List of writing systems

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Writing systems of the world

Writing systems are used to record human language, and may be classified according to certain common features.

The usual name of the script is given first; the name of the languages 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.

Proto-writing and ideographic 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 true 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:

Linear B also incorporates ideograms.

Logographic systems[edit]

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

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[edit]

Syllable-based logographies[edit]


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


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").

Segmental systems[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.[note 1]
  Greek & Latin (Cyprus)
  Latin & Cyrillic (Bosnia, Serbia, Moldova)
  Latin & Armenian (Azerbaijan)

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.

Linear alphabets arranged into syllabic blocks[edit]

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). Unlike abjads, the diacritical marks and systemic modifications of the consonants are not optional.

Brahmi 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, if representing [o] with an under-ring, and final [k] with an over-cross, [sok] would be 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 systems by adoption[edit]

The following list contains writing systems that are in active use by a population of at least 50,000.

Name of script Type Population actively using (in millions) Languages associated with Regions using script de facto
Alphabet 4900+[2][note 2] Latin[note 3] and Romance languages (languages that evolved from Latin: Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian)
Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, Nordic languages)[note 4]
Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic)[note 5]
Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian)
Some Slavic languages (Polish, Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Slovenian)
Uralic languages (Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian)
Malayo-Polynesian languages (Malaysian,[note 6] Indonesian, Filipino, etc.)
Turkic languages (Turkish,[note 7] Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Turkmen)
Some Cushitic languages (Somali, Afar, Oromo)
Bantu languages (for example: Swahili)
Vietnamese (an Austroasiatic language)[note 8]
Logographic 1541[3] Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Min, Wu, Yue, Jin, Gan, Hakka and others)
Japanese (Kanji)
Korean (Hanja)[note 9]
Vietnamese (Chu Nom obsolete)
Zhuang (Sawndip)
Eastern Asia, Singapore
Abjad or Abugida (when diacritics are used) 828[3] Arabic (a Semitic language)
Several Indo-Iranian languages (Persian, Kurdish, Urdu, Punjabi (Shahmukhi in Pakistan), Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Kashmiri)
Some Turkic languages (Uyghur, Kazakh (in China), Azeri (in Iran))

Malay (in Brunei)

Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Libya, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen
Abugida 480.5 Hindi, Nepali, Marathi, Bhojpuri India, Nepal and Fiji
Alphabet 289[3] The majority of the Slavic languages (Bulgarian and Macedonian, Russian, Serbian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, others). Non-Slavic languages of the former Soviet Union, such as West- and East Caucasian languages (Abkhaz, Chechen, Avar, others), Uralic languages (Karelian, others), Iranian languages (Ossetic, Tajik, others) and Turkic language (Kyrgyz, Tatar, Azeri (formerly), and others). Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Tajikistan and Ukraine
Abugida 234 Some Indo-Iranian languages (Assamese, Bengali) Bangladesh and India
Syllabary 123 Japanese Japan
Abugida 83 Telugu India
Alphabet, featural 81.7 Korean, Cia-Cia (an Austronesian language) North Korea and South Korea, Indonesia
Abugida 78.6 Tamil India, Sri Lanka, Singapore
Abugida 70 Thai Thailand
Abugida 57.1 Gujarati India
Abugida 45[note 10] Kannada (a Dravidian language) India
Abugida 41.85 Amharic, Tigrinya Ethiopia, Eritrea
Abugida 39[note 11] Burmese (a Lolo-Burmese language) Myanmar
Abugida 38 Malayalam India
Abugida 35 Odia India
Abugida 27.743 Punjabi India
Abugida 16 Sinhalese Sri Lanka
Abugida 16 Khmer Cambodia
Alphabet 13.5 Greek Greece, Cyprus
Ol Chiki
ᱚᱞ ᱪᱤᱠᱤ
Alphabet 7.3 Santali India
Abugida 7 Lao (a Tai language) Laos
Abjad (or rarely Abugida when diacritics are used) or Alphabet when used for Yiddish 6.5 Hebrew, Yiddish Israel
Abugida 6.241 Dzongkha, Tibetan and Sikkimese China, Bhutan, India
Alphabet 5.4 Armenian Armenia
Alphabet 5.2 Mongolian Mongolia, China
Alphabet 3.7 Georgian Georgia
ꯃꯩꯇꯩ ꯃꯌꯦꯛ
Abugida 2[3] Meitei (officially termed as "Manipuri") (a Sino-Tibetan language) India
Abugida 0.34 Maldivian Maldives
Canadian Syllabics
ᑯᖾᖹ ᖿᐟᖻ ᓱᖽᐧᖿ
Abugida 0.07[3] Inuktitut (an Inuit language), some Algonquian languages (Cree, Iyuw Iyimuun, Innu-aimun, Anishinaabemowin, Siksika), some Athabaskan languages (Dakelh, Dene K'e, Denesuline) Canada

Undeciphered and possible writing systems[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 Isthmian script and Indus script, 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 the Indus script is writing, and the Phaistos Disc has so little content or context that its nature is undetermined.

Undeciphered manuscripts[edit]

Comparatively recent manuscripts and other texts written in undeciphered (and often unidentified) writing systems; some of these may represent ciphers of known languages or hoaxes.

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. Some of these are used for transcription purposes by linguists; others are pedagogical in nature or intended as general orthographic reforms.

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]

Long-distance signaling[edit]

Alternative alphabets[edit]

Fictional writing systems[edit]

See also[edit]


  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 official languages are Georgian and Abkhazian (in Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia), 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.
  2. ^ Difficult to determine, as it is used to write a very large number of languages with varying literacy rates among them.
  3. ^ alphabet originally created to this language
  4. ^ replaced the runic alphabet
  5. ^ replaced the Ogham
  6. ^ replaced the Arabic alphabet
  7. ^ replaced the Arabic script
  8. ^ replaced the Chu Nom
  9. ^ Hanja has been banned[citation needed] 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.
  10. ^ Based on 46 million speakers of Kannada, Tulu, Konkani, Kodava, Badaga in a state with a 75.6 literacy rate. url=
  11. ^ Based on 42 million speakers of Burmese in a country (Myanmar) with a 92% literacy rate.


  1. ^ Halliday, M.A.K., Spoken and written language, Deakin University Press, 1985, p.19
  2. ^ Vaughan, Don (23 Nov 2020). "The World's 5 Most Commonly Used Writing Systems". Britannica. Retrieved 2023-04-13.
  3. ^ a b c d e Population using script where it is official, according to 100% alphabetization.

External links[edit]