This isn't posted to linguistics because I'm concerned about the purpose of language learning. I've found questions asking whether you need to learn written Japanese to learn spoken, for instance, but I haven't found the reverse asked here. In short, i'm looking for a natural language with a written system that gives no advantages to knowledge of a spoken language. Longer spiel below.

I'm fascinated with logographic systems. I study maths at university and so I've got a propensity towards symbolic expression, but I think I categorise all logographic systems I've encountered so far into three groups:

  1. Very incomplete. This would include emoji, where there isn't really any syntax and a very limited scope of expression.
  2. Very rigorous, and unnatural. This would include conlangs, and more mathematical languages, like Leibnitz' characteristica universalis.
  3. Natural languages with an actual logographic language. So something that can be written with symbols that bare no structural relationship to the spoken.

What languages are practically in category 3. For instance, is Chinese/Japanese in there? I don't have much experience with Chinese, but in Japanese there is a structural relationship between spoken and written, since there are kanji radicals with a spoken form, which the composite kanji can inherit to some degree. I think Chinese is the best because it developed in a wide, linguistically diverse empire, but my experience with it is limited. Could I live in china without knowing a single spoken word but being fluent in the written system, and reasonably learn this. I'm ok if I miss out on puns or jokes, because those seem largely spoken.

For hieroglyphics, I believe there is the transliteration of names similar to katana in Japanese, except without a syllabary, instead the symbols are chosen with the same pronunciation as the name. Therefore, there aren't "unspoken symbols", speaking still has a use if I'm correct.

The Mesoamerican writing system is a logosyllabic system. While symbols could be rote memorised, it appears there are symbols which do not show their meanings at face value, but rely on homophones. I'm not sure I could learn this writing system without learning any of the spoken languages.

For cuneiform it would seem pretty good, except I think it has the failings the Mesoamerican writing systems had.

Perhaps there are protolanguages or petraglyphs which are closer to emoji, but not really expressive enough to be deemed a language. It doesn't require for it to have no spoken form, just a written form that is wholly independant of the spoken form.

  • Is this better suited to linguistics?
    – Brayton
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 10:53

1 Answer 1


Your perspective intrigued me, so I'll share with you what I know of the Chinese language. Among Chinese, when a speaker of a (regional) dialect speaks with a thick accent and others can't understand him/her, they often resort to writing the words out. So being able to speak the language doesn't necessarily make one intelligible to other native speakers who, despite being speakers of "Chinese", speak a vastly different dialect. The written language comes in handy in these situations (less so nowadays).

I have known professors of Chinese--scholars of classic texts, in fact--whose speaking ability lagged way behind their reading/writing abilities, but seemed to manage their trips to China just fine. Truth be told, though, I suspect their English came in handy.

So, could you live in china "without knowing a single spoken word but being fluent in the written system"? Certainly. From the point of view of your research interest, how is that different from, say, a Chinese (from China) who can read/write English, but can't speak it and who lives in the US? In other words, since you are interested in "the purpose of language learning", do "logographic systems" have anything to do with whether or not one can live in a place where one only knows either the written or the spoken form of the language (but not both)?

By the way, it's true a lot of puns (or jokes) in Chinese play off of homophones (which share no similarities in the written form). Nonetheless, how would you know it's a joke unless you are intimately familiar with the sounds of the words (characters) involved? If you know the sounds of the words, then the question becomes "Can you know the pronunciation of characters but still can't speak the language?"

  • 1
    Hmm, interesting perspective. I suppose what I meant with the "not speaking Chinese but reading it" scenario is that being able to read English is pretty much the same as being able to speak it. While I guess you still have to learn how to pronounce the letters and phonemes, I see each written word as less a cluster of abstract symbols stringed into meaning, and more as encoding the sound. Though perhaps at a closer look, it is just the same. Intuitively, I feel the difference lies in the library size, how many minimal character units there are.
    – Brayton
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 17:53
  • 1
    I guess I deem Chinese to be logographic since it has both a large library c.f. the Latin alphabet, and that composite symbols can inherit meaning, not just sound as is the case for English. Though I suppose words like "Parasite" and "Parasitic" and "Parasitology" are a case for word-composites inheriting meaning from their units. I'd probably say the defining feature for a logographic system is that the symbols have arbitrary pronunciations if they have any way of being spoken, but that's really the same with English. I could raise children and teach them that the letter "k" makes a "p" sound
    – Brayton
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 17:55
  • I don't have your range of knowledge of the various types of ancient and modern languages, but as a bilingual speaker of Chinese and English, here are some of my observations that may be of use to you: As a speaker of English, you see a direct link between the written words and the encoding of the sound (by way of using the alphabet), and you think: Gee, isn't that straight forward! Yet, as you seem to have recognized, English (or any of the Western languages) may be a lot more abstract than logographic languages. After all, what does "a" have to do with anything? It is merely a symbol.
    – YCode
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 1:47
  • 1
    However, as a speaker of Chinese, I see the Chinese "symbols" as far less abstract: Many of the characters have sound AND meaning. The sound part is often another character (visualize the English words "sun" and "Sunday"--in Chinese, "sun" would be the sound part). But the meaning parts actually have meaning--words like "the sun" (日) or "the moon" (月) retain their semblance to the actual objects. In those cases, which is a large percentage (not sure how much) of the Chinese characters, the written form of the language isn't that abstract at all.
    – YCode
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 1:57
  • 1
    So, indeed, like you said, you could teach a child to pronounce "k" as "p"--it is arbitrary after all. Likewise, you can tell a Chinese kid--to pronounce "日" (rì-the sun) as "月" (yue-the moon"), BUT you can't tell a Chinese kid that "日" represents the moon and "月" represents the sun.
    – YCode
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 2:46

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