List of writing systems

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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.

Principal scripts at the national level, with selected regional and minority scripts.
Alphabet Latin Cyrillic&Latin Greek Georgian Armenian Logographic+Syllabic Hanzi (L) Kana (2S)+Kanji(L) Hangul(Featural-alphabetic S)+limited Hanja(L)
Abjad Arabic&Latin Hebrew Abugida N, S Indic Ethiopic Thaana Canadian Syllabic
Writing systems of the world today.

Pictographic/ideographic writing systems[edit]

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[edit]

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 which 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 which 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, while 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[edit]

Syllable-based logographies[edit]


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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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

Linear nonfeatural alphabets[edit]

Writing systems used in countries of Europe.
  Greek & Latin

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

Featural linear alphabets[edit]

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.

Manual alphabets[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

A Palaung manuscript written in a Brahmic abugida

Other Abugidas[edit]

Final consonant-diacritic abugidas[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

This is an incomplete list. You can help by expanding it.[3]

Name of Script Type Population actively using (in millions) Languages associated with Regions with predominant usage
Latin script Alphabet over 4000[4] Americas, Europe, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania
Chinese characters Logographic 1340[5] Chinese languages, Japanese (Kanji), Korean (Hanja),[6]Vietnamese (Chu Nom obsolete), Zhuang (Sawndip) Eastern Asia
Devanagari Abugida 420[7] Hindi, Marathi, Konkani, Nepali, Sanskrit, several others India, Nepal
Arabic script Abjad or Alphabetic (when diacritics are used) 380 Arabic language, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto Middle East and North Africa, Pakistan, India (some states)
Cyrillic Alphabet 250 Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, others Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Mongolia, the Russian Far East
Assamese script/Bengali script Abugida 220[8] Assamese/Asamiya, Bengali, Bishnupriya Manipuri and Meitei Manipuri Assam Valley, West Bengal, Tripura, Jharkhand Manipur, Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India and Bangladesh

Fewer than 200 million users[edit]

Name of Script Type Population actively using (in millions) Languages associated with Regions with predominant usage
Kana Syllabary 120[9] Japanese, Okinawan. Ainu Japan
Javanese script Abugida 80[10] Javanese Java island, Javanese diaspora
Hangeul Alphabet, featural 60[11] Korean North Korea, South Korea, Jilin Province (China)
Tamil script Abugida 58[12] Tamil language Tamil Nadu (India), Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia
Malayalam alphabet Abugida 52[13] Malayalam language Kerala (India)
Telugu script Abugida 45[14] Telugu language Andra Pradesh, India
Burmese script Abugida 39[15] Burmese language Myanmar
Thai script Abugida 38[16] Thai language Thailand
Kannada script Abugida 35[17] Kannada language Karnataka, India
Gujarati script Abugida 30 Gujarati Gujarat, India
Oriya alphabet Abugida 21 [18] Oriya Odisha, India

Fewer than 20 million users[edit]

Name of Script Type Population actively using (in millions) Languages associated with Regions with predominant usage
Ge'ez script Abugida 18[19] Amharic, Tigrinya language Ethiopia, Eritrea
Sinhala alphabet Abugida 14.4[20] Sinhalese Sri Lanka
Khmer script Abugida 11.4[21] Khmer language Cambodia
Greek alphabet Alphabet 11 Greek language Greece, Cyprus
Hebrew script Abjad 6 Hebrew language, Jewish languages Israel
Georgian script Alphabet 4.5 Georgian language and many other Kartvelian languages Georgia
Modern Yi script Syllabary <2? Nuosu Yi language Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of China

Undeciphered systems that may be writing[edit]

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 in undetermined.

Undeciphered manuscripts[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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

Tactile alphabets[edit]

Manual alphabets[edit]

For example:

Long-Distance Signaling[edit]

Alternative alphabets[edit]

Fictional writing systems[edit]

For animal use[edit]

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

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  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. ISBN 0-631-23015-7. 
  3. ^ Some of the only major writing systems not yet added are Gurmukhi (used to write Punjabi in India), Oriya script and Malayalam script, and each has about 20-30 million users. Lao script and Yi script also seem to have a few million users, based in Laos and Southern China, respectively.
  4. ^ Difficult to determine, as it is used to write a very large number of languages with varying literacy rates among them.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Hanja has been banned in North Korea and is increasingly being phased out in South Korea. It is mainly used in official documents to identify Chinese roots to Korean words.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Based on Japanese population of roughly 120 million and a literacy rate near 100%.
  10. ^ Since around 1945 Javanese script has largely been supplanted by Latin script to write Javanese
  11. ^ Excluding figures related to North Korea, which does not publish literacy rates.
  12. ^ Tamil Nadu has an estimated 80% literacy rate and about 72 million Tamil speakers.
  13. ^ Spoken by 52 million people in the world.
  14. ^ Based on 61.11% literacy rate in Andra Pradesh (according to gov't estimate) and 74 million Telugu speakers.
  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 32 million speakers of Oriya in a country with a 65% literacy.
  19. ^ Based on 30 million native speakers of Amharic and Tigrinya and a 60% literacy rate.
  20. ^ Based on 15.6 million Sinhalese language speakers and a 92% literacy rate in Sri Lanka.
  21. ^ Based on 15 million Khmer speakers with 73.6% literacy rate.