Writing system

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Sistema di scrittura | système d'écriture | Schriftsystem


Model of graphic representation of a natural language. Writing systems can be classified based on the function of the graphic minimal unit, or grapheme (cf. Hill 1967; Valeri 2001, 11-19; Coulmas 2003, 18-37).

If the grapheme represents a pattern of meaning, it is a semasiogram (with ideogram, logogram and morphogram as subclasses, but the labels ideogram and logogram may sometimes be used almost interchangeably). If the grapheme represents a pattern of sound, it is a phonogram.

Semasiograms (also called ideograms) can be divided into logograms (tend to represent a word, but some also and morphograms (tend to represent a morpheme). A further subclass of the logogram category is the lexigram, that represents a lexeme or a class of related lexemes (as a matter of fact, almost all logograms tend to fall into this category, at least in languages in which the distinction is relevant).

Phonograms are further divided into syllabograms (tend to approximately represent a syllable) and alphabetic signs (tend to approximately represent a phoneme).

Based on the amplitude of the inventory and on the functional classification, one may recognize:

  1. logographic systems: virtually unattested as pure systems, except for the earliest employment of ancient scripts (e.g. proto-cuneiform), but even in these cases the label is debatable and the presence of phonetic elements is possible.
  2. Phonographic systems:
    1. Syllabograophic systems: a sign represents an approximation of a syllable (e.g., Linear B, Cuneiform Akkadian, Cuneiform Hittite, etc.)
    2. Abugida: system in which consonant and vowel signs exist but are grouped based on prosodic units (e.g. Devánāgarī)
    3. Abjad: consonantal alphabets, that may contain vowel-like signs for glides or matres lectionis (e.g. Hebrew writing system).
    4. Alphabet: a grapheme represents a consonant or a vowel.

One must notice that in the majority of cases, a w.s. is not pure. Even in allegedly purely alphabetic scripts, such as the Latin one, people use logograms for some words (e.g. numerals). Conversely, even in allegedly purely logographic systems such as the Chinese one, logograms may be used as syllable to write longer words (which can act as a path towards major typological changes, such as the development of syllabic writings from logographic ones).

For contact scenarios, compare also the definitions of epigraphic community.


In Cuneiform, especially in Sumerian, a single sign of the logo-syllabary can be described in terms of different structural concepts. Consider for instance the cuneiform sign DU11 (𒅗):

  1. Phonographically:
    1. It represents one or more syllabic values, in this case, for instance, the Akkadian syllable /ka/.
  2. Semasiographically:
    1. As a lexigram it represents all the words related to the semantic field of “speaking”.
    2. As a logogram it represents, e.g., all the forms of the verb “to say”.
    3. As a morphogram it represents a specific bound morpheme (e.g. in i3-na-du11, an inflected form of the mentioned verb).


Coulmas, F. 2003. Writing systems. An introduction. Cambridge University Press. Hill, A. 1967. The typology of Writing systems. W.A. Austin (ed.), Papers in Linguistics in Honor of Leon Dostert, The Hague, 92–99. Valeri, V. 2001. La Scrittura: Storia e modelli. Firenze, Carocci.