Writing Systems of the World

Here at Lionbridge we talk a lot about languages.  We tell you about funny words in languages, fun facts about languages, and of course we tell you about the languages we translate.  But one thing we don’t talk about very often is the alphabet, or writing system—which is weird because language can’t really exist without it, and vice versa.  Just as there are thousands of languages spoken around the world, there are also many different alphabets and scripts used.

First, we have to talk about the different types of writing systems.  An alphabet, like we use in English, is a type of system where each letter or character represents a phoneme, meaning a specific sound like a consonant or vowel.  Here are some examples of an Alphabet writing system:

Here in English speaking America, we use the ISO Basic Latin alphabet, a standardized modern version of the Latin alphabet.  Many languages across the world use some form of the Latin alphabet.  Most of them come from the Romance, Germanic, Baltic, and Uralic branches, including Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Hungarian, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, and more.

Cyrillic script is a writing system used in numerous languages in Eastern Europe and North Asia, with about half of those languages in Russia.  Many of the languages come from the Slavic languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, and Polish, just to name a few.  Some other languages that use this script come from Uralic, Iranian, Mongolian, and Turkish languages. This is what the alphabet looks like:

Some types of writing systems display an entire syllable as one unit, instead of each individual sound. Native American Cherokee is a syllabary, as well as the contemporary Japanese language.

An Abugida writing system is similar, sometimes referred to as an alphasyllabary.  This type of writing system combines the consonant and vowel parts to form a single unit displaying the syllable. Instead of having a separate character for vowels, like an alphabet would have, these writing systems have a consonant base character then add on a symbol to represent the vowel sign. Indic scripts are a type of abugida used in India and Southeast Asia.  The most common Indic Script used today is Devanagari, a script used in Hindi, Marathi,and Napali.

Some writing systems have no vowels at all, requiring the writer or reader to determine the appropriate vowel sound.  These systems are called abjads, and only have symbols for consonants.  Many of these writing systems are used in Semitic languages and written from left to write.  Today, most of these scripts are called “impure” abjads because they have created some symbols for the vowel sounds.

The Hebrew script has been around since ancient times and is still used today by Jewish communities.  Languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish and Bukhari use the Herbrew script.

The Arabic script is an abjad script used in the Middle East and northern Africa by over 400 million people.  It is the writing system for languages such as Arabic, Bosnian, Persian, Turkish, and more. This is what it looks like.

Unlike all of the writing systems above, Logograms are systems of writing where the symbols represent a concept instead of a sound.  Instead of creating a symbol so that a person says a soun
d, like “k” or “ka,” these systems depict an image that conveys an idea or concept, which the reader then determines the word for.  It may sound more complicated, but these types of languages actually connect words and ideas in a way that most other languages do not.  Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were a type of logogram, as you can see representations of eyes, water, hands, birds, and more.  These pictures could represent exactly what they appear to be, or they could be portrayed in a way to symbolize something different.

A more modern example of a logogram is the system of Chinese characters.  These characters may seem complex and daunting to a foreign reader, but each of these symbols actually stands for a simplistic concept.  The symbols are combined or altered for a different or more complex thought.  Watch this TedTalk for a better understanding:

For some of us, learning another language seems difficult and exhausting enough, but to have to learn a completely different writing system and alphabet?  That might just seem impossible.  So why not let the translators at Lionbridge onDemand do it for you?  We can translate your material into more than 250 languages, complete with the proper writing systems.  Check out all we have to offer here.