I may have mentioned this before, but I love writing systems. From a purely aesthetic perspective, I think writing systems are beautiful and I could stare at them all day. From an intellectual perspective, I am fascinated by how writing systems encode language, how writers choose to organize their thoughts, and how the originators of each system worked out how to represent their languages with their unique sounds.
Notice that I didn’t just say “I love alphabets,” which would be less of a mouthful to say. That’s because not all writing systems are, strictly speaking, alphabets. Writing systems come in several different types!
The first distinction to be made between writing systems are whether they are phonemic, meaning each character represents a sound or set of sounds, or logographic, meaning each character represents a word or idea. Chinese characters are logograms – they each represent a word or a meaningful part of the word. Of course, since languages are made up of many thousands of words, this means that Chinese readers and writers must learn thousands upon thousands of unique characters. But this also means that speakers of China’s many wildly different dialects can all read the same books and newspapers, even if they can’t understand each others’ speech – because the characters aren’t connected to pronunciation, speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese and Wu can all understand the idea represented no matter how different their pronunciation of that idea might be.
Phonemic systems are far more common, and come in a variety:
Alphabets – a true alphabet has characters (“letters”) for consonants and vowels. Sometimes sounds have to be represented using a combination of letters – like th or ay in English – but all of the sounds are explicitly written out in the script. The Roman alphabet that I’m typing in right now is a true alphabet; so are Cyrillic and Greek, for example.
Abjads – abjads are also called “consonant alphabets,” because they have characters for their consonants but infrequently or never mark vowels. Arabic is the abjad I’m currently waltzing with; long vowels are written out in Arabic and short vowels can be marked using diacritics, but usually these are left off in anything other than beginning Arabic textbooks. For someone used to true alphabets, these systems can be a bit like riding a bike without training wheels…does that say kataba? Kitabu? Kutba? Hebrew works this way as well.
Abugidas – these can also be called “alphasyllabaries”, and do behave like a hybrid between a true alphabet and a true syllabary. Consonants are represented, and bare consonants are assumed to be followed by a particular vowel unless another specific vowel is represented. Devanāgarī, the script used to write Sanskrit and many other Indian languages, works this way: consonants are followed by an /a/ sound unless otherwise marked, so if you see the characters r – m – y – n, you read “ramayana”. Cultures that were influenced by Sanskrit writing tend to have systems like this, even if they use a different script; Tibetan and Thai are examples.
Syllabaries – in a syllabary, each character represents a whole syllable, instead of a single sound. That means that the syllables ha, hi, and hu would each have a different character. Many orthographies developed for Native American languages are syllabaries (they happen to be well suited to their phonologies), with Cherokee being probably the most famous. The word “Cherokee” is our anglicized way of pronouncing the word tsa-la-gi; since that word is three syllables, it is three characters in the syllabary. One of the sets of characters used for Japanese is also a syllabary.
So that’s how writing systems are classified! Of course, as with anything else humans do, sometimes systems don’t fit into neat little categories – I realize I’ve really oversimplified Chinese, for example, but you get the gist.
Do you have a favorite script?