The Writing Systems of the World Explained, from the Latin Alphabet to the Abugidas of India

The Korean alphabet, hangul, is “the most scientific writing system.” One often hears that in South Korea, a society that has taken to heart Asia scholar Edwin O. Reischauer’s description of hangul as “perhaps the most scientific system of writing in general use in any country.” But whatever their scientific credentials, all the other writing systems in use (and indeed out of use) have fascinating qualities of their own, a range of which are explained in the UsefulCharts video above on the writing systems of the world — not just the alphabets of the world, mind you, but also the abjads, the syllabaries, the logo-syllabaries, and the abugidas.

The symbols used in an abjad, like that of Hebrew or Arabic (or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs), represent only consonants; as for vowels, “the readers are expected to add them in on their own, based on context.” In a syllabary, like the hiragana and katakana used in Japanese, each character represents a syllable: に for “ni,” ほ for “ho,” ん for “n” (though linguists no doubt argue about whether that last should really count as a syllable).

But most of the Japanese writing is adapted from the Chinese one, a logo-syllabary in which “a single character can stand for a unique syllable or an entire word or idea,” which results in “thousands of characters that need to be learned for basic literacy.”

Abugidas, primarily used in Indian and southeast Asian languages (but also to write Amharic, the language of Ethiopia), “have unique characters both for vowels and for consonants. However, these vowel letters are generally only used in situations where a word begins with a vowel.” Otherwise, a “small change” made to a consonant character indicates which vowel follows. However mechanically or aesthetically diverse they may appear, none of these writing systems (all pictured on a poster from UsefulCharts, available for $19.95 USD) are so fundamentally different that they can’t be mastered by a non-native with time and effort. Not that they’re all as easy as hangul, which — as its commissioner King Sejong the Great put it, in another quotable quote — a wise man can learn before the morning is over, and a stupid man can learn in ten days.

Related Content:

How Writing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Animated Map

The Evolution of the Alphabet: A Colorful Flowchart, Covering 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

How to Read Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A British Museum Curator Explains

The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Preserve Writing Systems That May Soon Disappear

Discover Nüshu, a 19th-Century Chinese Writing System That Only Women Knew How to Write

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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Comments (7)
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  • P casinathen says:

    Ms./ Sir

    Where is Tamil ? I think this is one sided I pretty sure
    You have missed it by a mile

  • Leo Heo says:

    Languages are beautiful.

    I hope one day i can install a language to my brain via something like neuralink.
    My first installation would be Chinese, then Arabic and perhaps some Hindi too.

  • Brynn says:

    Moved by your comments. In our propaganda-led world, I had expected that China (the country, the people, and the language as we hint-dropping here) wouldn’t feature in any
    non hostile discussion, just to be convenient for our “hate them and wipe them out” political mindset. Glad there are still decent people left in this stupid country.

  • Ram says:

    Sanskrit is pribably the most scientufic of all languages in terms of how the language is systematically structured and how nuances in pronounciations can be achieved using scripts and signs. And the grammer is fully developed so that you can express ideas using less words. Less is more. But it takes time to understand the scripts and vocabulary and actual communication using sentenses, phrases and verses.

  • Rafee says:

    Hello good, sir

    Tamil script is derived from abugida Brahmi script, which, in turn, as far as I know, if traced, is eventually derived from Egyptian hyeroglyph. The whole process took centuries or even millenias. Spoken Tamil however predates this by thousand years as Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world with strong oral traditions (as the case with other Indian languages). I agree that the article left out quite a number of major writing systems in the world, but with such a short passage it is quite covering, since, as far as I know, all major writing systems in the world can be traced to 4 origins:

    1. Egyptian hyeroglyph (from which scripts like Phoenecian, Greek, Latin, Brahmi, Devanagari, Tamil, Cycrilic, Hebrew, Arabic, etc can trace their origin into)
    2.Chinese characters (Han characters, Korean hanja, Japanese kanji, etc),
    3. Sumerian cuneiform (mostly extinct languages like Sumerian, Akkadian, and Old Persian)
    4. Mayan Script of Mesoamerican Societies

    Hope this helps. Have a good day!

  • John says:

    Can’t help yourself, can you?

  • Sigurd says:

    The narrator, when pronouncing the Hindi “k” sound was much closer to the Hindi “kh” sound.

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