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:

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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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