Classification of writing systems

People sometimes question the way the writing systems on Omniglot are classified. Most writing systems fit well into one category or another, but others straddle several categories, or don’t fit well into any category.

For example, when used to write Hebrew, the Hebrew script is an abjad or consonant alphabet. When it’s used to write Yiddish all the vowels are usually written, so is the Yiddish version a fully vocalised abjad or a phonemic alphabet?

Writing systems like Chinese, Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Mayan are the most difficult to define. In many sources Chinese is classified as logographic, i.e. a writing system consisting of logographs or logograms, which are defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a letter, symbol, or sign used to represent an entire word”. This is not the best name for the script as only some Chinese characters are logograms. Other terms include morphosyllabic, logosyllabic, ideographic, pictographic.

In Visible Speech, John DeFrancis says that:

The Chinese system must be classified as a syllabic system of writing. More specifically, it belongs to the subcategory that I have labeled meaning plus-sound syllabic systems or morphosyllabic systems.

Morphosyllabic seems to be a good term for Chinese, but what about Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Mayan, etc?

Any suggestions?

This entry was posted in Language, Writing.

12 Responses to Classification of writing systems

  1. Yitzhakofeir says:

    I believe Egyptian Heiroglyphs function very similar to the Chinese characters, as most heiroglyphs represent syllables, although there are quite a number that are used for entire words…. Although I can’t be absolutely certain the function is similar, as I’ve never researched Chinese to any great extent.

  2. Weili says:

    I’ve always find it amusing when Westerners try to fit Chinese into a category and slap labels on the language.

    Fact is, Chinese doesn’t fit any of the categories and labels that were created for European languages.

    In the Chinese language itself, there are actually very well defined categories and labels for the Chinese language. I wouldn’t want to type it all here as they can be easily searched online. 🙂

  3. @man says:

    Weili, I’m not sure what is amusing for you. Surely this is no different than the Chinese custom of creating Chinese words for concepts (such as electricity) that were developed elsewhere?

    Also, i’m fairly certain that the various Greek neologisms (morphosyllabic, logographic and the like) were created specifically to describe Chinese. It is the way of English to design technical terms from the Greek and Latin languages, which sets them apart: we lack so many of the phonological distinctions that operate in Chinese that it is a poor choice for terms meant to be used in English. The question is merely: what Greco-Latin roots are appropriate in designing a word for the Chinese writing system? Also, is that writing system similar enough to Cuneiform or Heiroglyphic to consider them the same sort of writing system, answerable to the same name? The Ancient Chinese, who didn’t know about these systems of writing, can provide no answers here.

  4. Weili says:

    @man, I meant no offense when I said I found it amusing.

    Also, I’m not sure how you think that is similar to Chinese creating our own words for concepts developed elsewhere instead of “borrowing” them phonetically.

    If you know anything about the Chinese language, you’d realize that 電視 dianshi (electronic vision/image) makes much more sense to an average Chinese than something like 太來威玄 tailaiweixuan, which is the closest I can think of that sounds like “television”.

  5. Ben L. says:

    Perhaps Simon’s use of “complex” to describe the relatively few scripts that are not primarily sound-based is the best possible description. It can be difficult to find just the right word to describe them individually, much less as a script type. Any word you pick is likely to be contradicted by some characteristic of the script.

    That said, I might offer “semi-phonetic” as the simplest way to group them, if you absolutely must use a technical word.

  6. Harris Engelmann says:

    I would consider yiddish to be a “fully vocalized abjad”, considering it does not have to always be fully written (aka with vowels)- practically every hebrew word in Yiddish is written as it would be in hebrew- i.e., as an abjad, not phonetic.

  7. iwsfutcmd says:

    You know, in that respect, Yiddish is a bit like Avestan. Avestan texts are sprinkled with Pahlevi words. Avestan is a full alphabet (as most Omniglot viewers would know 🙂 ) while Pahlevi is more like a–really–complicated abjad. Basically, picture if Yiddish wrote the way it was, but instead of the Hebrew sprinklings, make them Old German sprinklings, but write them without vowels, then add the equivalent Hebrew word next to them, but, of course, don’t pronounce the Hebrew word while reading the text. Ouch.


  8. jean person says:

    chinease characters where originally pictogram as for sumerian, runic , mayan and egytians characters; but then, the pictogram became differant due to the “support” for writing it and the extensive used of them: sumerain became cuneiform because of writing on clay tablet with a calame; chinease became more straight form due to the use of hard brush on silk sheet or soft brush on bamboo scroll; egyptian became hieratique due to the used of scroll writing too. Also because of abstract meaning, some analogical compound characters were made chinease then used syllabique-sound-loan compound to but hierogluph and cuneiform too.
    The only differance between the chinease characters and the cuneiform, hieroglyph ones is that those two last made a step further, by using characters for their initial sound which leaded to the adjad like aramean/hebrew/pheonician/runic/etc. character; as each character were originally a picture: hebreu “sin” is the picture of tooth, ‘ayin is the picture of an eye, aleph the picture of an auroch, etc. that step wasn’t made by the chinease that what made the unification of china since differants speaker could communicate by writing even if they couldn’t understand themselves.

    technically the differance between the adjad and the alphabeth is mostly irrelevants because adjad is just a anterior forms of most alphabeth.

    so I would mostly categorize them as:

    -alphabeth (alphabeta/alephbeth) system where each sound got a proper character ( even if voyelles, consonants and tones got a differant based set structure;

    -syllabique system where each syllable got a DIFFERENT character even if some pattern can be seen; (I mean true syllabique one like ge’ez or hirigana; devanagari should be more considered as an alphabeth)

    -pictographique where character are associated to a specifical idea, even if further developpement used some of them for their phonetical value, since that is inevitable due to abstract words which can’t be pictured.

    any further arguement about chinease characters, cuneiform, or hieroglyph/hieratic are useless debate of nomenclature since each system got his on history of “uses”… as an example:latin alphabeth and numbers are used today as syllabic and phonetic coumpound by chatters ex.: ” 4 wat r u arguin to n8?” its doesn’t make the latin alphabeth a syllabic system.

    PS.: nowaday the chinease government want to convert to pinyin transciptional system which is sad to the cultural diversity, they could instead push the characters simplification a step further and make a phonetical symbol for each sound and tone; by takin some radical primary draw, as some conlang of omniglots made the trantanease or the longwen mabe even simpler system.

  9. iwsfutcmd says:

    You know, in regards to Devanagari (or any other Indic script), it’s true that the vowel modifications on the consonants are (more or less) regular. This was seen as an argument for declaring it an alphabet, however, readers of these languages conceive of the writing as a series of (C)(C)CV units. Note that the units are not actually syllables, as they do not include the final consonants of a syllable (those are included in the next unit).

    For example, भारतीय जनता पार्टी (bhaaratiiya janataa parTii, an Indian political party) is abbreviated भा ज पा (bhaa ja paa) in Hindi. If the speakers conceived of their writing as a series of alphabetic characters, it would make sense to abbreviate the words as भ ज प (bha ja pa) (just like its abbreviation in English–BJP). If the speakers conceived of their writing as a series of syllables, the abbreviation would be भा ज पार (bhaa ja paar).

    Should we take into account the conception of the writing systems by the users in our categorizations?


  10. Nishiki says:

    John DeFrancis classified Chinese character (‘tetragraph’) as morphosyllabic writing system, this is basically correct, since most of the Chinese characters are morphemes, either free or bound.

    Some classified Egyptian hieroglyphs as morphoconsonantal writing system, but in my opinion this is not entirely correct, since not all consonantal elements in hieroglyphs are morphemes.

  11. homunq says:

    “Morphosyllabic” means the characters are morphemes OR syllables, not and. So if you accept that all Chinese characters are morphemes, albeit bound ones sometimes, you could just call it morphemic. Mayan would be morphosyllabic (though of course complicated by the fact that “characters” can be assembled creatively into “blocks”, visually analagous to the way a chinese character is composed of radicals. Also complicated by the evolution, and the fact that the great majority of Maya written, as opposed to carved, script was destroyed by Christian zealots.) Egyptian, morphoconsonantal.

  12. homunq says:

    By the way, the entry on Mayan writing here does not do justice to the layout.

    Within a block, glyphs are read left to right and top to bottom, in any way of a number of layouts:

    1 2


    1 3
    2 3


    1 2

    3 4

    or just

    1 2

    or just



    or many variations on these ideas. Each block is more-or-less a single word, though sometimes it is either a compound or only part of a compound, and numbers are included with day/month/year designators within dates.

    The blocks are arranged in rectangular columns, two blocks wide (in carved inscriptions) or sometimes other widths (in written texts). The columns are read right-to-left and top-to-bottom, as is Latin text. They follow each other right-to-left.

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