Translation musings: Scripts of the world

Apr 28, 2016 | Language, Miscellaneous

writing systems scripts

Here in the office we meet many different writing systems that various languages use. It might just be my linguist brain talking but they are truly fascinating! Apart from the phoneme-based alphabet English is written in, there are several other scripts that approach the same job – recording the writer’s message and making it possible to read – in a completely different way.

Well, first of all, there are pictographic or ideographic writing systems. The Aztec writing from the 16th century is one such system. In this case there is no real connection to the language itself, as the symbols merely represent concepts or ideas and there is no way of telling who they are/were pronounced.

There are languages that use a logographic writing system, in which signs denote words or morphemes (meaningful building blocks of words). Usually these also include some sound-based elements to avoid confusion. The world-famous ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are a great example. Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji also belong to this category.

Many modern languages are written in syllabaries: in this case graphemes represent… yes, you guessed it right: syllables. For example, Japanese kana (hiragana and katakana) are part of this group. These two character sets in Japanese are usually used for writing particles and verb inflections, however, foreign words or pronunciation guides for obscure kanji are also written in these scripts. (They are extremely useful for language learners!)


Japanese kanji with hiragana on the side

And then there is the big group of so-called segmental scripts. The graphemes in this kind of scripts stand for the phonemes or individual sounds of a language. The Latin alphabet most Western European languages use belong to this category and it is called a true alphabet as it has separate letters for both consonants and vowels. This is not the case for every segmental script! Arabic, for example, is an abjad as only consonants have their own letters and vowels are marked by diacritics – but that is purely optional. In Thai, however, which is an abugida, one must add diacritical marks or some sort of modification to the consonant letters to express vowel sounds.


Bilingual Cherokee/English stop sign

There are hundreds of writing systems in use today. Some are employed by several languages (for example the Arabic or the Cyrillic scripts) but there are many that only one language uses (such as Telugu, Cherokee or the Kaddare scripts).


Source of images: Japanese writing, Cherokee stop sign