In my Unicode promotion activity among academic people in linguistics
and literary studies, I am very often involved in terminological
discussions like this one on the distinction between "script",
"alphabet" and "writing system".
The definitions of "script" and "alphabet" Rick laid down sound quite
fine to me (as a linguist):
> A script is a collection of written symbols viewed as a unit. An alphabet
> is the complete collection of such symbols used for a particular purpose,
> such as a single language. Generally, "alphabet" implies that it is a
> collection of units representing phonological units, rather than syllabic
> units. The term "syllabary" is preferred for the latter. "Alphabet" is
> often used in normal discourse to mean "script", but technically speaking in
> the standard, they are different. The "Latin Alphabet" technically refers
> ONLY to the subset of the "Latin Script" which is used to write the "Latin
However, the concept of "writing system" is lacking, and I would see it
in a somewhat different way than Peter Constable did in his
> Writing system: An implementation of a script for a particular
> purpose, e.g. for writing a particular language. A writing
> system uses some subset of the characters of the script on
> which it is based with most or all of the behaviours typical to
> that script and possibly certain behaviours that are peculiar
> to that particular writing system.
In my understanding, a writing system is a concept located on a higher
level: It is the totality of graphical symbols of the semiotic system
used by a certain language community. Consequently, a writing system may
comprise more than one script, and in fact even the English (or German
or French ...) writing system allows for e.g. Roman numbers, technical
symbols, etc. which, in our daily written communication, co-occur with
Latin script letters on panels, technical instructions, etc. No-one,
however, would enumerate e.g. Roman numbers in the alphabet. On the
other hand, the set of different scripts admitted in a definite writing
system is limited, since the English language community will not
understand e.g. a Devanagari script unit (as, say, an abbreviation or a
technical label): no communicative value has been defined for this
The "classical" example for a complex "writing system", according to
this understanding, would be the Japanese system using (at least!) three
I dare state that in terms of information technology, "writing system"
almost corresponds to "locale", at least as far as the use of graphical
symbols is concerned.
What do you think about this?
Carl-Martin Bunz, M.A.
Institute for Comparative Indo-European
Linguistics and Indo-Iranian Studies
University of Saarland
P.O. Box 15 11 50
Tel. +49-(0)681-302-2744 /-2304
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