Psychology of Writing Systems Research Paper

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Although the psychological  study of reading and the psychology  of language are well established  domains of  research  and  theory,   the  psychology  of  writing systems  and  their  uses, literacy, are relatively  recent additions  to the cognitive sciences. The central goal of the psychology of writing systems is to bring these two, hitherto  independent, fields of study into conjunction, allowing both to be seen in a new light.

Writing systems have been neglected in psychology for  two  reasons.  First,  twentieth  century  linguistics has focused almost exclusively on speech, consigning writing  merely to  a way of recording.  The study  of writing was left to specialist domains such as epigraphy and  classical studies.  Nonetheless,  important studies of writing  were produced, that  by Gelb  (1963) providing the foundation for more recent work. Second, only the alphabetic  writing  system was the object of psychological  studies of reading,  leaving the impression that other writing systems were primitive and scarcely worth careful study.

In  the  period  since the  1960s, the  two  fields, the psychology of reading and the psychology of language, have begun to converge to produce several lines of new research  and  theory.   These  relations   make  up  the major sections of this article.

1.    Relation Between Speech And Writing

Making  marks  which can serve mnemonic  and communicative purposes is as old as human  culture itself. Writing  systems are  a subset  of such  marks  which, typically,  represent  aspects  of  linguistic  form. Sampson (1987) provided  an abstract classification of types of writing system. Some systems, semasiographic systems, represent meanings without any direct link to spoken form. Historical examples include the so-called ‘picture writing’ of American  Indians,  more  modern ones include systems of highway signs and mathematical symbols. Some writers (Coulmas 1989, Harris 1995) consider  such  nonspeech  sign systems  as  full writing  systems, claiming that  what  makes a writing system  is  its  adequacy   in  conveying   information visually rather  than its purported links to speech.

Logographic scripts are linguistically based but the spoken elements represented are meaningful units, primarily  words and morphemes.  A clear example of such a script  is Chinese  in which morphemes  which sound identical are often represented by entirely dissimilar graphic characters, although some theorists (de Francis  1989) insist that any full writing system is phonologically  based, at least to some extent.

Syllabaries are scripts which represent  spoken  patterns by signs for syllables. Thus ka, ke, ki, ko would be written  with  the  same  graphic  sign.  Arabic  and Hebrew are modern  examples.

Finally,  alphabets employ a separate  mark  to represent the consonant and vowel segments of a syllable, roughly,  the phonemes  of the language.  These categories of writing systems are generic types; no living writing system is based exclusively on one type of sign. Thus in English script, signs represent both phonemes by means  of letters  and  words  by means  of spaces between letter groups.  Japanese  writing uses Chinese logographs  (Kanji)  to represent  the stems of content words and a completely different syllabic script (Kana) to represent  grammatical morphemes  and  inflections (Taylor  and Taylor 1995).

In one sense, the history of scripts reflects the discovery  of  increasingly  subtle  aspects  of  speech, going from meanings to analytical constituents of speech. Yet contrary  to the evolutionary view (Gelb 1963), many researchers  (Gaur  1987, Sampson  1987, Olson 1994, Harris  1995) have argued  that  these so-called progressive changes merely reflect the impact of borrowing   a  script  invented   for  one  language   to represent a completely different language. The consequence of such borrowing was the discovery of previously  ignored  properties  of speech, word  signs, syllable signs, and phoneme  signs.

2.    Writing Systems  And Reading

As different types of writing systems bear distinctively different relations to speech, learning to read and write them call upon different cognitive activities. Semasiographic   systems   found   in   Ancient   Mesoamerica, namely the Mixtec and  Aztec systems used until  the conquest  for record keeping, depended highly on rich factual knowledge; one had to know what the inscription was about  before one could read it. Further, it  depended  heavily  upon  interpretation as  the  inscriptions  allowed variable  readings.  Indeed,  there is no categorical difference between the writing and drawing.  Nineteenth-century Canadian Blackfoot Indians,  for example,  depicted  ‘the year  that  horses got drowned’ by means of a circle (representing a lake) and  four  stick-drawings  of horses  superimposed on the  circle.  Such  a  chronicle  records  an  important cultural event but not the linguistic form of its description.   That   is  why  it  allows  such   variable readings.

All other so-called full writing systems map on to or represent  spoken  forms and learning to read each of them requires a somewhat  different orientation to the script. Scribner and Cole (1981) found  that  their Vai subjects in Liberia in learning to read a syllabic script became adept  at analyzing  their  speech into  syllabic units but failed to analyze their speech into words. Others have found that the ability to manipulate phonemes  was tied to learning  to read  an alphabet. Read et al. (1986) found that Chinese readers of traditional character scripts could not detect phonemic segments whereas those who could read Pinyin, an alphabetic   script   representing   the  same  language, could do so.

Ample empirical  evidence exists to show that  it is acquaintance with an alphabetic  script that  is critical to  the  acquisition  of awareness  of the  phonological properties of the language (Morais et al. 1979, Vernon and  Ferreiro   1999).  Concepts   of  words  as  lexical entities,  similarly,  have  been  shown  to  be  tied  to concepts of words as written entities (Olson 1994). Concepts of sentences, needed for the mastery of punctuation, are  acquired   at  even  more  advanced levels of literacy. Conceptual development  in children is, in part,  the consequence of the acquisition  of these systems for representing  language (Vygotsky 1986).

Much confusion about the cognitive and social implications   of  writing  and  reading  arises  from  a failure to recognize that modes of reading and interpretation  do   not   inevitably   arise   from   simply learning to identify words and letters. The history  of writing is largely a history of inventing devices, such as punctuation and  text structures,  as well as rules for interpretation that have taken sometimes millennia to develop. A dictionary itemizing all the words of a language is a recent, literate invention.  The very idea of fixity of a text is not inevitably attributed to writing and printing but to a specialized set of conventions  for interpreting texts and institutional structures  for preserving them (Johns 1998). However, once procedures had been developed for the systematic interpretation of Scriptural  texts, it was found that such procedures were also suitable for the interpretation of the ‘book of nature.’ Scientific epistemology, it has been argued, is a form of applied hermeneutics  (Olson 1994).

3.    Theories Of Reading Alphabetic Scripts

Assumptions about  the  relation  between  script  and language  have  given rise to  considerable,  well-publicized, differences of opinion  and differences in reading theory.  One group emphasized the recognition  of meaning of written  expressions in ways analogous  to the  recognition  of  meaning  in  oral  forms.  That  is, written  language  is seen as an alternative  to spoken language each with their peculiar and distinctive perceptual and cognitive processes but with a common goal of meaning construction, hence the label Whole Language.

The other  group,  credit for which is often given to Alvin Liberman  and Isabel Liberman  of the Haskins Group at Yale University, is that reading is essentially a metalinguistic  activity  in which readers  must  find mappings  from  the  written  form  to  aspects  of their implicit knowledge  of speech (Olson 1994, Adams  et al. 1998). Evidence  on  the  importance of word  and phoneme  segmentation, two forms  of metalinguistic knowledge, to learning to read and write tends to favor the metalinguistic  theory of reading (Stanovich  1986, Lundberg et al. 1988), that is, the theory that reading is not  a  matter  of  mapping  signs to  meanings  but rather  a matter  of mapping  visual signs to aspects of oral speech and hence on to meaning. It is this metalinguistic  theory of reading that  helps to explain not only why learning to read brings aspects of speech into consciousness  but also why reading  and  writing may  contribute to  a  new  and  distinctive  mode  of thought in certain social and institutional contexts.

4.    Writing Systems  And Thinking

Nineteenth-century theorists  took  the view that  writing  and  literacy  had  the  general  effect  of  making thought more logical and formal.  The recognition  of the fact that  there are many types of writing systems and that even those different types may be read in very different ways (Saenger 1997) has made such general claims  problematic,  as  has  the  dispute   as  to  the meaning of literacy, some identifying it with the basic skills of reading and writing (Scribner and Cole 1981) and  others  with  the  evolved  products  of  particular literate cultural  traditions (Goody  1968, Olson 1994). Although there  is wide agreement  on the ‘psychic unity of mankind’ (‘They are just like you and me,’ as Jack Goody  once put it), and there is wide agreement that all languages are in principle capable of expressing all  nuances   of   meaning,   nonetheless   patterns   of thought  vary  widely  from  culture   to  culture   and context to context, so much so that it is not uncommon to despair  of finding interesting  cognitive differences attributable to writing or to a written tradition. Mathematics, the  epitome  of a written  tradition, is sometimes seen as basically equivalent to practical computations, so-called street math.

On the other hand, cultural historians have asserted the cultural  and psychological implications  of writing and literacy, arguing, for example, that the medium of representation is the  most  important aspect  of  the message (McLuhan 1962), that  writing separated the knower from the known (Ong 1992), that scriptal changes caused  the origins  of modern  silent reading (Saenger 1997), and that writing allowed the formulation  of modern  conceptions  of logic and  mathematics (Goody  1968).

The  metarepresentational theory  of reading  gives new credence to these more radical views. Writing and reading a linguistically based script, on this view, are an exercise not only in meaning, but also in consciousness and discourse about language, that is, about units of sound, units of meaning, words and structural units, sentences. Literacy on this view is seen as instrumental to discourse  about  word  meaning,  sentence  meaning,  and  to  other  aspects  of form  which may be mentioned rather  than  used in discourse.  This metarepresentational shift invites talk not only about particular words and sentences independently of their use, but also about  other  metarepresentational properties, such as truth, logical form, and aesthetic goodness. Furthermore, it allows mathematics to  be clearly  distinguished  from  ‘street  math,’  the  former being concerned with number rather than quantity. In the former, a number  is expressed in the singular: fi e is more than four. In the latter, quantity is expressed as plural:  I  have  seven  apples,  fi e are  red.  Only  the former is metarepresentational, that is, mentioned rather   than   used,  and   consequently   an  object  of thought in its own right.

Furthermore, writing is instrumental to thinking  in general as a form of metalinguistic knowledge, that is, knowledge ‘about’ the lexical, grammatical, and logical properties  of the language.Vocabulary knowledge, for  example,  is  both   greatly  extended   by  reading (Anglin 1993), and reflective knowledge about  words, as required  for judgments of synonymy, for example, serves as a major aspect of measured  intelligence in a literate  society  (Stanovich  1986). Formal   reasoning tasks which require judgments of validity rather  than truth   or  agreement,   too,   appear   to  be  related   to literacy, especially the specialized literacy of schooling (Ong 1992).

In order  to account  for such effects ranging  from phonological awareness to awareness of sentence meaning (as opposed  to what a speaker means by the sentence), Olson (in press) has proposed  that  writing be seen as quoted speech, and that reading and writing be viewed as learning to deal with quoted  utterances rather  than with ordinary direct utterances. This associates  writing  with a special feature  of language known as reflexivity and as roughly equivalent to the use–mention  distinction  and language–metalinguistic distinction. Thus,  in writing  and  reading  one is not merely using an expression  but  quoting  and  thereby mentioning  a linguistic  form.  The  special  interpretation  called for in such a context  depends  upon  the special properties  of the form, its ‘linguistic meaning’ or ‘sense,’ rather than its referential meaning as well as allowing for judgments  of similarity of meaning  and judgments of logical entailments. Some writers such as Havelock (1982) and Ong (1992) argue that ‘all elaborate, linear,  so-called  ‘logical’ explanation  depends on writing’ (Ong 1992 p. 312). Admittedly,  not every culture  and/or  every reader  exploits  these distinctions  as they rely heavily on particular institutional arrangements such as schools, professions,  and academic disciplines. However, no reader reading a word- and sentence-segmented alphabetic  text can fail to acquire the special metalinguistic concepts of sound, word, and sentence. The remainder  comes with more specialized study, normally  in schools.

5.    Writing As Normative Practice

Writing does not merely transcribe speech but presents speech in terms of an idealized model. When learning to  write, one is taught  not  to  transcribe  speech but rather to edit the speech by removing false starts, correcting   errors,   and  adding  needed  qualifiers  to make  the  transcription more  complete,  correct,  and formal  than  the  more  spontaneous oral  utterance. Writing  in a literate  culture  is a normative  practice, which  is to  say  it  involves  the  correct,  authorized forms of words, sentences, and texts. Admonitions to ‘speak grammatically’ are in fact admonitions to speak as one would write. Although linguists abhor so-called prescriptive grammars,  claiming that all utterances  of a native speaker are grammatical, schools are regularly charged  with teaching  ‘proper  English.’ In this way, writing comes to serve as a model for speaking.

Reading texts and composing them provide a special forum for coordinating the content  of a domain  with the  syntactic  and  rhetorical  demands  of the  written models available. van Dijk and Kintsch (1983) showed how readers  coordinate linguistic form with conceptual  structure  in interpreting texts  and  Scardamalia and  Bereiter (1986) showed how in writing,  students coordinated their ideas with available discourse forms.

6.    Writing And Knowledge

Although all of the peoples of the world know a great deal about  nature,  themselves,  and  the social world, writing systems in the modern world have largely preempted such local knowledge, overwriting it with institutional forms  of  knowledge  based  on  textual archives and specialized interpretive  practices.  Have- lock (1982) suggested that writing was responsible for divorcing  the knower  from  the known,  allowing  the latter   to   accumulate   and   become   the   subject   of research and revision when the social conditions  were suitable. Contemporary forms of knowledge are without  exception  text based,  with access to these forms limited to those willing to undergo years of specialized training  in the formulation and  interpretation of the principle  documents   of  the  tradition. Stock  (1983) called such traditions ‘textual communities’ and Smith (1990), a sociologist, characterizes the organization of power in contemporary society in terms of objectivized forms of text-based knowledge: ‘The primary mode of action  and  decision  in … business,  government, the professions … are  textual.  The  realities  to  which  action  and  decision  are  oriented   are  virtual  realities vested in texts and accomplished in the distinctive practices of reading and writing’ (Smith1990 pp. 61–2). Psychologists have only begun to explore the implications of living and working in such text-based environments.

7.    Literacy And Social Development

Because literacy plays such a prominent role in modern societies, it is often  assumed  that  the route  to social development  is through teaching  people to read  and write, a view supported by UNESCO. Research  and practice  have  shown  that  in  order  to  bring  about cultural  and  social transformation, literacy  must  be seen as an  activity  embedded  in social and  cultural practice.   Literacy,   bureaucratic  institutional  structures with explicit procedures  and accountability, and democratic  participation are mutually  reinforcing. Rather  than  being seen simply as a goal, literacy has come to be seen as a means to fuller participation in the institutions of the society, whether in law, science, or literature  (Street 1984), as well as a means for their transformation.


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