I very often see the pretense of something like "writing is not language" which I still don't quite understand. As I understand, writing is a representation of a language, but not the language itself, thus it's not a part of it. But isn't phonology about how the language is represented, but instead of hearing matter, visually? Yes, phonology impacts the way you perceive language. But writing also does this. It's especially evident in Japanese, where words could be indistinguishable orally but are written differently.

And language can exist without being spoken. Sign language is an obvious example. I know there is its own "phonetics", but aren't its phonetics very different from the usual definition of phonetics? Even the one on this website includes "sound" in the definition. If you need to stretch a meaning of a word so far, I'm sure you could call a part of writing "phonetics"

Sorry if it's a dumb question and everything above is dumb, I'm really not well-educated in Linguistics and just trying to figure it out. If there's some literature that would help me to understand this topic I would love to check it out.

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    I agree with your instinct that the claim that writing is “not language” is false. Phonology, syntax, morphology, etc., are more inherent properties of language in that all naturally evolved spoken human languages require them, whereas writing is not required at all for a language (spoken or signed) to be fully functional. But that doesn’t mean writing is completely unrelated to language, or even that it’s not a(n optional) property of languages. Jul 26, 2023 at 13:45
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    Please show us some examples of what you say, that "writing is not language". There are basically two aspects of natural languages (spoken language [along with its phonology) and written language (writing systems). ("But isn't phonology about how the language is represented, but instead of hearing matter, visually?" I think you went astray there.) Evolution-wise, spoken language came first.
    – Lambie
    Jul 26, 2023 at 14:22
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I have also heard some people argue that phonology should be considered more broadly than only applying to (systematically distinguished) sounds, and so also be applicable to sign languages (where it would study systematically distinguished hand-shapes, movements, locations, etc) or a hypothetical written-only language (in which case it would study the systematically distinguished glyphs, strokes, etc)
    – Tristan
    Jul 26, 2023 at 15:02
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    Writing is as much language as chemical formulae are compounds or as sheet music is music.
    – Nardog
    Jul 27, 2023 at 20:50
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I doubt anyone says writing has nothing to do with language. It represents language, but is not language per se.
    – Nardog
    Jul 28, 2023 at 10:46

3 Answers 3


I think the claim (not "pretense", btw -- that's calling it a lie, which may be your opinion, but is not a fact) that you mention is due to the fact that,

  • spoken and signed languages are naturally coevolved with humans, and have been around for many (perhaps hundreds or thousands) of millennia, possibly evolved by other hominin species, and certainly the common heritage of all of our species,


  • writing of any sort is a very modern and totally arbitrary symbol system, not evolved but invented, not natural but technological, not stable over generations but changeable overnight, not learned in childhood without education like walking, and never learned by a significant proportion of our species.

It's like the difference between walking and riding a bike. Or between walking and riding a horse, an earlier technological improvement. Writing was invented independently 3 times we're pretty sure about (Meso-America, E. Mediterranean, China), no earlier than (to be generous) 7500 years before present. We know human speech dates back at least 10 times that, and maybe as much as 100 or more for hominins in general. The scale difference is pretty overwhelming when you look at it seriously.

Non-technological social systems as old and complex as a spoken language are full of surprises and they are what linguists mostly look for, whereas writing and printing and orthodox spelling are simply arbitrarily complex ("it makes no sense" is the frequent complaint one hears, especially about English spelling, which is no more than 600 years old).

And, for historical reasons, the development of historical and descriptive linguistics (including phonetics and phonology) in the West was dependent on the West's discovery of Sanskrit and the subsequent vogue of Indo-European around 1800. This was possible because the pronunciation of Sanskrit (as distinct from its written forms, which changed several times) was preserved by the grammarians, and rediscovered by Western philologists like the Grimms. Since then, it's been clear that language change deals with sounds and not spellings. Most linguists are interested in and knowledgeable about writing systems, but it's small potatoes compared to phonology.

  • This is all true, but it doesn’t really answer the crux of the question. There’s no doubt that writing is a later invention, and that linguistics deals more in sound than spelling, but that doesn’t mean writing is not part of language at all. That claim, which I too have seen many times, is sort of like saying that riding a bike or horse is not propulsion, which is clearly absurd. Jul 27, 2023 at 20:52
  • There's only so much one can say about a writing system, and it's largely been said. Daniels and Bright covers everything, and Sampson covers a number of interesting systems. Whereas real language is always changing and always exciting. The last real change in English writing was the loss of long S.
    – jlawler
    Jul 27, 2023 at 22:50
  • The same is true for phonology of extinct languages, but new things are still being adduced to that, and no one claims the phonology of Latin ‘is not language’. And the fact that something doesn’t change doesn’t mean it’s not a part of what language is. Articulatory phonetics haven’t changed in recorded history (phonation as well as place and manner of articulation are the same now as they were 10,000 years ago), but they are part of language. We don’t define the scope of fields of study by whether there’s anything new to say about it. Jul 27, 2023 at 23:16
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    Thank's for noting the wrong usage of the word "pretense", I am not a native English speaker, sorry, I didn't mean it this way.
    – NeonGooRoo
    Jul 29, 2023 at 8:14
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    @JanusBahsJacquet — Your analogy isn't consistent. It's vinyl which is akin to paper, a medium on which you record speech. But a vinyl record (a disc with a hole in the middle and grooves going in a spiral) has no substantial differences from a paper book, a clay tablet, a papyrus scroll — it can reproduce spoken language, it can store a novel much more efficiently than a paper book. Moreover, it's inscribed upon with a sharp chisel, not much different from the way convenient writing used to be done. It is a way of writing speech on a material medium. So why not include LPs into linguistics?
    – Yellow Sky
    Aug 2, 2023 at 9:28

This would refer to I-language, not E-language, which is "an individual's internal computational system for understanding and generating utterances", and not "language, in the broad sense" which includes I-language but also myriad social conventions regarding how to use language, literary style, social correlates of language choices: it also includes vocabulary (not the concept and structure of a mental lexicon, but the question of whether "sesquipedalian" is a word). I-language refers to the things that are automatically learned by all humans (barring extreme pathology), and learned equally (for example everybody knows the rules of word order or how to constrict and pronounce words).

Very many people do not know how to write their language: it is not an obligatory part of an I-language, it is a social construct, which may form part of an E-language. Linguists don't say "Writing is not part of language", they would say something more nuanced like "Writing is a social tool used for conveying linguistic form".


A minimalistic, and mostly accurate definition of natural language goes like this: a system of symbols whose main function is communication.

That definition is controversial( the main function part).

A language can exist without it having a traditional physical medium. Sounds, sings, and writing systems employed by language users are just media. If we were to abstract away any natural language to its basics, there remains only a lexicon and a set of rules to govern the use of the lexicon. This, in turn, can be reduced to just the set of rules( i.e. the grammar ). That being said, such reductionist approach introduces a hoard of difficulties when attempting to analyze a natural language.

In short, this is how I see it. A writing system is not essential to a language, neither is a sound system.

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