Chinese characters (漢字) are morpho-syllabic. Each one represents a syllable with a distinct meaning, but some characters may have multiple meanings or pronunciations
Writing systems are distinguished from other possible symbolic communication systems in that a writing system is always associated with at least one spoken language. In contrast, visual representations such as drawings, paintings, and non-verbal items on maps, such as contour lines, are not language-related. Some symbols on information signs, such as the symbols for male and female, are also not language related, but can grow to become part of language if they are often used in conjunction with other language elements. Some other symbols, such as numerals and the ampersand, are not directly linked to any specific language, but are often used in writing and thus must be considered part of writing systems.
Every human community possesses language, which many regard as an innate and defining condition of humanity. However, the development of writing systems, and the process by which they have supplanted traditional oral systems of communication, have been sporadic, uneven and slow. Once established, writing systems generally change more slowly than their spoken counterparts. Thus they often preserve features and expressions which are no longer current in the spoken language. One of the great benefits of writing systems is that they can preserve a permanent record of information expressed in a language.
All writing systems require:
- at least one set of defined base elements or symbols, individually termed signs and collectively called a script;
- at least one set of rules and conventions (orthography) understood and shared by a community, which assigns meaning to the base elements (graphemes), their ordering and relations to one another;
- at least one language (generally spoken) whose constructions are represented and can be recalled by the interpretation of these elements and rules;
- some physical means of distinctly representing the symbols by application to a permanent or semi-permanent medium, so they may be interpreted (usually visually, but tactile systems have also been devised).