not understand; this includes Mayan. As a result, vocabularies are often incomplete and their pronunciations are guessed at best. Even in currently active languages such as English, it is impossible to know whether normal Anglo-Saxons spoke in the same way as their highly developed poets and writers.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Aug 08, 2014

@umbra21 - I think emoticons have already become part of written language in some cases, because written language is now being used in ways it never has been before. People are able to communicate in real time using written language and in order to keep their communications as nuanced as they might be face-to-face they need extra symbols to add context and tone to the words.

You don't just use a smiley face in order to express that you're smiling. Depending on what the rest of the words say, it has different meanings, just like any other kind of punctuation does.

I think it's kind of ironic that we're entering a modern world and using pictographs to communicate, considering they are usually seen as primitive, but they work and they can actually be quite subtle.

By umbra21 — On Aug 07, 2014

@clintflint - I think that the modern ability to immortalize fonts permanently has probably made a difference in that though. The written language used to change with every person who wrote it, or even within that person's lifetime as they came up with different ways of making letters. But most writing these days is done by computer and all the letters are standard.

It's true that we've started doing things like using abbreviations and emoticons, but I don't think they are really considered to be part of our written language. People have been drawing smiley faces for a long time, after all.

By clintflint — On Aug 07, 2014

It will be interesting to see whether emoticons will eventually end up integrating into what we would consider to be formal language. I know that sounds ridiculous to most people at the moment, but there was a time when many of our current expressions were just "slang" and there is a strong precedent for images becoming pictographs and then eventually becoming script.

And language evolves more than most people realize, even in a few hundred years. It wouldn't take many centuries of travel back into history before you would essentially be unable to communicate with people who were speaking "English" and their writing would seem just as indecipherable.

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