1. Writing is not language. How?

  2. Doesn't the sentence — that I underlined in red on p 280 — contradict this? The author wrote that if "language is manifested instead as graphic marks, then we can call those marks writing".

      We can define writing as the use of graphic marks to represent specific linguistic utterances. The purpose of a definition is to distinguish a term from other things. To understand what writing is, it is helpful to investigate some similar things which are not writing according to our definition.
      Writing is not language. Language is a complex system residing in our brain which allows us to produce and interpret utterances. Writing involves making an utterance visible. Our cultural tradition does not make this distinction clearly. We sometimes hear statements such as Hebrew has no vowels; this statement is roughly true for the Hebrew writing system, but it is definitely not true for the Hebrew language. Readers should constantly check that they are not confusing language and writing.

Henry Rogers, Writing Systems (2004), p 2.

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Op. cit., p 280.

  • 5
    For the same reason that written-down lyrics to a song is not the song itself – it’s a written representation of one aspect of the song. Or that the painting of Mona Lisa is not Mona Lisa herself. May 28, 2021 at 9:06
  • 2
    Writing is a representation of language. Most writing systems are arbitrary representations. English could be written in Chinese characters, like many other languages already have been. Or it could be written in a completely novel system, like Shavian or IPA. Or it could be a non-written language, like most. They're still languages. So language isn't necessarily written, just like it doesn't necessarily have register tones or glottalized stops, but an orthography is within the bounds of language phenomena. It's just not the primary phenomenon; it's secondary.
    – jlawler
    May 28, 2021 at 15:26
  • 1
    Ask René Magritte.
    – Draconis
    May 28, 2021 at 22:40

1 Answer 1


Writing is not language.

The author means that these concepts are not completely identical.

It's like:
Musical notes are not music.

Musical notes are used to record musical sounds on paper. But music (sounds) is primary.

It's the same with language.

First came spoken language, and then writing. Some languages did not have writing for a long time, and some still do not have writing.

Modern writing is a way of recording the sounds of a language.

(Languages are different, I speak in general, there may be exceptions.)

As musical notes denote musical sounds, letters denote speech sounds.
(This is not a completely accurate comparison, but there is an analogy.)

Language is normally manifested as sound. If, however, language is manifested as graphic marks, then we can call those marks writing.

This means that language is, first of all, sound. Sound is primary.

Spoken language (sound) can be recorded using graphic marks. The way of writing a language with graphic marks is writing.

I think there is no contradiction in this book, but the explanation is not very clear.

  • 2
    A good answer, but there is something important to add: This means that language is, first of all, sound or signing. Sound or signing is primary. Until recently, few linguists worked with signed languages, but it is now acknowledged that signed languages are as fundamental as spoken languages, and arise, are acquired, and change over time, spontaneously just as spoken languages do - unlike written language, which always has to be learned.
    – Colin Fine
    May 29, 2021 at 22:32
  • @ColinFine have any studies been done that prove that children do not naturally acquire written language if everyone around them is only using written language? It would be interesting if children actually do not become capable of communicating with a whiteboard and pen if that's all everyone around them is doing. Nov 14, 2022 at 4:06
  • That's an interesting question, LInguists take as almost axiomatic that writing is a learned activity in a sense that spoken/signed language is not, but I don't know of any specific experiments. I'm not aware of any communities that use only written language, apart from online "communities" such as the one you and I are currently part of, and I don't think any such community is a native environment for children. It's well documented that children who encounter no spoken/signed language during their critical ages may later learn some words, but don't acquire the capacity for language.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 14, 2022 at 11:04

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