Why do people have written language?

Asked By

Veronica Sjöfn, f. 1996


We know of many cultures where writing was unknown, but whose people lived rich and fulfilling lives. Even now, in an age when virtually every person in the world has at least come into contact with writing, there are many happy people who cannot read and write, including millions of small children.

In cultures without writing, certain people tend to become skilled in the oral transmission of stories and information. This type of skill seems rarer in cultures with writing, and it helps develop a strong verbal or narrative memory. Consider, for example, the Icelandic law-sayers of Althing, the old Icelandic parliament, who knew the laws of the land by heart. Readers can find more information in Gunnar Karlsson's answer to the question How did the ancient Alþingi (parliament) function, and what was its significance for the Icelandic nation?

Licence plates on vehicles are among the many things that utilize writing.

The development of writing has made many things possible which were not achievable before. Writing allows messages to be transmitted across time, for example, on statues and monuments. It allows people to make very clear records of contracts and other agreements. Most of our everyday practices in today's society build on the institution of writing, including things as diverse as account-keeping, novels, recipes, diaries, medical prescriptions, the postal service, gravestones, personal schedules, car license plates, speeding tickets, Internet searches, and our educational system. The same human and social needs could perhaps be satisfied without writing, but the institution of writing probably allows people to do so at a lower cost in terms of time and resources.

Normally, writing is standardized throughout an entire society so that everyone agrees on the meaning of any given written mark. Teaching the conventions of writing is part of most societies' compulsory education system. This diffusion through society allows those who write to be confident that other people will be able to read what they have written.

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Answers in English


Ian Watson. „Why do people have written language?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 15.11.2006. (Skoðað 25.6.2024).


Ian Watsonaðjúnkt í félagsvísinda- og hagfræðideild Viðskiptaháskólans á Bifröst


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