Writing culture

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Woman in library

Writing culture (from Latin cultura , care, processing ' ) describes the handing down and transmission of cultural testimonies, norms, values ​​and achievements through writing . The existence of a written culture is seen as a characteristic of a high culture .

Terms and characteristics

A written culture is fundamentally characterized by the maintenance and standardization of one or more writing systems that are used by members of a language community or cultural area for a wide variety of purposes such as trade, production of goods, social organization, art, literature , science, religion and historiography. The form, application and reception of written forms of expression and transmission depend heavily on the writing systems themselves and the social conditions. In many more highly developed cultures, writing and written documents permeate most areas of human cultural creation and become inseparable, mutually dependent components.

Depending on the use, special forms, norms and rules, a special aesthetic in the use of writing and reproducing language can develop. examples for this are

Storage and access to written objects in the form of collections of documents and centralized storage locations, for example in ( libraries and archives ), are just as important a component of written cultures.

The existence of a written culture does not always mean that all members of a language community can communicate in writing. Mastery of reading and / or writing was often reserved for certain social classes. Many writing cultures can be identified by a preferred writing medium and writing tool. The provision of these special writing utensils requires a mature division of labor and trade.

History of the written culture

Clay tablets of various sizes

From a media-genealogical point of view, there are several development epochs or ages for media: Orality (spoken language), literacy (written language), typography or the Gutenberg galaxy (printed language) and finally the recent information age (digital / electronic language), also called Marconi , McLuhan or Turing galaxies according to different approaches .

Manual writing

The oldest civilizations in Mesopotamia made use of clay tablets and cylinders into which they could imprint signs with styluses . Wax tablets performed a similar function in ancient Rome and Greece . In Egypt came in the 3rd millennium BC Chr. Papyrus as writing material , as well as from the 2nd century BC. The more expensive parchment . In the same period in China felt fabrics and bamboo plates for ordinary writings, silk for art, used v from the 2nd century. Chr. Was paper on. In South and Southeast Asia, starting from South India, palm leaves were used. Paper made its way into Europe through Central Asia in around the 8th century AD, where it became common from the 12th century.

Different tools came into question as writing tools, depending on the nature of the writing material. Egyptians and Greeks used thin bins pins as Bourdon tubes , Indians and Arabs slightly stronger types of pipes such as from sugar - and reeds , which spread in the Middle Ages in Europe. With some pipe pens, the fibers were softened by chewing them in order to be able to absorb colored liquids ( ink ) better. In the Middle Ages there were also nibs made from bird feathers , which were then replaced with the advent of steel nibs in the 18th century. The use of pencils also spread during this period . In China and Japan the writing brush is traditionally used .

Monumental inscriptions

Already the first high cultures used monuments made of stone in order to present achievements in the long term and thereby impress fellow human beings or their own gods. To this day, written cultures prefer to attach texts in the form of chiseled or cast in metal to monuments and memorials, so that explanatory and interpretation patterns are not falsified by ignorance. Such inscriptions are often the most important evidence of extinct written cultures, all the more so if more transient written documents could not be copied or preserved. Examples of this are the Maya script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs .

Machine writing

In addition to writing by hand , the printing of documents is also part of the writing culture. While stamps and seals have been in use for much longer, printing complete documents did not become common until the Middle Ages, first in China and Korea, then in Europe in the 15th century with Gutenberg's invention of movable type printing . In the 19th century the typewriter was developed, which in the 20th century rose to become the most important writing utensil in administration and literature, and was finally replaced by PCs with associated printers . In the information age, writing is no longer necessarily fixed on a medium, but also exchanged digitally.

Dissemination of written skills and cultures

Monk in the scriptorium , 15th century

The proficiency in writing and reading skills was different in different ages. In addition, the mastery of reading and writing did not always go hand in hand. So there have always been people who could read but not write. The English term literacy (for reading and writing) is also translated as illiteracy in its negation illiteracy .

Ancient and Christian Middle Ages

In the ancient cultures without general writing skills, there was the profession of the scribe , especially as a court official or as an accountant . In the advanced cultures of the Middle East, however, reading and writing skills were not widespread. With the advent of book religions , the religious role was emphasized in addition to the previously courtly and economic importance of writing. In Roman and Greek times, however, writing and reading skills were common among the urban upper and even middle classes, and the artistic writing culture also flourished.

This level of education declined by leaps and bounds in the Christian Middle Ages, even the majority of princes were ignorant of reading. Monks and scribes were highly regarded as educated. The use of the educational language Latin made it possible, on the one hand, to continue a uniform written language in Europe, but, on the other hand, posed a hurdle for the uneducated classes who had to learn a foreign language in addition to reading and writing. The monks as keepers of the scriptures also often produced magnificent Bible manuscripts and thus shaped European art.

East asia

Poem by Bai Juyi

In China as well as Japan, the writing culture flourished early on. In the course of the unification of the empire in the 2nd century BC The writing system was standardized in the Qin Dynasty and established as the Han script. The spelling of individual characters continued to develop over time, but the almost constant meaning enabled information to be exchanged over millennia. At the same time, the central state court culture developed early on, in which the rulers were artistically and literarily active. Education is heavily based on the art of writing; the Chinese calligraphy is considered art form equal to painting.


The writing culture in India was rather disadvantaged by the warm, humid climate, since handwritten traditions there, unlike in the arid Middle East, were lost over time. The oral tradition is accordingly more pronounced. Nevertheless, a wide variety of writing systems and alphabets developed .


Intricate Diwani calligraphy from the time of the Ottoman Empire

The Arabic writing culture is largely shaped by the Koran . The combination of madrasa and mosque as well as the uniform language made a decisive contribution to the rise of the Arabic writing culture and the high literacy rate of the Islamic world as early as the Middle Ages. Due to the ban on images , Arabic calligraphy rose to become the visual arts in Islamic countries. Like the Chinese and Latin characters, the Arabic characters have also undergone considerable development.


The Hebrew written culture is also characterized by religious texts ( Tanach and Talmud ) and a ban on images, and studying the Holy Scriptures is important for Jews living traditionally. In medieval Western and Central Europe, Jews were therefore also educational and cultural carriers, even if they were often discriminated against.

Europe in modern times

Newspaper editions of the Haaretz

Aided by humanism , the Reformation , the Enlightenment and the invention of the art of printing for the rapid distribution of scripts, artistic writing and literature flourished in Christian Europe, beginning with the Renaissance . The use of writing became a matter of course again for the nobility and the upper classes, and written products (books, newspapers, maps, leaflets, advertising, banknotes) reproduced by means of printing could be printed and offered at ever lower prices. Until the 19th century laws were to Europe and North America gradually compulsory education adopted to reading - and writing skills to spread in the population. At the same time attempts were made to spread the European writing culture worldwide in the course of colonialism . As a result, numerous less highly developed script cultures perished, for example the script cultures of pre-Columbian America : Maya script , Aztec script , Inca knot script .

Information age

In the 20th and 21st centuries, written culture around the world is increasingly shaped by local traditions and English as the language of communication around the world . The English language and its written culture are subject to particularly rapid change due to influences from many directions. People who can not read and write, are generally highly disadvantaged in the writing-oriented world, which is why literacy campaigns that illiteracy will continue to reduce. Another influence is the emergence of transmission media other than written language, namely sound carriers and film as well as digital storage media , so that the text-based written culture is supplemented or even displaced by a media culture . For example, Mihai Nadin, in his work Jenseits der Schriftkultur , published in 1999, declared the high point of written culture had already passed and predicted a decline in the importance of written exchange in favor of mixed multimedia forms. Also Vilém Flusser shared the view that the written culture would in the form in which it existed in the 20th century, go down to by a new paradigm to be replaced.

Web links

Wiktionary: written culture  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Gero von Wilpert : Specialized Dictionary of Literature (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 231). 5th, improved and enlarged edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 1969, DNB 458658170 , keyword: written language.
  2. The Big Brockhaus. 15th edition, 17th volume Schra-Spu, FABrockhaus, Leipzig 1934, keyword: the art of writing.
  3. a b Mihai Nadin: Beyond the written culture. 1999.