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In
linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, particularly its nature and structure. Linguis ...
, a grapheme is the smallest functional unit of a
writing system A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication, based on a script and a orthography, set of rules regulating its use. While both writing and spoken language, speech are useful in conveying messages, writing differs i ...
. The word ''grapheme'' is derived and the suffix ''-eme'' by analogy with ''
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
'' and other names of emic units. The study of graphemes is called '' graphemics''. The concept of graphemes is abstract and similar to the notion in
computing Computing is any goal-oriented activity requiring, benefiting from, or creating computer, computing machinery. It includes the study and experimentation of algorithmic processes, and development of both computer hardware , hardware and software. ...
of a character. By comparison, a specific shape that represents any particular grapheme in a given
typeface A typeface (or font family) is the design of lettering that can include variations in size, weight (e.g. bold), slope (e.g. italic), width (e.g. condensed), and so on. Each of these variations of the typeface is a font. There are list of type ...
is called a glyph.


Conceptualization

There are two main opposing grapheme concepts. In the so-called ''referential conception'', graphemes are interpreted as the smallest units of writing that correspond with sounds (more accurately
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
s). In this concept, the ''sh'' in the written English word ''shake'' would be a grapheme because it represents the phoneme /ʃ/. This referential concept is linked to the ''dependency hypothesis'' that claims that writing merely depicts speech. By contrast, the ''analogical concept'' defines graphemes analogously to phonemes, i.e. via written minimal pairs such as ''shake'' vs. ''snake''. In this example, ''h'' and ''n'' are graphemes because they distinguish two words. This analogical concept is associated with the autonomy hypothesis which holds that writing is a system in its own right and should be studied independently from speech. Both concepts have weaknesses. Some models adhere to both concepts simultaneously by including two individual units, which are given names such as ''graphemic grapheme'' for the grapheme according to the analogical conception (''h'' in ''shake''), and ''phonological-fit grapheme'' for the grapheme according to the referential concept (''sh'' in ''shake''). In newer concepts, in which the grapheme is interpreted semiotically as a dyadic linguistic sign, it is defined as a minimal unit of writing that is both lexically distinctive and corresponds with a linguistic unit (
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
,
syllable A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are on ...
, or morpheme).


Notation

Graphemes are often notated within angle brackets: , , etc.The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 196 This is analogous to both the slash notation (, ) used for
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
s and to the square bracket notation used for phonetic transcriptions (, ).


Glyphs

In the same way that the surface forms of
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
s are speech sounds or phones (and different phones representing the same phoneme are called allophones), the surface forms of graphemes are glyphs (sometimes ''graphs''), namely concrete written representations of symbols (and different glyphs representing the same grapheme are called allographs). Thus, a grapheme can be regarded as an abstraction of a collection of glyphs that are all functionally equivalent. For example, in written English (or other languages using the
Latin alphabet The Latin alphabet or Roman alphabet is the collection of letters originally used by the Ancient Rome, ancient Romans to write the Latin language. Largely unaltered with the exception of extensions (such as diacritics), it used to write Eng ...
), there are two different physical representations of the lowercase Latin letter "a": "a" and "ɑ". Since, however, the substitution of either of them for the other cannot change the meaning of a word, they are considered to be allographs of the same grapheme, which can be written . Similarly, the grapheme corresponding to "Arabic numeral zero" has a unique semantic identity and Unicode value but exhibits variation in the form of slashed zero. Italic and bold face forms are also allographic, as is the variation seen in
serif In typography, a serif () is a small line or stroke regularly attached to the end of a larger stroke in a letter or symbol within a particular font or family of fonts. A typeface or "font family" making use of serifs is called a serif typeface ( ...
(as in Times New Roman) versus
sans-serif In typography and lettering, a sans-serif, sans serif, gothic, or simply sans letterform is one that does not have extending features called "serifs" at the end of strokes. Sans-serif typefaces tend to have less stroke width variation than seri ...
(as in Helvetica) forms. There is some disagreement as to whether capital and lower case letters are allographs or distinct graphemes. Capitals are generally found in certain triggering contexts that do not change the meaning of a word: a proper name, for example, or at the beginning of a sentence, or all caps in a newspaper headline. In other contexts, capitalization can determine meaning: compare, for example Polish and polish: the former is a language, the latter is for shining shoes. Some linguists consider digraphs like the in ''ship'' to be distinct graphemes, but these are generally analyzed as sequences of graphemes. Non-stylistic ligatures, however, such as , are distinct graphemes, as are various letters with distinctive
diacritic A diacritic (also diacritical mark, diacritical point, diacritical sign, or accent) is a glyph added to a letter (alphabet), letter or to a basic glyph. The term derives from the Ancient Greek (, "distinguishing"), from (, "to distinguish"). T ...
s, such as . Identical glyphs may not always represent the same grapheme. For example, the three letters , and appear identical but each has a different meaning: in order, they are the Latin letter A, the Cyrillic letter Azǔ/Азъ and the Greek letter
Alpha Alpha (uppercase , lowercase ; grc, ἄλφα, ', or ell, άλφα, álfa) is the first Letter (alphabet), letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals, it has a value of one. Alpha is derived from the Phoenician alphabet, P ...
. Each has its own code point in Unicode: , and .


Types of grapheme

The principal types of graphemes are
logogram In a written language, a logogram, logograph, or lexigraph is a written character that represents a word or morpheme. Chinese characters (pronounced ''hanzi'' in Mandarin, ''kanji'' in Japanese, ''hanja'' in Korean) are generally logograms, as ...
s (more accurately termed morphograms), which represent words or morphemes (for example
Chinese characters Chinese characters () are logograms developed for the writing of Chinese. In addition, they have been adapted to write other East Asian languages, and remain a key component of the Japanese writing system where they are known as ''kanji ...
, the ampersand "&" representing the word ''and'', Arabic numerals); syllabic characters, representing
syllable A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel A vowel is a Syllable, syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are on ...
s (as in Japanese
kana The term may refer to a number of syllabary, syllabaries used to write Japanese phonology, Japanese phonological units, Mora (linguistics), morae. Such syllabaries include (1) the original kana, or , which were Chinese characters (kanji) used ...
); and
alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written graphemes (called letter (alphabet), letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character ...
ic letters, corresponding roughly to
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
s (see next section). For a full discussion of the different types, see . There are additional graphemic components used in writing, such as punctuation marks, mathematical symbols, word dividers such as the space, and other typographic symbols. Ancient logographic scripts often used silent determinatives to disambiguate the meaning of a neighboring (non-silent) word.


Relationship with phonemes

As mentioned in the previous section, in languages that use
alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written graphemes (called letter (alphabet), letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character ...
ic writing systems, many of the graphemes stand in principle for the
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
s (significant sounds) of the language. In practice, however, the orthographies of such languages entail at least a certain amount of deviation from the ideal of exact grapheme–phoneme correspondence. A phoneme may be represented by a multigraph (sequence of more than one grapheme), as the digraph ''sh'' represents a single sound in English (and sometimes a single grapheme may represent more than one phoneme, as with the Russian letter я or the Spanish c). Some graphemes may not represent any sound at all (like the ''b'' in English ''debt'' or the ''h'' in all Spanish words containing the said letter), and often the rules of correspondence between graphemes and phonemes become complex or irregular, particularly as a result of historical sound changes that are not necessarily reflected in spelling. "Shallow" orthographies such as those of standard Spanish and Finnish have relatively regular (though not always one-to-one) correspondence between graphemes and phonemes, while those of French and English have much less regular correspondence, and are known as deep orthographies. Multigraphs representing a single phoneme are normally treated as combinations of separate letters, not as graphemes in their own right. However, in some languages a multigraph may be treated as a single unit for the purposes of collation; for example, in a Czech dictionary, the section for words that start with comes after that for . For more examples, see .


See also

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References

{{List of writing systems Learning to read Typography Linguistics terminology