Types of writing system
Writing systems can be divided into two main types: those that represent
consonants and vowels (alphabets), and those which represent syllables
(syllabaries), though some do both. There are a number of subdivisions of
each type, and there are different classifications of writing systems in
You can find links to all the writing systems on Omniglot in the A-Z index.
Abjads, or consonant alphabets, have independent letters for consonants and
may indicate vowels using some of the consonant letters and/or with diacritics.
In Abjads such as Arabic and Hebrew full vowel indication (vocalisation) is only
used in specific contexts, such as in religious books and children's books.
The image below shows the word 'language' in Arabic and Hebrew, both without
vowel marks (unvocalised) and with vowel marks (vocalised).
In Semitic languages like these most words have roots made up of three
consonants, e.g. k-t-b (كتب) is the root for words related
to marking, inscribing or writing in Arabic. Adding vowels and other consonants
to such roots creates different words such as katîb, writer; kutub, books;
kutubî, bookdealer; maktab, school, office; and maktaba, library, literature.
Many of the ancient alphabets used in West Asia and North Africa were abjads,
as are the Arabic and Hebrew
More information about abjads
Alphabets, or phonemic alphabets, are sets of letters that represent
consonants and vowels. In some languages, such as Czech, each letter or
combination of letters represents one sound, while in others, such as
English, letters might represent a variety of sounds, or the same sounds
can be written in different ways.
Here is an example of how the sh sound [ʃ] is represented in
different languages and alphabets:
- IPA: /ʃ/ (unvoiced postalveolar fricative)
Afrikaans: sjampoe (shampoo)
Czech: šplouchat (to splash)
English: ship, election, machine,
mission, pressure, schedule.
French: chat (cat)
German: schön (beautiful)
Irish: mise (me)
Lingala: cakú / shakú (African grey parrot)
Welsh: siarad (to speak)
Russian: кошка (cat)
Armenian: շաբաթօրյա (Saturday)
Georgian: ბოდიში (sorry)
The most widely-used alphabets are the Latin or Roman alphabet and
the Cyrillic alphabet. They have been adapted to write hundreds of different
languages and are used on every continent.
More information about alphabets
Syllabic alphabets, alphasyllabaries or abugidas are writing systems
in which the main element is the syllable. Syllables are built up of
consonants, each of which has an inherent vowel, e.g. ka, kha, ga, gha.
Diacritic symbols are used to change or mute the inherent vowel, and separate
vowel letters may be used when vowels occur at the beginning of a syllable
or on their own.
The illustration below shows some of the letters and other symbols used
in Devanagari, which is used to write Hindi,
Marathi, Nepali and many other languages. The vowel diacritics are highlighted
in red, and the consonant clusters are used when two or more
consonants occur together without vowels between them.
Most of the writing systems used in South and South East Asia are syllabic
More information about syllabic alphabets
A syllabary is a phonetic writing system consisting of symbols representing
syllables. A syllable is often made up of a consonant plus a vowel or
a single vowel.
The illustration below shows a selection of symbols from Japanese Hiragana,
and Inuktitut. In Hiragana each syllable is represented by a separate symbol.
In Inuktitut the orientation of the symbols is used to indicate different vowels,
and the small symbol is used to write syllable final consonants, as in
More information about syllabaries
The symbols used in semanto-phonetic writing systems often represent
both sound and meaning. As a result, such scripts generally include a large
number of symbols: anything from several hundred to tens of thousands. In fact
there is no theoretical upper limit to the number of symbols in some scripts,
such as Chinese. These scripts could also be called logophonetic, morphophonemic,
logographic or logosyllabic.
Semanto-phonetic writing systems may include the following types of symbol:
Pictograms and logograms
Pictograms or pictographs resemble the things they represent. Logograms
are symbols that represent parts of words or whole words. The image on the
right shows some examples of pictograms from the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic
and Chinese scripts. The Chinese characters used to look like the things they
stand for, but have become increasingly stylized over the years.
Ideograms or ideographs are symbols which graphically represent abstract ideas.
The image below shows a number of ideographic Chinese characters.
The majority of characters in the Chinese script are semanto-phonetic compounds:
they include a semantic element, which represents or hints at their meaning, and
a phonetic element, which shows or hints at their pronunciation. Below are a
few such compound characters which all share a semantic element meaning 'horse'.
Sometimes symbols are used for their phonetic value alone,
without regard for their meaning, for example when transliterating
foreign names and loan words.
More information about semanto-phonetic writing systems
Writing systems that have yet to be deciphered or have only been partially
More information about undeciphered writing systems
Other writing and communication systems
Constructed scripts invented by visitors to Omniglot
What is writing? and
Differences between writing and speech