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According to Yannis Haralambous, "Grapholinguistics, TEX, and a June 2020 conference in Paris", TUGboat 2020:

Grapholinguistics is the discipline dealing with the study of the written modality of language.

At this point, the reader may ask some very pertinent questions:“Why have I never heard of grapholinguistics?” “If this is a subfield of linguistics, like psycholinguistics or sociolinguistics, why isn’t it taught in Universities?” “And why libraries do not abound of books about it?”

Speaking for myself, I'll answer: We've never heard of grapholinguistics because you just made up the word*. Under headings like "Writing Systems", the issues involved are widely taught in universities, e.g. as LING115 at my own university, taught for many years by my colleague Gene Buckley.

And libraries are well stocked with books about the nature and history of writing systems, from many points of view.  The textbooks for Gene's course are Amalia Gnanadesikan (2009), The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, and Henry Rogers (2005), Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. A Google Books search will turn up dozens if not hundreds of others, including Richard Sproat's 2000 book A Computational Theory of Writing Systems, and John DeFrancis's 1989 Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems.

It's true that linguists generally view writing as a phenomenon secondary to spoken language. That's because it is, in fact, a phenomenon (psychologically and historically) secondary to spoken language. Every human society has a fully developed spoken language, which its members learn as children without special instruction; in contrast, writing has been invented only a few times, and most languages lack a widely used written form; and children need special (and often unsuccessful) instruction to learn to read and write.

But still, there have been plenty of previous objections to the treatment of writing systems as entirely secondary, derivative, and even negligible. In the Introduction to Geoff Nunberg's 1990 book The Linguistics of Punctuation, he argues for the analysis of punctuation as an aspect of "the study of written language as a system in its own right":

Linguists have always approached the study of writing contrastively, as a mode of linguistic expression alternative to speech. For a long time, the contrast was drawn primarily in order to deprecate or dismiss writing as an object of theoretical interest. As Bloomfield famously put it, “Writing is not language, but merely a means of recording language by means of visual marks.” More recently, the tendency has been to regard writing and speech as distinct linguistic systems. But even so, the written language – that is, the system of figural representation that is of particular linguistic interest – is still defined and legitimated by reference to the properties of the spoken language. Most notably, the adequacy of the written language is assessed, one way or the other, according to how it makes available the same kinds of expressive devices as spoken varieties. To the extent that the written language measures up, it is regarded as expressively equivalent to spoken language, and thus (by an argument that is somewhat cloudy in its details), as worthy of serious linguistic study. 1 Hence the tendency in recent work has been to try to assimilate the differences between writing and speech to the differences between spoken varieties. As Sampson (1985:27) writes: “The kind of English that we use in writing and the kind we use in speech are, in the linguist’s technical sense, closely-related dialects ….”

This contrastive approach has militated against the development of the autonomous study of written language as a linguistic system in its own right. (By contrast, the subject of writing systems is well established as a domain of study.) Indeed, current approaches to writing presuppose that there couldn’t be much to say about the subject. In order to defend the legitimacy of the study of written language, linguists have gone to some lengths to argue that, as Biber (1986:385) puts it, “few (if any) absolute differences exist between speech and writing.” What distinguishes the two varieties, on the current view, is predominantly the pervasive differences in the circumstances of their production, processing, and social and communicative functions. These differences may leave their mark on the written language primarily in the relative frequency with which various types of expressions and constructions are used in each variety, as documented in a growing literature.  But none of these observations have suggested the existence of any essential qualitative difference between written and spoken language. Taken at face value, this would be a more interesting claim than linguists sometimes seem to realize. It should no longer be necessary to defend the view that writing is truly language, but it is surprising to learn that it is merely language. After all, intellectualized written languages like English are the result of a process of standardization and specialization that has been going on for at least four hundred years, during which time spoken and written varieties have led largely disparate lives – learned in different ways and at different stages of life, used in different media and different contexts to communicate different information for different purposes to different audiences. Under the circumstances, we might expect that written language would emerge with certain structural and representational features that were unique to that mode.

So I guess that at G21C 2020 we'll learn that everything old is new again…

*In fairness I should note that there are earlier examples of "grapholinguistics" (about 100 of them, according to Google Scholar), at least some of which are apparently instances of independent invention — e.g. Anthony William Sariti, Chinese Grapholinguistics, 1967,  and Penny Platt, Grapho-linguistics: The Study of Communicative Properties of Children's Drawings and Their Role in the Initial Acquisition of Writing and Reading Skills, 1974. This compares with more than 85,000 estimated hits for "writing systems".

[h/t Philip Taylor]



  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 5:18 am

    Also Graphem(at)ics:

  2. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 5:31 am

    How does paleography fit into the study of writing systems? My limited encounters with the term mostly involve centuries-old styles of English handwriting. In addition, I tend to mentally separate handwriting and its associated dependence on the muscles of the hand, writing materials such as paper, and writing instrument technology from the design and development of movable type and electronic means of reproducing written language.

    Punctuation seems like an overlay on writing and typesetting. Consider the semicolon, which was an invention that remains controversial in some editing (of English) circles today.



    Where does spacing fit into the study of writing? In English, I think of it as defining a word, but in my lifetime a lot of separate words have been joined solidly (look at the history of AP style guidelines for “back yard” and “backyard”). Does spacing function both as writing and as punctuation?

    Do books and courses on writing systems also consider the history of dictionaries and their influence on writing?

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 6:04 am

    Also "grammatology"
    IMO the excerpt above is slightly misleading wrt Sampson 1985, which I recall not only as encouraging the scientific study of writing as language but also as entirely cognizant of the possibility that writing has "structural and representational features […] unique to that mode."

  4. D.O. said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 7:02 am

    You've got me confused. "Writing system" is a way to reduce (or transmit or whatever) spoken language to writing. But what Geoff Nunberg is talking about is that when people express themselves in writing they are not simply (imperfectly) emulate what in other circumstances they might to say, but adopt a different register worthy of its own study. Then again, this register was actually a first one studied by philologists and grammarians. Or or did I get my history of linguistics wrong?

    By the way, there are interesting "writing systems" that have little to do with spoken language. Namely, mathematical notation and computer languages. I would argue that various mostly picture-based instructions are also not a form of "frozen speech" though they might reasonably be translated into speech. A good chunk of all that should be covered by semiotics.

    [(myl) I think you'll find that nearly everyone who has worked seriously on writing systems takes the view that such systems have their own systematic properties (as the name implies), as well being a way of "transcribing" (aspects of) spoken language.]

  5. Cervantes said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 7:52 am

    Also, musical and choreograpic notation, computer "languages," probably many others if you think about it. The first two are instructions to humans to enact certain behaviors.

  6. Nash said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 9:17 am

    /ðə mˈoːɹ ðə ɹˈɪtʔtn ˌɹɛpɹɪzɛnteɪʃən ʌv lˈæŋɡwɪdʒ ɪz klˈoʊs tə ðə spˈoʊkən wˈʌn ðə bˈɛɾɚ ænd mˈoːɹ ɪfˈɪʃənt ɪt ˈɪz/

    Those are very strange choices of words, placement of stress, and phonemic analysis.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 10:01 am

    I haven't been able to track down any other occurrence of "the more the written representation of language is close to the spoken one, the better and more efficient it is", so I suspect that these may well be Yannis's own words. He is not a native English speaker (although his spoken English is excellent), which may explain at least the choice of words (I would have written "The closer …").

  8. Chris Button said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 3:19 pm

    @ Barbara Phillips Long

    How does paleography fit into the study of writing systems?

    I think that's a good point to bring up. Palaeography might not stop writing being a "phenomenon secondary to spoken language", but to a historical linguist it is arguably a more primary source of evidence than anything gleaned from the comparative method (i.e., comparing a variety of related modern languages and reconstructing backward). In fact, in my two areas of interest (Chinese Oracle bone inscriptions and Inscriptional Burmese), many a historical linguist has come unstuck by not paying close enough attention to the palaeographic evidence.

  9. John Swindle said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 6:40 pm

    Sometimes the available writing system represents a foreign language. Apart from standardized Chinese and Arabic and, historically, Sino-Japanese and the like, native users of unrelated British and American sign languages are expected to write as if they spoke English. Native users of mutually related French, Mexican, and American sign languages are expected to write as if they spoke French, Spanish, or English, respectively.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 2:39 am

    What I find surprising is that a Greek coined a Greek-Latin hybrid, something that Greeks generally avoid: such internationally common hybrids as "sociology" and "automobile" have been turned into the purely Greek κοινωνιολογία and αυτοκίνητο, respectively.

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 2:50 pm

    Indeed they avoid it in the Greek language (preferring exclusively to use classical Greek morphemes) but when using English, it's hardly idiomatic. 'Linguistics' is already a Greek-Latin hybrid, yet it's the only word in English with that meaning. (Is there any purely Latin formation possible for a field of study? But 'linguistics' goes farther by inserting the Greek '-ist' is the middle.)

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  12. CNH said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 10:24 pm

    Every day one encounters a new word. This is not always an agreeable experience.

    [(myl) This one is common in linguistics — so it's not Geoff Nunberg but rather the field as a whole that has intruded on your lexical bubble… ]

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