Scripts and alphabets

I tend to use the words script and alphabet fairly interchangeably – I might talk about the Arabic script or the Arabic alphabet, for example. However I just noticed today that Wikipedia has one page on the Cyrillic script, which focuses mainly on the history of the script/alphabet, and separate pages for Cyrillic alphabets as used for particular languages (Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, etc). The Latin/Roman script is treated in a similar way.

It seems that a script refers to the overall writing system rather than to the particular set of letters used to write a particular language, or alphabet. So you could talk about the Devanagari script, and the Hindi alphabet, i.e. the Devanagari letters used to write Hindi.

Have you come across this distinction before? Do you think it’s a useful one to make?

This entry was posted in Language, Writing.

9 Responses to Scripts and alphabets

  1. Ken says:

    To me, an alphabet would ideally have a separate symbol for every phoneme. But some writing systems don’t work this way. Japanese Hiragana and Katakana have separate symbols for different syllables. And the Chinese script has more like a separate symbol for each idea. I don’t think you could talk about a Japanese or Chinese alphabet for instance.

  2. bulbul says:

    So the distinction would be one of set and subsets thereof? Makes sense, though I’m not sure I agree. I generally avoid the word alphabet, especially when dealing with syllabic writing systems like Devanagari or Ethiopic, not to mention stuff like Hanzi and cuneiform.

  3. David Eger says:

    “I generally avoid the word alphabet, especially when dealing with syllabic writing systems”

    I suppose ‘script’, then, could include pictographic systems like Chinese. But ‘script’ can also be a subset of ‘alphabet’ (or other writing system), in the sense of ‘font’ or ‘typeface’, but referring more to handwriting than to print. We might refer to ‘cursive script’ or ‘italic script’ as a style of writing in a particular alphabet.

  4. Jerry says:

    What comes to mind as an example of a distinction is that you use Latin script to write the Swedish alphabet with its ä, ö, and å (I believe that’s æ, ø, and å in Danish and Norwegian), which are separate letters and not accented a’s and o’s.

  5. Jayarava says:

    With Devanāgarī the distinction is certainly useful. One can write Sanskrit, Hindi and English in the Devanāgarī script, but each comprises a different set of characters with less than 100% overlap, thus each has a different alphabet. Sanskrit has archaic sounds no longer found in Hindi; while Hindi incorporates Arabic and English words and sounds. I can’t use my standard Sanskrit keyboard to write Hindi, and vice versa.

    Similarly I can write New Zealand Māori and English using Roman script but Māori requires notation for long vowels as distinct from short, and even though English has more consonants it still has no distinctive letter for Māori nga (which in IAST I would write ṅa). To write Sanskrit in Roman script I need a lot of additional letters, i.e. ā ī ū ē ṛ ṝ ḷ ḹ ṭ ḍ ṇ ñ ṅ.

    So yes we need to specify language, script and alphabet to describe a writing system. Though with Indic languages we would probably prefer syllabary instead of alphabet.

  6. michael farris says:

    The script/alphabet distinction (as in Latin/Roman script, Vietnamese alphabet or Turkish alphabet) was the distinction I learned as a linguistic undergraduate mumble mumble years ago.

    I was more (peripherally) nvolved then in issues related to establishing working orthographies for previously unwritten languages in the Americas so it was almost all a question of competing alphabets using the Latin script. “Alphabet wars” were/are distressingly common in efforts to help establish writing traditions for any previously unwritten language.

  7. Simon says:

    Ken – I use alphabet to refer to alphabetic scripts, including consonant alphabets (abjads) like Arabic and Hebrew, phonemic alphabets like Greek and Armenian, and syllabic alphabets (abugidas / alphasyllabaries) like Gujarati and Tamil.

    Syllabic scripts like Inuktitut, Cree, Cherokee, Katakana and Hiragana are syllabaries or syllabics, which seems to be the preferred term for the ones used in Canada.

    You could refer to the Japanese writing system as a script made up of two syllabaries – katakana and hiragana – the semanto-phonetic kanji and the alphabetic romaji.

    In the case of written Chinese you could talk about a Chinese script which has a number of components – the semanto-phonetic hanzi / charaters in their traditional and simplified forms, pinyin and other romanization systems, and bopomofo.

  8. TJ says:

    Well, yes i’m quite aware of the difference between the two words.
    in Arabic that would be:
    Script: خط, كتابة [xat', kitábah]
    Alphabet: أحرف, أجدية [ah'ruf, abjadiyyah]

    also, I think script is a more general term to be used with languages, specially Chinese. Chinese (be it mandarin or other branches) has a script, but not alphabet I believe.

    Maybe we should be more specific when we come across writing systems as to say, for example, Arabic or Hebrew abjad, instead of Arabic or Hebrew alphabet. Also we might want to say Japanese or Ethiopian Syllabary, instead of Japanese or Ethiopian script or alphabet. In the meantime, we keep calling Greek and Cyrillic as “alphabets”.

  9. Florestan says:

    I tend to use the encompassing term script, which includes alphabets (where letters represent distinct vowels as well as consontants), abjads, abugidas, logographic and other writing systems. The term ‘Arabic alphabet’ isn’t strictly correct because it is an abjad wherein short vowels are optionally represented by diacritics.