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Subject Linguistics

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631214816.1999.x


Coined on analogy with ‘phoneme’, this term designates the unit of analysis in the study of written language understood as an abstract entity. In linguistics the graphemes of a language are commonly enclosed in angle brackets < >. Every analysis of a writing system starts out with compiling a complete list of the graphemes of that system on the basis of a set of data that comprise all of its graphs , that is, all visually distinct formal elements. However, just as there are different understandings of the notion ‘phoneme’, the analogy is understood differently by different researchers. There are basically two views of how the notion of a grapheme should be defined. Some students of writing (e.g. Pulgram 1976) have defined it as the smallest functional unit of writing on whatever structural level of language the writing system operates. In word writing systems, individual logograms are hence regarded as graphemes; in syllabic systems it is syllable signs; and the graphemes of segmental systems are letters, digraphs etc. In this sense the notion of a grapheme clearly departs from its model analogue in that it transcends the level of sound patterning. Other theoreticians prefer to avoid this conceptual inconsistency and reserve the notion of grapheme to segmental writing systems alone. The notion of grapheme then depends on that of phoneme. Difficulties are associated with both ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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