Does every language have an alphabet? What about abjads and abugidas — not to mention syllabaries?

Is there such a thing as the Hebrew alphabet? How about the Japanese alphabet? Or the Hindi?

“Of course,” you reply. “At least I know there’s a Hebrew alphabet. It has letters like מ, which means ‘m,’ and it’s written backwards.”

“Not so fast!” is my rejoinder. “First of all, it’s not written ‘backwards,’ it’s just written right-to-left, where English happens to be written left-to-right. And yes, מ does mean ‘m,’ but ם also means ‘m.’ It all depends. Furthermore, there are no vowels in the alphabet; when they are absolutely needed they are indicated by points above, below, or next to the letters. But the so-called alphabet contains no vowels, so is it truly an alphabet?”

“OK, OK,” you say, throwing up your hands. “Then what about Japanese? I know there’s a Japanese alphabet; I’ve heard that there are four of them, in fact.”

Yes, there are four writing systems for Japanese, but only one of them is an alphabet — and that one isn‘t even Japanese! The four writing systems are kanji, hiragana, katakana, and rōmaji, the last of which is the only alphabet among the four, and that’s because it’s merely a way to write Japanese words in the Roman alphabet, such as writing Tōkyō rather than 東京 for the capital of Japan. If you write 東京, you’re using kanji, which mostly means using Chinese characters to write Japanese. So it’s not natively Japanese either. Then there are hiragana and katakana, which are syllabaries, not alphabets — more on that below.

Finally, we’ll complete the three questions in the first paragraph above. Does Hindi have an alphabet? Well, you’ve certainly seen Hindi writing in Indian restaurants, using a script called Devanagi. For example, समोसा says “samosa,” of course. Is this an alphabet? Well, the characters all run together, so it’s hard to tell how many there are, but it’s pretty clear that there aren’t six, even though the word contains three consonants and three vowels. What’s going on there? Well, it’s an abugida, not an alphabet — more on that below as well.

If you’re gotten this far, you realize that you used to know what an alphabet is, but now you’re just confused. You know that this post is in the Roman alphabet, and you surely know that there are other alphabets, such as Greek (hence the word “alphabet”). But you’re no longer sure whether the Hebrew writing system is an alphabet. What about Arabic? How about Korean? Or ancient Egyptian? Or one of the Japanese writing systems mentioned above?

Suddenly it’s complicated. Altogether too many people think that every writing system is an alphabet. But, as the song says, it ain’t necessarily so. The systems in the previous paragraph, except for Greek, are not exactly alphabets. Or not even close to being alphabets, depending…

In an alphabet, each letter represents a sound. Well, more or less:

  • One letter can occasionally represent a sequence of sounds, as in the English letter x, which usually stands for /ks/.
  • And sometimes it’s the other way around, where a sequence of letters is needed to represent a single sound, as in the sequence sh, which usually stands for /š/.
  • And a single letter can occasionally represent two or more alternative sounds, as in the letter c, which usually stands for either /k/ or /s/, although there are some “special” exceptions. (Get it?)

OK, so the letter-sound correspondence is a little messy, at least in English, which is renowned for its difficult spelling. But the idea is the important thing, as Tom Lehrer said in a different context.

Note to the non-linguist: phonemic representations are enclosed in slashes.

So, now we’ll take a look at some of the other types of writing systems.

As you see, the designer of this poster distinguishes alphabets from abjads and abugidas, whatever they are. Let’s find out. We’ve already said that each letter in an alphabet represents a sound, more or less. In particular, the sound might be either a consonant or a vowel, and there is no particular difference in the two categories.

Another note: to a linguist, the terms consonant and vowel are categories of sounds, not of letters. So, when we say that the indefinite article in English is “an” before a vowel and “an” before a consonant, phrases like “a uniform” and “an heir” are still following the rule, since “uniform” starts with a consonant sound and “heir” with a vowel sound.

So why does the chart claim that Hebrew and Arabic (and Egyptian hieroglyphics!) are not alphabets, but something called abjads? And those fascinating scripts from India are abugidas, apparently. Is it something geographical — abjads in the Middle East and abugidas in South Asia?

Well, not really. The geographic distinction is not exactly a coincidence by any means, but it has nothing to do with what the terminology means. Abjads, for instance, include Maldivian, spoken in the Maldives of course, but otherwise they seem to be a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Here’s the distinction:

  • An abjad consists solely of consonants, as in the Hebrew three-letter word for Passover, פֶּסַח, more usually written פסח. All those dots tell a foreigner or a child or a new learner that it’s pronounced /pesax/ (where the “x” does not mean the English “x” but the velar fricative that we usually transcribe as “ch” as in “ach”); without the dots it could be /fesax/ or /fasex/ and so forth. That’s why the Hebrew writing system is actually an abjad, not an alphabet.
  • An abugida is similar but different. It’s similar in that sometimes a vowel is merely a small mark next to a consonant. But it’s different in that the symbol is considered to represent a syllable, where a vowel might only be implied. Take a look at Simon Agre’s example from the wonderful Omniglot site:

Up above I promised that I would say something about syllabaries, such as those used in writing Japanese. The distinction is that a syllabary has a unique atomic symbol for each syllable, whereas an abugida has a predictable modification of the consonant. So, in Japanese, where hiragana is a syllabary that is used for writing prefixes and suffixes (necessary because Chinese has neither) and katakana is a similar but different syllabary that is used for writing foreign words, you can see what I mean from these examples, showing five syllables with the same initial consonant, first in hiragana and then in katakana:



Categories: Linguistics