The following online article has been derived mechanically from an MS produced on the way towards conventional print publication. Many details are likely to deviate from the print version; figures and footnotes may even be missing altogether, and where negotiation with journal editors has led to improvements in the published wording, these will not be reflected in this online version. Shortage of time makes it impossible for me to offer a more careful rendering. I hope that placing this imperfect version online may be useful to some readers, but they should note that the print version is definitive. I shall not let myself be held to the precise wording of an online version, where this differs from the print version.

Published as an entry in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, 1999.

Writing Systems



Writing systems entered the purview of cognitive science only recently.  Twentieth-century linguistics was anxious to move away from prescription of “good usage” to scientific description of natural usage, so for many decades it focused almost exclusively on spoken language.  Comprehensive psychological studies had to await the globalization of scholarship which has occurred since the 1970s; previously, the only Westerners knowledgeable about non-alphabetic writing systems were a handful of scholars with literary rather than cognitive-science training.


Nevertheless, there are several motives for cognitive scientists to investigate writing and writing systems.  While there are large controversies about how far spoken languages are products of nature rather than nurture, writing is one complex aspect of human behaviour which is indisputably a cultural development rather than innate:  it has come into existence recently, and is by no means universal either among individuals or among societies.  The fundamental role of literacy training within all education systems means that psychologists who acquire new knowledge about reading and writing are assured of an audience.  Many parents and teachers paid attention when it was reported that dyslexia is rare among users of the non-alphabetic though complex Japanese script (Makita 1968).


Scientific analysis of writing requires a terminology to describe types of script; the following classification is based on Sampson (1987).  A fundamental distinction is between semasiographic and glottographic systems:  semasiographic systems are independent graphic languages not tied to any one spoken language, glottographic systems use visible marks to represent elements of a specific spoken language.  Examples of semasiographic writing are the “language” of mathematics, or the international system of road signs in which, for instance, triangle v. disc means warning v. command and hollow red v. solid blue means negative v. positive.  In theory one could imagine a script of this sort being expanded into a comprehensive system of communication; Otto Neurath’s “Isotype” (Neurath 1936) was an attempt at such a system, though Isotype never came close to matching the expressivity of spoken languages.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest precursors of writing may have been semasiographic systems.


Glottographic scripts can be divided into logographic scripts, where the spoken elements represented by individual graphic symbols are meaningful units (words or “morphemes”),  and phonographic scripts, where marks are assigned to the meaningless sounds from which words are built up.  The leading example of logographic writing is Chinese script, in which words sounding identical will often be represented by entirely unrelated graphic characters.


Phonographic scripts in turn can be classified in terms of the “size” of the sound-units symbolized.  Alphabetic writing assigns a separate mark to each “phoneme” (consonant or vowel segment); but there are many syllabic scripts, in which for instance pa, pe, po would be represented by three individual and unrelated symbols.  The remarkable Han’gl script of Korea is based on phonetic features:  within the symbol for t, say, the fact of the tongue-tip touching the upper jaw, and the fact of the soft palate being raised to block airflow through the nose, are separately indicated.


These categories are ideal types; real scripts often mix the principles.  English writing might be described as fundamentally phonemic but with elements of logography (to take one example among many, the spelling difference between rain and reign has nothing to do with pronunciation, it relates purely to word identity).  Japanese writing is mixed in a more obvious way:  it uses Chinese logographic script to represent the stems of “content words” such as nouns and verbs, and a visually-distinct syllabic script for grammatical inflexions and particles.


The foregoing account of script types is not wholly uncontroversial.  John DeFrancis (1989) has claimed that all writing systems are essentially phonographic.  Against the reality of the semasiographic category he points out, correctly, that no semasiographic system with coverage as broad as a spoken language has ever existed.  He adds that the crude semasiographic systems found in the archaeological record, though they may have been ancestral to writing, should not themselves be classed as writing; this seems to be a disagreement about definitions rather than facts.  More surprisingly, DeFrancis argues that no true logographic scripts exist either:  Chinese writing is based on pronunciation.  This confuses historical origin with present-day reality.  When Chinese script was developed, some three thousand years ago, its characters were based partly on the pronunciations of Chinese words at that period; it may well be true that no full-scale script could ever in practice be created without heavy use of a phonographic principle.  But Chinese pronunciation has changed greatly over the millennia (and the script has evolved independently), with the consequence that Chinese writing now is far less phonographic than it once was.  The suggestion that all scripts are necessarily phonographic is really untenable (Sampson 1994).  Perhaps the clearest counterexample is the use of Chinese characters to write Japanese vocabulary.  Japanese words are written with characters for Chinese words that mean the same, but (since the two languages are genetically unrelated) a graphic element that may still today give a hint about the pronunciation of the Chinese word will be totally uninformative about the pronunciation of the Japanese word.


Even the idea that English orthography is not perfectly phonographic has been challenged by one school, the generative phonologists.  The usual explanation of (say) the odd spelling of righteous is that gh represented a velar fricative consonant (as in Scottish loch) which was pronounced in Middle English; the spelling became fixed and did not adapt when the fricative sound dropped out of the spoken language about five hundred years ago.  But Chomsky and Halle (1968) argued that there is evidence from English sound patterns (for instance, the vowel alternation between vice and vicious versus lack of alternation between right and righteous) which implies that the fricative consonant remains a psychological reality with respect to the “underlying” word forms in which modern speakers mentally store their vocabulary.  However, this concept of abstract phonology is no longer widely accepted.


Probably the liveliest current debate within the psychology of writing concerns the question how far a mature reader’s ability to retrieve a meaningful word from a string of letters depends on an intermediate step of mentally converting the letters into a pronunciation.  The question has obvious resonance with the debate in the schoolteaching profession between “phonic” and “look-and-say” methods.  The consensus view has been that pronunciation is often bypassed, particularly when reading common or irregularly-spelled words.  P.E. Bryant and Lynette Bradley (1980) showed that unskilled readers often cannot read words which they can spell correctly, when the spelling is regular but visually non-distinctive.  But a minority of researchers (e.g. Georgije Lukatela and M.T. Turvey, 1994) argue that phonetic mediation is essential in all word-recognition.


In the last few years, research has begun to exploit new categories of data, including magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, which are revealing correlations between the reading process and detailed neural activity.  Findings to date are surveyed by Posner et al. (1997).


A very different area of intersection between writing systems and cognitive science concerns the question whether literacy changes the nature of mental life in societies that possess it.  Learning to read and write undoubtedly affects awareness of the structure of language itself; for instance, although vowels and consonants seem natural units to users of alphabetic scripts, people who do not write alphabetically do not find it easy to segment speech into phonemes.  But many scholars have claimed that literacy affects thought much more broadly.


Jack Goody and Ian Watt (1963) held that Western habits of thought, such as emphasis on logic, require not merely literacy but specifically phonographic script.  However, while it is historically true that the Chinese were much less interested than the Greeks in logical issues, it is very hard to see how the special nature of Chinese writing can have been relevant to that fact.  Many other writers do not claim that different script-types have differential consequences for human thought, but they urge that the difference between possession and lack of writing has massive consequences for the intellectual life of societies and individuals.


Since professional academics live by the written word, this is a natural view for them to hold:  at an earlier period it ranked as an unquestioned though vague truism.  More recently, scholars such as Walter Ong (1982) have tried to be more specific about the cognitive consequences of literacy.  At the same time, several writers have argued that literacy is less significant than commonly supposed.  Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) claimed that systematic habits of mind which have been attributed to literacy arose only with the more recent invention of printing.  Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole (1981) investigated a Liberian tribe which uses a syllabic script that is learned informally, outside a school context, and they concluded that it is the formal schooling process itself which inculcates mental disciplines that have been taken for consequences of literacy.  Several writers have suggested that literacy is less advantageous to individuals than it is to States that wish to control their subjects.  David Olson (1994) offers a judicious survey of these issues.



Bryant, P.E. & Bradley, Lynette  (1980)  “Why children sometimes write words which they do not read”.  In Uta Frith, ed., Cognitive Processes in Spelling, Academic Press.

Chomsky, A.N. & Halle, M.  (1968)  The Sound Pattern of English.  Harper & Row.

DeFrancis, J.  (1989)  Visible Speech: the Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems.  University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu).

Eisenstein, Elizabeth  (1979)  The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (2 vols.).  Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. & Watt, I.P.  (1963)  “The consequences of literacy”.  Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5.304-45; reprinted in J. Goody, ed., Literacy in Traditonal Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Lukatela, G. & Turvey, M.T.  (1994)  “Visual lexical access is initially phonological”.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 123.107-28 & 331-53.

Makita, K.  (1968)  “The rarity of reading disability in Japanese children”.  American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 38.599-614.

Neurath, O.  (1936)  International Picture Language.  The Orthological Institute (Cambridge); reprinted by Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading, 1980.

Olson, D.R.  (1994)  The World on Paper.  Cambridge University Press.

Ong, W.J.  (1982)  Orality and Literacy.  Methuen.

Posner, M.I. et al.  (1997)  “Anatomy, circuitry and plasticity of word reading”.  In J. Everatt, ed., Visual and Attentional Processes in Reading and Dyslexia.  Routledge. 

Sampson, G.R.  (1987)  Writing Systems (revised ed.).  Hutchinson.  [Now (2015) available in a new and enlarged edition, from Equinox.]

Sampson, G.R.  (1994)  Chinese script and the diversity of writing systems”.  Linguistics 32.117-32.

Scribner, Sylvia & Cole, M.  (1981)  The Psychology of Literacy.  Harvard University Press.