The Alphabets And Writing Systems Of The World
Writing has been around for over 5000 years, but there is a wider variety of unique writing systems than you might think. We look at the history of writing, separating myth from fact, and follow its myriad threads to the four distinct systems in use today.
Illustration by Barbara Ott
The origin of writing is the story of religious myth, archaeological fact and academic dispute. Let’s begin with myth and then chip away at it to sculpt a more material truth.
Egypt, writing and the Gods
Plato recounts the Egyptian-origin myth of writing in Phaedrus, one of his famous Dialogues. In it, the God Theuth invents writing and communicates his discovery to King Thamus with great excitement, praising its ability to “make the Egyptians wiser" and to “improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom." But King Thamus is not amused and accuses Theuth of the exact opposite, fostering with writing “forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory". Writing is perceived by King Thamus as “an elixir not of memory, but of reminding," offering the “appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom," turning readers into mindless repeating automatons devoid of true insight.
Whether one finds the myth an accurate description of our current educational system or an ancient manifestation of Luddite knee-jerk reactions, the need for writing did surface precisely because certain tidbits of information considered crucial needed to be recorded accurately for practical purposes. And few would be able or willing to memorize such fastidious details.
Drawings in caves, tokens in farms
The first drawn representations of the natural world date back 30-40,000 years ago (the upper Palaeolithic), when humans started painting and graffitiing rocks and cave walls. Scholars and researchers still debate whether these were merely paintings, pictures illustrating a story or whether they were part of religious/spiritual rituals or ceremonies.
The change from drawing/pictography to writing came about when hunter-gatherer societies developed agriculture and settled down in encampments. In order to take stock of land, grain or cattle the first farmers used clay tokens of several shapes (conic, oval) on which they incised carvings describing the property owned or transacted.
Soon enough, humans found themselves at a crossroads. Abstract concepts such as numbers and transactions began to take shape in the form of proto-writing. The Vinča symbols, found in pottery dating from the 6th to the 5th millennia BC in the Balkans, have led to debates on whether they constitute an early form of systematized writing. Since their meaning has not yet been discovered, we can only accurately date the first systems of writing with the following examples.
1 . Semanto-phonetic writing systems
Systematized writing originally appeared in different unconnected parts of the world: Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, c. 3500 -3000 BCE, Mesoamerica by 300 BC and China around 1200 BC. The Egyptian writing system, surfacing around 3200 BC, might have been influenced by the Sumerian one (through merchants and commercial contact), but the evidence is inconclusive.
The Sumerian writing system is a good place to start. As a cuneiform system, it consisted of wedge-shaped marks inscribed with styluses on clay tablets. It evolved from pictographs (images representing things such as “head") and eventually adopted the rebus principle, under which specific shapes can be read as objects or a sound/set of sounds. For instance, the drawing for eye could be possibly read as “eye" and “I" (in English, in this case, but valid as a principle), creating greater phonetic flexibility and revealing the potential for future developments in phonetic writing. It eventually matured into a full blown writing system of word-signs and phonograms after 2600 B.C.
By that time, another civilization had already developed their own writing system: the Egyptians, who had perfected hieroglyphs, a system of writing based on pictures which could also represent sounds. The Egyptian writing system had no vowels (we had to wait for the Greeks for that) and some hieroglyphs could have two or three different meanings. The system was based on an alphabet of consonants rather than a group of syllables. To approximate this system in English, one would write, "it strtd rnng whn sh lft" (it started raining when she left) with a pictogram of rain next to rnng, a woman next to sh and two feet or an arrow after lft. Replace the latin letters in this example with images, and you get the functional writing system of the ancient Egyptians! (It does create ambiguity though: when scholars don’t know what the vowels are, they tend to use “e" to fill the gaps; hence “nfr" becoming “nefer" as in Nefertiti! Don’t assume you’re saying the right name; it’s just an approximation from what we know!)
But what if every single image represented either an object or an abstract concept with equal ease? Pushed to its limit, one would have thousands (or theoretically limitless) morphemes representing a myriad objects and ideas - instead of phonemes representing a sound. This is what Chinese achieved around 1600 BC with its writing system, accumulating thousands of ideograms which today can range from the basic 300 characters required to pass the official Elementary Chinese language test Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (汉语水平考试) Level 2 to the more than 80,000 encompassed in the Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form (Zhōnghuá zì hǎi, 中华字海).
However, Chinese characters can be ambiguous, too. The character for horse, 媽 mā, is the same for mother. In order to differentiate it, we need a semantic component next to the phonetic one. In this case, 女 nǚ, or female in Chinese, to indicate we are talking about a woman. So “mother" in Han characters is written as the compound 女媽, with the phonetic character 媽 read out loud and the semantic radical 女 unread, merely indicating context and intention. Hence the categorization of a semanto-phonetic writing system. If you feel like this system is absurd, think of the emojis we use to give meaning to the words we write. Not that I’m saying modern humans are incapable of understanding humor or irony without neon signposts. Or are we? ;o)
2. The first alphabet - the Phoenician Abjad
The first known civilization to create a purely phonetic system, no longer reliant on a pictographic or syllabic system, was the Phoenician one. Around the 15th century BC, Phoenicians created an alphabet made purely of consonants, an abjad, in which one symbol represented one consonantal sound. It consisted of 22 letters and was written from right to left, occasionally in boustrophedon (right to left, then left to right on the following line, etc.). Its origin can be traced to Egyptian hieroglyphs and its influences can be seen in the Greek alphabet, which adopted the Phoenician method of writing. But before the Greeks added vowels to constitute their own alphabet, a number of writing systems made purely of consonants surfaced in different cultures, such as the ancient Hebrew and the Aramaic alphabets (which, in turn, influenced the Arabic alphabet). What all of these had in common was the absence of vowels. Well, not quite, since Semitic languages such as Hebrew or Arabic include matres lectionis (mothers of reading), symbols that may mark the presence of a vowel or function as a consonant, depending on context (one character with two possible sounds). Hebrew and Arabic did use diacritic marks around consonants to indicate vowels, but they were never consistently used to the point where they standardized, being used nowadays mostly as training wheels for learners.
So when did we first arrive at a purely phonetic alphabet, with one letter representing one sound? With the Greeks, who took the Phoenician consonantal alphabet, adapted it and included vowels, triggering not only clarity but also economy in writing. Since Greece was in fact a cluster of city-states with different dialects, the Greek alphabet varied locally, but the Ionic variant was eventually adopted by all city-states, while the Euboean variant travelled to the Italic peninsula, giving birth to the Latin alphabet (filtered through the Etruscan) and to the Cyrillic alphabet further to the east.
3. Alpha-syllabaries or abugidas
What if your language is a clear mix of consonant sounds ending in a vowel sound, organised in sound blocks we call syllables? Ma-mi-mu-me-mo, for instance - how would you represent these syllables elegantly? Well, just like the phonetic specificities of Egyptian influenced its writing system, a language composed purely of discrete syllables is ripe for a syllabic system of writing. Hiragana and Katakana in Japanese are perfect examples of a syllabary. Each symbol is read as a syllable (hiragana: ま ma, み mi, む mu, め me, も mo; katakana: マ ma, ミ mi, ム mu, メ me, モ mo), making Japanese a syllabic system (as well as logographic, with the added Kanji, where one ideogram represents one concept/word).
But other writing systems use both the alphabetic and syllabary system, such as the Devanagari, a script used to write Hindi, Marathi, Nepali and dozens of other languages. Consonant letters have a vowel attached that can be changed or silenced using matra or diacritics written above, below, before or after the consonant. Devanagari also possesses independent vowels, but this common coupling of consonants with vowels in one phoneme creates an alpha-syllabary. This system is certainly not as economical as the phonetic Greek alphabet, but it became so popular it spread throughout Asia in the south and south east, and is still being used to this day.
4 . Featural writing systems
If one considers the development of writing systems to indicate some sort of progress — a debatable but still interesting viewpoint, for curiosity’s sake — what would the next step after phonetic alphabets be? Well, consider how the different letters in the Latin alphabet you are reading say nothing about their phonology: the letter X does not represent the sound made with the mouth and tongue to say "X"; the phonetic similarities between B, P and V, are ignored in their graphic representation. What if a writing system were created that graphically indicated the phonetics it was meant to represent?
That train of thought motivated King Sejong the Great of Korea to create Hangul in 1444, a featural script, where each letter represents its phonetic expression and is grouped with similar ones. For instance, ㄱ is "K" and represents the root of the tongue blocking the throat, ㄴis "N" and represents the shape of the tongue touching the upper gums, whileㅅ is S and represents the shape of the teeth. Hangul is written in blocks, making it visually similar to Chinese, but different in everything else. Promulgated in 1446, it was immediately successful due to its simplicity and elegance. Unfortunately, elitist resistance stemming from aristocrats and academics hampered its success soon after; until recently Hangul was still being mixed with Chinese characters (Hanja). Only in the 21st century did it become Korean’s (almost) exclusive writing system. (Hanja are still used in less popular literature).
Other featural writing systems are the Tengwar, invented by J. R. R. Tolkien as a script included in his novels, and Pitman shorthand, a system of shorthand for English created by Sir Isaac Pitman (1813–1897) who debuted it in 1837.
Understanding different writing systems is a mental workout for anyone who has grown used to the Latin alphabet. It’s sometimes challenging enough to understand other languages and cultures, let alone graphic representations of the sounds they carry and convey. But writing systems are vessels of history, art and phonetics that cannot be reduced to a mere translation. They can also be strangely motivating when learning a new language!
King Thamus’ scepticism, however, still merits philosophical attention. Has writing allowed us to become more enlightened or merely more informed about the world? Is the written word a gateway to greater power through knowledge or is it a vessel of propaganda and deceit?
If you could start all over again, would you embrace writing?