A writing system, also referred to as script or orthography, is a convention for representing the units of a spoken language by making marks on rocks, leaves, clay, bark, metal, or paper. The study of writing systems, to a large extent, consists of establishing correspondences between these marks, or symbols, and units of the spoken language such as individual sounds, syllables, morphemes (smallest units of meaning), or words. Whereas speech is ephemeral, writing leaves a permanent record of a language.The invention of writing some 5,000 years ago is probably one of the greatest achievements of humankind. Without writing, human history and man’s knowledge of the world would not have been possible. There are differing opinions as to why people felt the need to write. Some think that religion was the motivating force, while others suggest that it was motivated by the need to keep business records. Curiously, only about one-third of the world’s 6,912 languages have writing systems.
Below are brief descriptions of the world’s major writing systems some of which are now extinct.
Early shipping records kept on clay tablets gave rise to cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia in 3,100 BC. Symbols were scratched on flat clay tablets with a squared-off stick which left wedge-shaped marks in the clay. The name cuneiform comes from Latin cuneus ‘wedge’. By the 26th century BC, the cuneiform script had been adapted to write Akkadian, and from there to other languages such as Hittite (Turkey), Ugaritic (Syria) and Old Persian (Iran). These scripts have a similar appearance.
|Akkadian syllable consisting of consonant + vowel [a]
|Ugaritic symbol for [a]. Clay tablets written in Ugaritic provided the first evidence of the ordering of letters in an alphabet.
|Old Persian symbol for the vowel [a].
This system was developed about the same time as cuneiform. Scholars tried to figure out this writing system after it had been dead for close to 1,500 years. It was finally deciphered In 1822 by a French scholar Jean François Champollion.
|Egyptian glyph for [m]
When Phoenicia became a cultural and commercial crossroads of the ancient Western world, there arose a need for an easier way to write. As a result, the first true alphabet was developed by the Semitic people of the Sinai Peninsula some time between 1,500 and 1,000 BC. This system used symbols to represent discrete speech sounds.
|Phoenician letter representing the glottal stop
The Phoenician alphabet contained symbols for consonants only which suited Semitic languages but did not suit Greek. The Greeks felt that they needed symbols for representing vowels. So they chose some Semitic consonants to represent Greek consonants and then used the extra Semitic consonant symbols for Greek vowels. Thus, the Greek alphabet was the first alphabet that included symbols to represent vowels.
|Greek alpha which represented the sound [a].
The Roman alphabet was developed by the Etruscans who inhabited the Italian peninsula before the Romans. The Etruscans chose certain letter shapes of the Greek alphabet and changed a few sound values of the letters to better represent their own language. The Romans took over the Etruscan alphabet for writing Latin and passed it on to all Western European languages.
|Ancient Etruscan letter representing the vowel [a].
|Armenian letter representing the vowel [a].
The Nuskhuri (“minuscule”) or Kutkhovani (“squared”) script first appeared in the ninth century. Asomtavruli and Nuskhuri, collectively known as Khutsuri (ხუცური, or “church script”), were used together to write religious manuscripts, with the Asomtavruli serving as capital letters.The oldest examples of Georgian writing are an Asomtavruli inscription in a church in Bethlehem from 430 CE. The modern alphabet, called Mkhedruli (მხედრული, “secular” or “military writing”), first appeared in the 11th century. It was used for non-religious purposes until the 18th century, when it completely replaced Khutsuri. The orthography is phonemic, i.e., one symbol represents one sound.
|Georgian letter representing the vowel [a].
The Cyrillic alphabet is derived from the Greek script with additional letters taken from the earlier Glagolitic alphabet, as well as from the Hebrew script. These additional letters were used for Old Church Slavonic sounds not represented in the Greek script. The script is named in honor of the two Byzantine Saints Cyril and Methodius, creators of the earlier Glagolitic alphabet. Cyrillic was most probably developed by disciples of Cyril and Methodius. It is used today for writing more than 100 languages, among them Russian. There are some relatively minor differences in the Cyrillic alphabets depending on the language. The script had undergone several reforms over time.
Ge’ez, also called Ethiopic, is a consonant-based script originally developed to write Ge’ez, a Semitic language. Each symbol represents a consonant + vowel combination. It is used for writing Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre and a number of other Semitic languages, some of which have now switched to adapted versions of the Latin alphabet.
|Ge’ez symbol for [ka]
The Early Aramaic alphabet is an extremely ancient writing system derived from the Phoenician alphabet, a consonant-based writing system, during the 10th or 9th centuries BC. Over time, Aramaic developed its distinctive ‘square’ style. The use of Aramaic as a lingua franca throughout the Middle East starting in the 8th century BC resulted in the adoption of the Aramaic alphabet for writing Hebrew. At the end of the 6th century BC, the Early Aramaic alphabet was replaced by the Hebrew Square Script. Thus, it is better known today as the Hebrew alphabet.
|Aramaic letter representing the vowel [a]
|Hebrew Square Script symbol representing the vowel [a].
The Arabic script is based on the Nabataean alphabet which was used to write the Nabataean dialect of Aramaic. Nabateans added 6 symbols to the Aramaic alphabet to represent sounds that did not occur in Aramaic. The Nabataean alphabet contained only symbols for consonants. The Arabs added dots above and below the consonants to represent vowels. The earliest Arabic inscription dates to 512 AD. Since then, the script has undergone several modifications. Its present form (Naskh) first appeared in the 11th century AD, and has been used ever since, especially for print. Several other unrelated languages use the Arabic script including Persian, Pashto, and Urdu which use an adapted version of the Arabic script, called Perso-Arabic. Turkish,Swahili, Hausa, and Uzbek are among languages that used the Arabic script before they adopted either Latin or Cyrillic script. It is estimated that the Arabic script is used by close to 1 billion people worldwide. The Arabic script is written from right to left in horizontal lines.
|Arabic symbol representing the consonant [b]
The Brahmi script is the ancestor of many scripts found in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Some scholars think that it developed from the Aramaic alphabet as a result of sea trade between Babylon and India.
|Brāhmī symbol representing the syllable [ka]
The Devanāgarī script is a descendant of the Brāhmī script. It is used for writing Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali. It is a syllable-based writing system in which each syllable consists of a consonant plus an inherent vowel. Vowels are written differently, depending on whether they are independent or if they follow a consonant. Devanāgarī is written from left to right in horizontal lines.
|Devanāgarī symbol representing the syllable [ka]
Chinese writing is the oldest system in the world that has hardly changed in the last 4,000 years. It is thought to have originated as pictures around 2,000 BC. The earliest known logographs, or pictograms, were inscribed on oracle bones. Some of them resembled the objects they attempted to represent. But even so, it was a real writing system and not just a series of pictures. Today roughly 600 Chinese characters are pictograms, while the majority of characters are phono-semantic compounds. The Chinese writing system is well-suited for the language because the same words are pronounced quite differently in different parts of China. For instance, the word for person is pronounced as ren, yen, nyin, or len in different regions of China, but it is written everywhere as . This symbol can be understood by speakers of all Chinese dialects regardless of how they may pronounce it. In this way, the Chinese writing system is a unifying factor for all speakers of this largest language community in the world.
|Traditional Chinese character for ‘horse’
Hangul is used to write Korean. It is an alphabet that consists of 24 letters. Korean letters are formed with strokes from top to bottom and left to right. Vowels and consonants combine into syllables that consist of letters arranged in a square block, rather than linearly. Thus, the word hangeul consisting of ㅎㅏㄴㄱㅡㄹ is written as 한글.
There are several basic types of writing systems. Many writing systems incorporate several types
In alphabetic systems, there is usually some type of correspondence between graphic symbols and sounds. Languages vary in their symbol-to-sound regularity. At one extreme is Spanish which has a very regular system. At the other extreme, there are languages such as English and French that exhibit a great degree of irregularity. Alphabet-based systems are used by languages all over the world. Here are a few samples of some of the world’s alphabet-based writing systems.
|Name of the language in the language’s script
Consonant-based alphabets, or abjads, represent consonants only, or consonants plus some vowels. Full vowel indication can be added by means of diacritics. Most consonant-based alphabets are written from right to left in horizontal rows. .
Syllabic alphabets, also known as alphasyllabaries or abugidas, consist of symbols for consonants and vowels. Each consonant has an inherent vowel which can be changed to another vowel or suppressed by means of diacritics. Vowels can also be written with separate letters when they occur at the beginning words or on their own. Syllable-based systems are common for the languages of India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
A syllabary is a writing system consisting of symbols representing syllables which usually consist of a consonant + vowel or a single vowel.
Complex scripts consist of symbols that often represent both sound and meaning. Such scripts usually contain a large number of symbols. Chinese characters are an example of a complex script. They consist of the following:
Roughly 600 Chinese characters are pictographs. They are stylized depictions of objects in the real world and are among the oldest characters in Chinese. They were originally inscribed on stone tablets, bones, and tortoise shells. For example, the character 溤 evolved from a pictograph of a horse.
Ideographs are characters derived from symbols representing ideas or abstractions. For example, the character for ‘one’ is 一. Simple ideographs can be compounded. Thus the character for ‘two’ is 二. Another example is 木 ‘tree’ and 木木 ‘grove.’
- Compound Ideographs
Ideograph are designed to represent relatively abstract ideas, usually by combining several pictograms into a compound whose meaning can be rather arbitrary, as in the example below.
- Phonetic compounds
Over 90% of Chinese characters were created by combining a character with a related meaning with another character that indicates its pronunciation. This practice appeared relatively late in the development of Chinese writing as the number of homophones (words pronounced identically) increased. Compounding is the standard method for creating new characters today.
氵 xǔi ‘water’
木 mù ‘tree’
沐 mù ‘wash one’s hair
Some languages use a combination of writing systems. For instance, Japanese uses a combination of two syllabaries (Hiragana and Katakana) and characters borrowed from Chinese (Kanji). Here is how the name of Japan’s capital Tokyo is written in the three systems:
Omniglot guide to writing systems of the world
PBS series “The Writing Code”
Wikipedia article “Writing systems”
Bibliography on alphabets and writing systems
SIL Bibliography of Writing Systems