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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