Writing systems

The major writing systems – methods of inscription – broadly fall into four categories: logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, and featural. Another category, ideographic (symbols for ideas), can sufficiently to represent language. A 6th, pictographic, is insufficient to represent language on its own, but often forms the core of logographies.


A logogram is a written character which represents a word or morpheme. The vast number of logograms needed to write language, and the many years required to learn them, are the major disadvantage of the logographic systems over alphabetic systems. However, the efficiency of reading logographic writing is a major advantage.

Logographies, Chinese Characters
Chinese symbols of well being icon set of black and white types. Icon pack. Isolated vector sign symbols.

No writing system is wholly logographic: all have phonetic components as well as logograms (“logosyllabic” components in the case of Chinese, cuneiform, and Mayan, where a glyph may stand for a morpheme, a syllable, or both; “logoconsonantal” in the case of hieroglyphs), and many have an ideographic component (Chinese “radicals”, hieroglyphic “determiners”). For example, in Mayan, the glyph for “fin”, pronounced “ka’”, was used to represent the syllable “ka” whenever clarification was needed. However, such phonetic elements complement the logographic elements, rather than vice versa.

The main logographic system in use today is Chinese, used with some modification for various languages of China, Japanese, and, to a lesser extent, Korean in South Korea. Another is the classical Yi script.


A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables. A glyph in a syllabary typically represents a consonant followed by a vowel, or just a vowel alone, though in some scripts more complex syllables (such as consonant-vowel-consonant, or consonant-consonant-vowel) may have dedicated glyphs. Phonetically related syllables are not so indicated in the script. For instance, the syllable “ka” may look nothing like the syllable “ki”, nor will syllables with the same vowels be similar.

Syllabaries are best suited to languages with relatively simple syllable structure, such as Japanese. Other languages that use syllabic writing include the Linear B script for Mycenaean Greek; Cherokee; Ndjuka, an English-based creole language of Surinam; and the Vai script of Liberia. Most logographic systems have a strong syllabic component.

Cherokee Syllabary. Web image. Wikipedia Commons. 2007

In 1819 Sequoyah, also known as George Guess, invented the Cherokee language syllabary writing system . Each symbol represents a syllable rather than a single phoneme as in English. There are far too many syllables in English (tens of thousands) for an English syllabary to be usable, but the 85 characters in the Cherokee syllabary are completely functional for writing the Cherokee language.


An alphabet is a small set of symbols, each of which roughly represents or historically represented a phoneme of the language. In a perfectly phonological alphabet, the phonemes and letters would correspond perfectly in two directions: a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker could predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling.

As languages often evolve independently of their writing systems, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.

In most of the alphabets of the Mid-East, only consonants are indicated, or vowels may be indicated with optional diacritics. We call these such systems abjads. In other, vowels are indicated through diacritics or modification of the shape of the consonant. We call these abugidas. Some abugidas, such as Ethiopic and Cree, children learn by children as syllabaries, and are often called “syllabics”. However, unlike true syllabaries, there is not an independent glyph for each syllable.

Sometimes we restict the term “alphabet” to systems with separate letters for consonants and vowels. Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts; true alphabets include Latin, Cyrillic, and Korean Hangul; and abugidas, used to write Tigrinya, Amharic, Hindi, and Thai.

writing systems, Cyrillic alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet is closely based on the Greek alphabet, with about a dozen additional letters invented to represent Slavic sounds not found in Greek. In Russia, Cyrillic was first written in the early Middle Ages in clear-cut, legible ustav (large letters). Later a succession of cursive forms developed.

Featural scripts

The inscription on the One Ring, written in the Black Speech of Mordor using Tengwar: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul”.

A featural script notates the building blocks of the phonemes that make up a language. For instance, all sounds pronounced with the lips (“labial” sounds) may have some element in common.

In the Latin alphabet, this is accidentally the case with the letters “b” and “p”; however, labial “m” is completely dissimilar, and the similar-looking “q” is not labial. In Korean Hangul, however, all four labial consonants are based on the same basic element. However, in practice, children learn Korean as an ordinary alphabet, and the featural elements tend to pass unnoticed.

Another featural script is SignWriting, the most popular writing system for many sign languages, where the shapes and movements of the hands and face are represented iconically. Featural scripts are also common in fictional or invented systems, such as Tolkien’s Tengwar.

Historical significance of writing systems

Historians draw a distinction between prehistory and history, with history defined by the advent of writing. We consider the cave paintings and petroglyphs of prehistoric peoples precursors of writing, but they are not writing because they did not represent language directly.

Writing systems always develop and change based on the needs of the people who use them. Sometimes the shape, orientation and meaning of individual signs also changes over time. By tracing the development of a script it is possible to learn about the needs of the people who used the script as well as how it changed over time.

Related: Oldest Alphabet in the World

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