Writing Systems of the World

Today I'm going to introduce you to the various types of writing systems used in the world today. I'll be using my Writing Systems of the World chart, which can be purchased as a poster from my website UsefulCharts.com. Basically, writing systems can be divided into five main categories: abjads, alphabets, abugidas, syllabaries and logo-syllabaries. In this video, I'll be looking at each category in turn and showing you how each one works, using several real world languages as examples. Intro I'm going to start with the category that is most familiar to English speakers - alphabets. In an alphabet, each letter represents a single sound, which can be either a consonant or a vowel. So for example, the first letter in the English alphabet is the letter A and it stands for the vowel sound "ahh". The second letter is B and it stands for the consonant sound "b". Now English is actually a bit confusing because sometimes a single letter can be pronounced more than one way. The next letter is a good example because, in English, the letter C can be pronounced as either "k" as in car or "s" as in city. And even the letter A is not always pronounced "ahhh". Sometimes it's "ae" or "ay". But leaving aside all these exceptions, the basic point is that, in an alphabet, every letter represents a sound. So if you come across a word like CAB, you can theoretically sound out each letter "k" "ae" "b" and figure out that the word is pronounced "kab". But not all writing systems work like this and this is why this chart is called "Writing Systems of the World" and not simply "Alphabets of the World". But before we look at the other types, let's quickly look at a few more alphabets. Of course, the English alphabet is not really the English alphabet. It's the modern Latin alphabet and it is used by many other European languages as well such as French, Spanish, or German. In those languages, sometimes accents are used above or below a letter to more precisely indicate the pronunciation. The Latin alphabet has its roots in the ancient Greek alphabet. You can see here in the first three columns of this section how the letters evolved. Now keep in mind that that original Greek alphabet also evolved into the modern Greek alphabet, which is shown in this column here. It also evolved into the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Eastern European countries such as Russia. All three of these alphabets - Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic - work in a similar way and the reason why they sometimes look quite similar is that they share a common origin. Okay, let's now look at another type of writing system - the abjads. Abjads are also called consonant alphabets because they work very similar to full alphabets except that they are made up primarily of consonants. Hebrew and Arabic are the two main abjads used today. Let's look at a Hebrew word as an example. First of all, you need to know that Hebrew is read from right to left, instead of left to right, like English. And most of the letters are consonants with the vowels missing altogether (although, as we are about to see, modern Hebrew does have some exceptions). So this letter stands for the sound "sh", this letter stands for "l" and this letter stands for "m". So on the surface we have "sh" "l" "m". But every language needs vowels. It's just that abjads usually don't include them. Instead, the reader is expected to add them in on their own, based on context. So, in this case, a person who understands Hebrew will automatically know that there should be an "a" between these two letters and that in this case, this letter stands for the sound "oh". So the word is "Sha-lohm" which means peace and is used as a greeting. In religious or educational settings, vowel markers can be added like this but most of the time, they are missing. All of the alphabets and abjads I’ve mentioned so far – Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic – all share a common origin. As I already mentioned, modern alphabets all descend from Ancient Greek. But Ancient Greek, in turn, evolved from Phoenician. But from Phoenician also came Aramaic, which in turn gave rise to Arabic, Hebrew, and perhaps the South Asia scripts. So that takes care of alphabets and abjads. The next type of writing system we're going to look at are syllabaries. Japanese is a good example. There are actually two different syllabaries used in Japan. Hiragana is generally used for native Japanese words and Katakana is used for foreign or technical words. So in a syllabary, each character represents an entire syllable, rather than just a single sound. And a syllable generally means one consonant with one vowel. So this symbol is 'k' combined with 'a' and is thus pronounced "ka", whereas this symbol (which looks totally different) is 'k' combined with 'ee' and is thus "kee". We also have 'koo', 'kay' and 'ko'. So basically every combination of a consonant and vowel has its own unique symbol and therefore, compared to alphabets, there are more symbols that need to be learned. At first glance, it seems as though the Korean writing system, called Hangul, is also a syllabary because each symbol generally represents a combination of a consonant with a vowel. But notice that Korean, unlike Japanese, follows us a pretty clear pattern. Each symbol is simply the consonant letter combined with the vowel letter. So there's no need to learn all of these syllables. You simply have to learn the consonants and then the vowels. For example, if you know that a square is an "m" and that this symbol is an "o" then you know that this is pronounced "mo". So technically, Hangul is an alphabet, not a syllabary. Since we're talking about East Asian writing systems, let's go ahead and cover Chinese while we're here. Chinese falls into a fourth category - that of logo-syllabaries. In a logo-syllabary, a single character can stand for a unique syllable but also for an entire word or idea. So this character here, which means small, is pronounced, in Mandarin, something like "see-ow". Chinese, therefore, has thousands of unique characters that need to be learned for basic literacy. On this chart, only 100 very basic characters are shown. So let's recap what we've learned so far. Abjads have characters for each consonant. Alphabets have characters for each consonant and for each vowel. Syllabaries have characters for each syllable or consonant-vowel combination, And logo-syllabaries have characters for each major word or word part. That leaves one more type of writing system - the abugidas. Abugidas fall somewhere between alphabets and syllabaries and hence are sometimes called syllabic alphabets. They are primarily used in India and Southeast Asia, although one is used in Ethiopia is well. As you can see on the chart, abugidas, like alphabets, have unique characters for both vowels and consonants. However, these vowels letters are generally only used in situations where a word begins with a vowel. In other cases, a small change is made to the consonant character instead and this small change indicates what vowel follows the consonant. So, let's take Hindi for example. Hindi is written in a script called Devanagari. In Devanagari, this letter stands for the sound "ka". But if we want a different vowel, we have to make a small change so that ka becomes kee, koo, kay, or ko. So you can see that it’s kind of like a syllabary because each consonant-vowel combination does look a bit different. But it’s also kind of like an alphabet because each of these symbols can really just be considered variations of a single letter. So you can see here that there are lots of different abugidas used in South Asia and that there are similarities between each of them. That’s because they all evolved from an ancient script known as Brahmi, which in turn may have evolved from Aramaic. So that was a brief look at some of the different types of writing systems used in the world today – how they evolved and how they differ from one another. As I mentioned, if you’d like to get the poster version of this chart, which includes over 50 different writing systems in total, you can head over to my website, UsefulCharts.com.