What is writing, what are words?

I’m currently reading Exhalation by Ted Chiang. One of the short stories involves the interactions between a missionary and a child he has met. They talk about writing.

“Moseby explained to Jijingi how each a person spoke could be indicated with a different mark on the paper. The marks were arranged in rows like plants in a field you looked at the marks as if you were walking down a row, made the sound each mark indicated, and you would find yourself speaking what the original person had said.”

Then words.

”… But you need to leave spaces when you write.” “I have.” Jijingi pointed at the gap between each row. “No, that is not what I mean. Do you see the spaces within each line?” He pointed at his own paper. Jijingi understood. “Your marks are clumped together, while mine are arranged evenly.” “These are not just clumbs of marks. … Where I come from, we call them ‘words’. When we write we leave spaces between the words.” “But what are words.” “How can I explain it?” He thought a moment. “If you speak slowly, you pause very briefly after each word. That’s why we leave a space in those places when we write. Like this: How. Many. Years. Old. Are. You?” He write on his paper has he spoke, leave a space every time he paused. “But you speak slowly because you’re a foreigner. I’m Tiv, so I don’t pause when I speak. Shouldn’t my writing be the same?” “It does not matter how fast you speak. Words are the same whether you speak quickly or slowly.”

It just struck me.

As a Year 1 (kindergarten) teacher, these are things we support students to learn every day. It was interesting to see a discussion that included someone who had never been exposed to the idea of writing or ‘words’.