What is Grammatology?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
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Grammatology is the study of writing from a scientific viewpoint. It is not a judgment-based system, such as writing criticism, but instead studies the fundamental rules of how writing systems work. By understanding the components and structure of a writing system, grammatologists try to gain insight into the culture that created the system as well as how it was created and how it may evolve over time.

It may seem difficult to view writing as a subject of scientific study. More often, the art of writing is associated with creativity, individual style, and personal means of expression. Yet at the heart of any written language are set properties that govern the use of the writing system. By studying grammatology, it becomes apparent that creative writers are to some extent actually interpretive artists, using the tools of the writing system to display their ability. Rather than inventing written language, writers are creating variations and new rules for an established system.

Part of grammatology involves looking at the basic principles on which each writing system is built. For instance, almost all writing systems have developed as visual representations of a spoken language. A written language must have a common set of symbols that correspond to a spoken sound. These symbols, typically called an alphabet, can represent a single sound, a word or a concept, depending on the writing system. How the alphabet is used to combine letters into words, words into phrases, and phrases into broader concepts such as sentences and paragraphs is also a major area of study in grammatology.

While these concepts seem extremely basic, they can contain valuable clues into the makeup and values of cultures. If a writing system is based on pictorial characters that can have different meanings in context, it may speak of a cultural value, such as an appreciation of subtlety. Some languages consider correct pronouns a vital element, while others may frequently remove pronouns from both spoken and written language. In both cases, this may say something about the value of individuality throughout the history of the language.

Grammatology may be a scientific study at heart, yet it is a subject of considerable interest to philosophers as well. Deconstructionist author Jacques Derrida famously theorized that the historical and cultural backgrounds of written languages will cause meaning of a concept to be affected and often re-interpreted as it is written down. Derrida's book, Of Grammatology, suggests that written language is inherently biased by its history, and that an idea will mean different things when written down in different languages.

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