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economy of writing

Subject Linguistics

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631214816.1999.x


A principle proposed by Ignace Gelb (1963, p. 72) governing the development of writing systems which aims ‘at the effective expression of the language by means of the smallest possible number of signs’. Hence the gradual reduction of the number of basic signs as writing systems develop from the representation of words to syllables to phonemes. Certain conclusions can be drawn about unknown writings simply by looking at the number of different signs. An inventory of several hundred signs points to a logographic system, while a system consisting of between 50 and 100 signs should be syllabic. In this regard the internal economy of writing systems is clearly informative. However, the thesis that the principle of economy generally determines the development of writing is hard to defend. Many systems across the ages exhibit features which hardly support a general principle of economy. The redundant use of determinatives in the egyptian writing system is one; modern english spelling is another. Gelb's principle has also been criticized for focusing too narrowly on the writing system's inventory of signs. In determining the facility of using a system and hence presumably its development this feature interacts with others, especially simplicity, unequivocalness and faithfulness. Most existing writing systems could be more efficient and economical than they are, had they been constructed ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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