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List of writing systems

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List of writing systems

This is a list of writing systems (or scripts), classified according to some common distinguishing features.

The usual name of the script is given first; the name of the language(s) in which the script is written follows (in brackets), particularly in the case where the language name differs from the script name. Other informative or qualifying annotations for the script may also be provided.

Writing systems of the world today.


  • Pictographic/ideographic writing systems 1
  • Logographic writing systems 2
    • Consonant-based logographies 2.1
    • Syllable-based logographies 2.2
  • Syllabaries 3
    • Semi-syllabaries: Partly syllabic, partly alphabetic scripts 3.1
  • Segmental scripts 4
    • Abjads 4.1
    • True alphabets 4.2
      • Linear nonfeatural alphabets 4.2.1
      • Featural linear alphabets 4.2.2
      • Linear alphabets arranged into syllabic blocks 4.2.3
      • Manual alphabets 4.2.4
      • Other non-linear alphabets 4.2.5
    • Abugidas 4.3
      • Abugidas of the Brāhmī family 4.3.1
      • Other abugidas 4.3.2
      • Final consonant-diacritic abugidas 4.3.3
      • Vowel-based abugidas 4.3.4
  • List of writing scripts by adoption 5
  • Undeciphered systems that may be writing 6
  • Undeciphered manuscripts 7
  • Other 8
    • Phonetic alphabets 8.1
    • Special alphabets 8.2
      • Tactile alphabets 8.2.1
      • Manual alphabets 8.2.2
      • Long-Distance Signaling 8.2.3
    • Alternative alphabets 8.3
    • Fictional writing systems 8.4
    • For animal use 8.5
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • External links 11
  • References 12

Pictographic/ideographic writing systems

Ideographic scripts (in which graphemes are ideograms representing concepts or ideas, rather than a specific word in a language), and pictographic scripts (in which the graphemes are iconic pictures) are not thought to be able to express all that can be communicated by language, as argued by the linguists John DeFrancis and J. Marshall Unger. Essentially, they postulate that no full writing system can be completely pictographic or ideographic; it must be able to refer directly to a language in order to have the full expressive capacity of a language. Unger disputes claims made on behalf of Blissymbols in his 2004 book Ideogram.

Although a few pictographic or ideographic scripts exist today, there is no single way to read them, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between symbol and language. Hieroglyphs were commonly thought to be ideographic before they were translated, and to this day Chinese is often erroneously said to be ideographic.[1] In some cases of ideographic scripts, only the author of a text can read it with any certainty, and it may be said that they are interpreted rather than read. Such scripts often work best as mnemonic aids for oral texts, or as outlines that will be fleshed out in speech.

There are also symbol systems used to represent things other than language, or to represent constructed languages. Some of these are

Linear B and Asemic writing also incorporate ideograms.

Logographic writing systems

In logographic writing systems, glyphs represent words or morphemes (meaningful components of words, as in mean-ing-ful), rather than phonetic elements.

Note that no logographic script is composed solely of logograms. All contain graphemes that represent phonetic (sound-based) elements as well. These phonetic elements may be used on their own (to represent, for example, grammatical inflections or foreign words), or may serve as phonetic complements to a logogram (used to specify the sound of a logogram that might otherwise represent more than one word). In the case of Chinese, the phonetic element is built into the logogram itself; in Egyptian and Mayan, many glyphs are purely phonetic, whereas others function as either logograms or phonetic elements, depending on context. For this reason, many such scripts may be more properly referred to as logosyllabic or complex scripts; the terminology used is largely a product of custom in the field, and is to an extent arbitrary.

Consonant-based logographies

Syllable-based logographies


In a syllabary, graphemes represent syllables or moras. (Note that the 19th-century term syllabics usually referred to abugidas rather than true syllabaries.)

Semi-syllabaries: Partly syllabic, partly alphabetic scripts

In most of these systems, some consonant-vowel combinations are written as syllables, but others are written as consonant plus vowel. In the case of Old Persian, all vowels were written regardless, so it was effectively a true alphabet despite its syllabic component. In Japanese a similar system plays a minor role in foreign borrowings; for example, [tu] is written [to]+[u], and [ti] as [te]+[i]. Paleohispanic semi-syllabaries behaved as a syllabary for the stop consonants and as an alphabet for the rest of consonants and vowels. The Tartessian or Southwestern script is typologically intermediate between a pure alphabet and the Paleohispanic full semi-syllabaries. Although the letter used to write a stop consonant was determined by the following vowel, as in a full semi-syllabary, the following vowel was also written, as in an alphabet. Some scholars treat Tartessian as a redundant semi-syllabary, others treat it as a redundant alphabet. Zhuyin is semi-syllabic in a different sense: it transcribes half syllables. That is, it has letters for syllable onsets and rimes (kan = "k-an") rather than for consonants and vowels (kan = "k-a-n").

  • Eskayan – Bohol, Philippines (a syllabary apparently based on an alphabet; some alphabetic characteristics remain)
  • Bamum script – Bamum (a defective syllabary, with alphabetic principles used to fill the gaps)

Segmental scripts

A segmental script has graphemes which represent the phonemes (basic unit of sound) of a language.

Note that there need not be (and rarely is) a one-to-one correspondence between the graphemes of the script and the phonemes of a language. A phoneme may be represented only by some combination or string of graphemes, the same phoneme may be represented by more than one distinct grapheme, the same grapheme may stand for more than one phoneme, or some combination of all of the above.

Segmental scripts may be further divided according to the types of phonemes they typically record:


An abjad is a segmental script containing symbols for consonants only, or where vowels are optionally written with diacritics ("pointing") or only written word-initially.

True alphabets

A true alphabet contains separate letters (not diacritic marks) for both consonants and vowels.

Linear nonfeatural alphabets

Writing systems used in countries of Europe.[note 1]
  Greek & Latin
  Latin & Cyrillic
  Georgian & Cyrillic
  Latin & Armenian

Linear alphabets are composed of lines on a surface, such as ink on paper.

Featural linear alphabets

A featural script has elements that indicate the components of articulation, such as bilabial consonants, fricatives, or back vowels. Scripts differ in how many features they indicate.

Linear alphabets arranged into syllabic blocks

Manual alphabets

Manual alphabets are frequently found as parts of sign languages. They are not used for writing per se, but for spelling out words while signing.

Other non-linear alphabets

These are other alphabets composed of something other than lines on a surface.


An abugida, or alphasyllabary, is a segmental script in which vowel sounds are denoted by diacritical marks or other systematic modification of the consonants. Generally, however, if a single letter is understood to have an inherent unwritten vowel, and only vowels other than this are written, then the system is classified as an abugida regardless of whether the vowels look like diacritics or full letters. The vast majority of abugidas are found from India to Southeast Asia and belong historically to the Brāhmī family, however the term is derived from the first characters of the abugida in Ge'ez: አ (A) ቡ (bu) ጊ (gi) ዳ (da) — (compare with alphabet).

Abugidas of the Brāhmī family

A Palaung manuscript written in a Brahmic abugida

Other abugidas

Final consonant-diacritic abugidas

In at least one abugida, not only the vowel but any syllable-final consonant is written with a diacritic. That is, representing [o] with an under-ring, and final [k] with an over-cross, [sok] would written as s̥̽.

Vowel-based abugidas

In a few abugidas, the vowels are basic, and the consonants secondary. If no consonant is written in Pahawh Hmong, it is understood to be /k/; consonants are written after the vowel they precede in speech. In Japanese Braille, the vowels but not the consonants have independent status, and it is the vowels which are modified when the consonant is y or w.

List of writing scripts by adoption

Name of script Type Population actively using (in millions) Languages associated with Regions with predominant usage
Alphabet 4900000over 4900[3] English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Malay-Indonesian, German, Turkish, Vietnamese, Italian, Polish, Dutch, Swedish, Latin, others Worldwide
Logographic 13400001340[4] Chinese, Japanese (Kanji), Korean (Hanja),[5]Vietnamese (Chu Nom obsolete), Zhuang (Sawndip) Eastern Asia, Singapore, Malaysia
Abjad or Alphabetic (when diacritics are used) 0660000660+ Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Malay (Jawi), Uyghur, Kazakh (in China) Middle East and North Africa, Pakistan, India (some states), China (Xinjiang), Malaysia
Abugida 0420000420[6] Hindi, Marathi, Konkani, Nepali, Sanskrit, several others India, Nepal
Alphabet 0250000250 Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Macedonian, others Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Mongolia, the Russian Far East
Abugida 0220000220[7] Assamese/Asamiya, Bengali, Bishnupriya Manipuri and Meitei Manipuri Assam Valley, West Bengal, Tripura, Jharkhand, Manipur, Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India and Bangladesh
Syllabary 0120000120[8] Japanese, Okinawan, Ainu Japan
Abugida 0100000100 Punjabi Punjab (India)
Abugida 008000080[9] Javanese Central Java (Indonesia), Javanese diaspora
Alphabet, featural 007870078.7[10] Korean North Korea, South Korea, Jilin Province (China)
Abugida 007000070[11][12] Tamil language Tamil Nadu (India), Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius
Abugida 004500074[13] Telugu language Andhra Pradesh (India)
Abugida 005200052[14] Malayalam language Kerala (India)
Abugida 003900039[15] Burmese language Myanmar
Abugida 003800038[16] Thai, Southern Thai, Northern Khmer and Lao (Isan) Thailand
Abugida 003800038 Sundanese language Java, Indonesia
Abugida 003500035[17] Kannada language Karnataka (India)
Abugida 003000030 Gujarati Gujarat (India)
Abugida 002200022[18] Lao language Laos
Abugida 002100021[19] Odia Odisha (India)
Abugida 001800018[20] Amharic, Tigrinya language Ethiopia, Eritrea
Abugida 001440014.4[21] Sinhalese Sri Lanka
Alphabet 001200012 Armenian language Armenia
Abugida 001140011.4[22] Khmer language Cambodia
Alphabet 001100011 Greek language Greece, Cyprus, Southern Albania ; Worldwide for mathematical and scientific purposes
Abugida 00076007.6 Buginese language, Makassarese language, Mandar language Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Abjad 00060006 Hebrew language, Jewish languages Israel
Abugida 00050005 Tibetic languages Tibet, Bhutan, India
Alphabet 00045004.5 Kartvelian languages Georgia
Modern Yi
Syllabary 00040004 Nuosu Yi language Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of China
Alphabet 00020002 Mongolian language Mongolia, Inner Mongolia
Abjad 00010001 Berber languages North Africa
Abjad 00004000.4 Aramaic language West Asia
Abugida 00003500.35 Maldivian language Maldives
Abugida 00000350.035 Inuktitut Canada (North of Tree Line)
Syllabary 00000200.02 Cherokee language United States
Syllabary 00000100.01 Vai language Liberia

Undeciphered systems that may be writing

These systems have not been deciphered. In some cases, such as Meroitic, the sound values of the glyphs are known, but the texts still cannot be read because the language is not understood. Several of these systems, such as Epi-Olmec and Indus, are claimed to have been deciphered, but these claims have not been confirmed by independent researchers. In many cases it is doubtful that they are actually writing. The Vinča symbols appear to be proto-writing, and quipu may have recorded only numerical information. There are doubts that Indus is writing, and the Phaistos Disc has so little content or context that its nature is undetermined.

Undeciphered manuscripts

A number of manuscripts from comparable recent past may be written in an invented writing system, a cipher of an existing writing system or may only be a hoax.


Asemic writing is generally meaningless, though it sometimes contains ideograms or pictograms.

Phonetic alphabets

This section lists alphabets used to transcribe phonetic or phonemic sound; not to be confused with spelling alphabets like the ICAO spelling alphabet.

Special alphabets

Alphabets may exist in forms other than visible symbols on a surface. Some of these are:

Tactile alphabets

Manual alphabets

For example:

Long-Distance Signaling

Alternative alphabets

Fictional writing systems

For animal use

  • Yerkish uses "lexigrams" to communicate with non-human primates.

See also


  1. ^ This maps shows languages official in the respective countries; if a country has an independent breakaway republic, both languages are shown. Moldova's sole official language is Romanian (Latin-based), but the unrecognized de facto independent republic of Transnistria uses three Cyrillic-based languages: Ukrainian, Russian, and Moldovan. Georgia's sole official language is Georgian, but the sparsely recognized de facto independent republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia use Cyrillic-based languages: Both republics use Russian. Additionally, Abkhazia also uses Abkhaz, and South Ossetia uses Ossetian. Azerbaijan's sole official language is Azerbaijani, but the unrecognized de facto independent republic of Nagorno-Karabakh uses Armenian as its sole language. Additionally, Serbia's sole official language is Cyrillic Serbian, but within the country, Latin script for Serbian is also widely used.

External links

  • Omniglot: a guide to writing systems
  • Ancient Scripts: Home:(Site with some introduction to different writing systems and group them into origins/types/families/regions/timeline/A to Z)
  • Michael Everson's Alphabets of Europe
  • Deseret Alphabet
  • ScriptSource - a dynamic, collaborative reference to the writing systems of the world


  1. ^ Halliday, M.A.K., Spoken and written language, Deakin University Press, 1985, p.19
  2. ^ Smith, Mike (1997). The Aztecs. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.  
  3. ^ Difficult to determine, as it is used to write a very large number of languages with varying literacy rates among them.
  4. ^ Based on sum of 1.335 billion PRC citizens with a 92% literacy rate (1.22 billion), and 120 million Japanese Kanji users with a near-100% literacy rate.
  5. ^ Hanja has been banned in North Korea and is increasingly being phased out in South Korea. It is mainly used in official documents, newspapers, books, and signs to identify Chinese roots to Korean words.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Based on Japanese population of roughly 120 million and a literacy rate near 100%.
  9. ^ Since around 1945 Javanese script has largely been supplanted by Latin script to write Javanese
  10. ^ Excluding figures related to North Korea, which does not publish literacy rates.
  11. ^ Tamil Nadu has an estimated 80% literacy rate and about 72 million Tamil speakers.
  12. ^ Sri Lanka Tamil and Moor Population that use Tamil script. 92% literacy
  13. ^ Based on 61.11% literacy rate in Andra Pradesh (according to gov't estimate) and 74 million Telugu speakers.
  14. ^ Spoken by 52 million people in the world.
  15. ^ Based on 42 million speakers of Burmese in a country (Myanmar) with a 92% literacy rate.
  16. ^ Based on 40 million proficient speakers in a country with a 94% literacy rate.
  17. ^ Based on 46 million speakers of Kannada language in a state with a 75.6 literacy rate. url=
  18. ^ Based on 30 million speakers of Lao in a country with a 73% literacy.
  19. ^ Based on 32 million speakers of Odia in a country with a 65% literacy.
  20. ^ Based on 30 million native speakers of Amharic and Tigrinya and a 60% literacy rate.
  21. ^ Based on 15.6 million Sinhalese language speakers and a 92% literacy rate in Sri Lanka.
  22. ^ Based on 15 million Khmer speakers with 73.6% literacy rate.
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