Created | Updated Oct 19, 2007
Writing appears to have been invented in about 4000 BC in Ancient Sumer (modern Iraq)1. Since then, humankind has used many different systems for writing down the languages we speak. This Entry looks at the main systems in use today, as well as offering a passing nod at some of the writing of the past.
Alphabets, Abjads, Syllabaries and Ideograms
There are many different ways of writing down speech. The main ways are as follows:
An alphabet uses one symbol per sound. Alphabets are divided into two types:
True alphabets have one symbol for each consonant and one symbol for each vowel. This is the system we are all familiar with.
Abjads have one symbol for each consonant, but do not write down the vowels. The prime example of this is Arabic, where the vowels do not seem to be very important.
A syllabary has one symbol for each syllable. This suits many eastern languages where most syllables consist of a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound.
An ideographic system uses many symbols which represent whole ideas. For example, in Chinese, a symbol may mean man or east or horse. All ideographic systems use a large number of symbols which represent sounds as well.
We'll look at each of these systems in turn and give the examples in use in the world today.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
The system that is used throughout the Western World is known as the Roman alphabet, or sometimes the Latin alphabet. It was spread through Europe by the Romans, and later throughout the world by the Europeans. It is a 'true alphabet' with symbols for both vowels and consonants. The alphabet that we know now with its 26 letters is not exactly as the Romans knew it - they had no U, J or W. These letters were added later. You can read all about the development of this alphabet at The Development of the Western Alphabet.
Not all the 26 letters are used in all languages - Irish, for example, only uses 18 letters, having no J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y or Z. Some countries have added extra letters: Icelandic includes the letters Æ, Þ and Ð (pronounced igh as in 'high', th as in 'thorn' and th as in 'the' respectively). Many languages use accents on letters (both on vowels and on consonants) to represent extra sounds.
The Roman alphabet is used through Western Europe, the Americas and Australia, as well as in many other parts of the world.
А Б В Г Д Е Ё Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Ъ Ы Ь Э Ю Я
The second main true alphabet is Cyrillic, or Russian. It is used for the Russian language itself and also for many eastern European languages, and the languages of countries which were once in the USSR. Cyrillic is said to have been invented by two Byzantine saints, Cyril and Methodius, who decided to convert the illiterate Russians and needed an alphabet to write down the holy scriptures. They devised the Cyrillic alphabet by adapting their own Greek alphabet, adding many letters to represent sounds found in Russian but not in Greek2.
Cyrillic has a very heavy look because the lower-case letters are in nearly all cases the same as the upper-case ones but just printed smaller. One distinctive feature of the alphabet is the 'backwards N'. In fact, this letter is nothing to do with an N but comes from the Greek letter H and represents the 'ee' sound.
Cyrillic is a useful alphabet because it contains many symbols and can easily write down many different sounds. For example there is a single symbol for the 'sh' sound which takes two symbols in Roman, and there is another symbol specifically for the 'ch' sound which is written variously as 'ch', 'tch', 'ci' or 'tsch' in Roman. Cyrillic became unpopular, however, due to its association with domination of small countries by Russia, and many such countries are in the process of changing to using the Roman alphabet.
Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω
The Greek alphabet was the first true alphabet. In fact, the name 'alphabet' comes from the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta. The alphabet was created by the Greeks adopting the Phoenician consonantal alphabet and modifying five of the symbols to make them represent vowels. Two others were added to make the seven vowels needed in Ancient Greek. Greek is still used in Greece and Cyprus.
Not only did Greek give rise to Cyrillic, as mentioned above, but it is also the ancestor of Roman, so many of the Greek letters are the same as the Roman ones, for example A, E, I, K, M etc.
ა ბ გ დ ე ვ ზ თ ი კ ლ მ ნ ო პ ჟ რ ს ტ უ ფ ქ ღ ყ შ ჩ ც ძ წ ჭ ხ ჯ ჰ
Georgian, or Mkhedruli, is a beautiful rounded alphabet which is used in and around the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is used to write the Georgian language and a few other languages in that area.
Although it is not easy to see the relation between Georgian and Greek, the order of the letters is almost exactly the same, sounds not existing in Greek being added at the end of the alphabet. This makes it very likely that the alphabet was devised by somebody familiar with Greek. We don't know who did this, but the Georgians claim it was a Georgian, while the Armenians claim it was an Armenian.
A little known alphabet is the Mongolian one. When Genghis Khan went from being a small-time tribal leader to the ruler of a vast empire, he realised that he would need writing to implement some sort of order. He himself was illiterate. He ordered a captured scholar to devise a suitable script for writing the Mongolian language. This man adapted his own Uighur writing to produce the Mongolian alphabet.
The alphabet is unusual in that it is written vertically rather than horizontally. It is a joined script, with each letter in a word being joined to the others, and with gaps between words. As a result, each letter may have three different forms depending on whether it is at the start, in the middle or at the end of a word.
The Mongolian alphabet is still written in the parts of China where the Mongolian language is spoken. It was officially replaced by Cyrillic in Mongolia itself, but is making a comeback now that the threat of Russian domination has been removed.
The main abjad in use in the world today is Arabic. This alphabet is used to write the Arabic language itself, but also many other languages of the Muslim world, such as Persian (Farsi) and Urdu. It is a joined writing, with each letter in a word running into the next, making a flowing script which lends itself well to calligraphy (the art of beautiful writing).
Arabic does not write down the vowels, although a couple of the consonants that are written down sound like vowels to western ears. In particular, the sound 'Ayn is the sound at the start of the name Ali, the sound before the 'l' sound. It is considered to be a consonant by Arabs, but is virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary vowel A to most non-Arabic speakers.
Arabic is written from right to left.
Another abjad closely related to Arabic is Hebrew, used in Israel to write the Hebrew language. Both the Hebrew alphabet and the Arabic one are descendants of Aramaic, an extinct alphabet which was common throughout the Middle East in the 1st Millennium BC.
Although Hebrew does not normally write down the vowels, there are special accent marks which can be used to signify vowels when it is absolutely necessary, for example in a text explaining how something is pronounced.
Hebrew is written from right to left.
India and South-East Asia have a huge number of different languages, and about 15 different writing systems are used to represent them. All of these use basically the same system:
There is a letter for each different consonant. This contains an implicit vowel, usually 'a'. So these letters represent the syllables 'ka', 'ba', 'da' etc. If a different vowel is required in the syllable, or if the consonant is to stand on its own, then a vowel symbol is added to the letter to make a single letter that represents the whole syllable. For example, the ka letter with a curl on top might represent 'ke'.
The main syllabary in use in Asia is Devanagari, which is used to write the Hindi language, the most common language in India. A distinctive feature of this script is that many of the letters have a strong horizontal line at the top. These almost join up to make it look as if all the letters are hanging from a single horizontal line.
Other writing systems which work on the same principle are Gurmukhi, Gujarati, Oriya and Bengali, used in North India and Bangladesh; Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Sinhalese, used in Southern India and Ceylon; and Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Lao, used in South-East Asia. Tibetan, which is related to these, was used in Tibet until recently.
All these systems are descended from a single system called Brahmi which dates back to about 300 BC. Brahmi is clearly descended from Phoenician: many of the letters are the same. It is not clear, however, by what route this happened. Brahmi may have come from Aramaic or by a different route.
The Korean writing system, Hangul, falls into the category of syllabary but appears to have been invented independently, so it deserves a special mention. Hangul constructs a symbol for each syllable from a consonant sign and a vowel sign. The traditional story is that Hangul was invented by King Sejong in the 15th Century; by all accounts he was a very well-educated man, but the writing is so well designed for the language that it seems more likely it was the result of a team of scholars.
The only ideographic system in use in the world today is Chinese. Many of the symbols, of which there are thousands, represent a complete word.
This has given rise to the myth that Chinese is a system which writes down ideas and not language - it is often said that speakers of the two main Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, can both read the same written texts even though they do not understand each other's languages. This is untrue. While many of the symbols represent words, about half of them provide phonetic information to allow the words to be interpreted. This would make the text readable only in a single language.
There have been a few attempts to write the Chinese language in the Roman alphabet. The first attempt was by the French in the 19th Century. Their way of transliterating the Chinese sounds does not correspond well with the sounds of English speakers. So T'ang, the name of a dynasty, should be pronounced Dang, and T'ao, the life force of the Taoist religion, should be pronounced Dao.
More recently, in the 20th Century, the 'pinyin' system was introduced. This is an accurate way of writing down the sounds of Chinese, and even includes four accents to represent the four tone-patterns of the language. For Westerners, pinyin can be confusing, because the letters don't bear the sounds used in the West. For example, 'b' is pronounced as 'p' and 'j' is pronounced as 'ch', so Beijing is pronounced 'pay-ching'.
Japanese comes last in this list of current writing systems because Japan uses the most complex writing system of all - a mixture of Chinese ideograms, native syllabic symbols and even, in modern times, the Roman alphabet mixed in.
All writing symbols in Japanese are called 'kana'. Sentences are written using what are known as 'kanji'; these are Chinese ideograms, which each represent a word.
But Japanese is a highly grammatical language, so to indicate the grammatical endings on the words, a system of 80 or so syllabic symbols known as 'hiragana' are used. In Japanese, a syllable may be a pure vowel, a consonant followed by a vowel, or either of these with an 'n' sound at the end. This means that there are about 80 possible syllables ending in n and 80 without an n. The n is handled by a special n symbol, while each of the 80 syllables has a separate sign. Unlike Korean or the Indian writing systems, there is no system of using a particular sign for a particular vowel. Each syllable has a separate symbol and you just have to learn them all. In fact the hiragana system is such a good representation of Japanese that it could be used to write the complete language, but for some reason, probably cultural inertia, this is not done.
A further complication is that foreign words are spelled out using a variant on the hiragana known as the katakana. Again there are about 80 of them and an n symbol. There is no attempt here to represent sounds that do not exist in Japanese. The foreign words must first be translated into Japanese-sounding syllables. Hotel becomes 'ho-te-ru'. Mahler becomes 'ma-ra'. The u ending is tacked on to any word which ends in a consonant other than 'n'. Extra u's are inserted to break up clusters of consonants, so that 'monster' would become 'mon-su-te-ru'. (The final 'u' sounds are usually not pronounced, however, in modern Japanese.) Finally the whole thing is spelled out in the katakana system. There's no reason why they couldn't use the hiragana system here, but they don't.
Some Ancient Systems
Finally, we'll take a quick run through some ancient systems which people may have heard of and point out their unusual features.
Phoenician was probably the first alphabet in the world, and is, again probably, the ancestor of every writing system used in the world today other than Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Phoenician was used in Lebanon in the 2nd Millennium BC and spread from there throughout the Middle East. It used an alphabet of 22 letters which were more or less in the same order as the letters of our modern alphabet, but without any vowels. It was written from right to left.
Runes were an alphabet developed in northern Europe in about the 2nd Century AD and used by Germanic peoples until about the 15th Century. They were designed for scratching on wood, so they used straight lines rather than curves, making them look very angular. In addition, they didn't use any horizontal lines, as such lines would get lost in the grain of the wood.
The origin of the Runic alphabet is not clear; it seems to have evolved from Greek rather than Roman, but with many other symbols which don't occur in either. It may have been invented by one person familiar with Greek.
Contrary to popular belief, runes were never used for divination. On the other hand, writing your name or the complete alphabet in runes on an object was thought to give it magical protection.
Possibly the earliest form of writing, the cuneiform system was written with the sharpened end of a stick in smoothed clay or wax. The symbols were made from a load of narrow triangular notches which look like toothpicks, and are rather difficult to read for people used to modern alphabets based on lines. The cuneiform system was used throughout the Middle East, except in Egypt, for about 4,000 years.
Most cuneiform systems were syllabaries with each symbol representing a syllable, but there was one system used in the town of Ugarit, Lebanon, which was an alphabet and was clearly based on the Phoenician alphabet.
The Egyptian hieroglyphic system is another contender for the oldest writing system in the world. It was used from before 3000 BC to about 300 AD. Most symbols represented either one consonant or two consonants. About one quarter of the symbols were 'determinatives' which classified words into categories (action, place, god etc) to remove ambiguity in the string of consonants.
The early Greek alphabet was similar to the present one but with one peculiarity. It alternated the direction of writing with each line. If the first line of text ran from left to right, then the next line would run from right to left, and all the letters would be written in mirror image form to match the direction. This form of writing is called 'boustrophedon' which means 'as the ox turns', because it resembled the way an ox would plough a field and turn at the end of each furrow.
The people of Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean developed a peculiar script which is known today as 'Rongo Rongo'. It was written on sheets of bark. Like the archaic Greek, it changed direction at the end of each line, but the symbols instead of being mirror image were turned upside down. This meant that to read the writing, you would turn the whole document upside down at the end of each line.
There are very few examples of Rongo Rongo in existence and it is as yet undeciphered.