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Different languages, different scripts: writing systems around the world


Salman Rušdi, Ameli Notomb and Den Braun. One of the highlights of my recent trip to Montenegro, was seeing these familiar yet unfamiliar names on the shelves of a former hammam which had been converted into a bookshop. I was surprised to learn that in Serbia and Montenegro (but not in Croatia), foreign names are transliterated in both Cyrillic and Latin script. Transliteration is very common between writing scripts or systems, and is what is happening when, for example, an Arabic name is written in English, or when Lancôme is sold as ランコム in Japan, but it was the first time I’d come across transliteration within a shared writing system.

But what exactly is a writing script or system? To put it simply, a writing system is a way of recording language in a written form, and different systems use different symbols or scripts to do so. For example, as we’ve seen, Serbia uses two scripts; Latin and Cyrillic. Latin script is what you’re reading now, the series of letters (plus or minus a few accented characters such as è, ö, ĉ, đ, etc.), that are used to write most European languages, from Welsh to Polish. Latin is a descendant of the script used by ancient Romans, which, in its turn, descends from Egyptian hieroglyphics by way of the Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans. 

Cyrillic is what many non-linguists might be familiar with as “the Russian script”, and indeed the majority of Cyrillic scripts users are Russian. However, it is also used by Slav and Slav-influenced languages, such as Serbian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, Bulgarian and Macedonian. Cyrillic became one of the three official scripts of the European Union in 2007 when Bulgaria joined the EU and in 2013 went on to join the two other scripts, Latin and Greek (used by Greeks and Coptic Egyptians), on EU bank notes. Cyrillic script is believed to have originated in Bulgaria in the 9th century and is based on older Greek and Cyrillic scripts, undergoing reform in the 18th century under the influence of Peter the Great.

Of course, Latin, Greek and Cyrillic are but three of the hundreds of scripts or writing systems that exist or have existed around the world. One kind of writing system is pictographic, made up of ideograms that convey an idea or concept, and has a very modern example in the form of emojis. Logographic systems – such as Chinese or Egyptian hieroglyphics – capture meaning components of words, rather than capturing the sounds or ‘phonemes’ only. Most of the systems discussed earlier in this article are true alphabets with symbols representing vowels and consonants. Arabic and Hebrew scripts are instead abjads – scripts that either don’t write the vowel sounds or instead use a diacritical mark to indicate them.

While scripts still in use in Europe are few in number, around the world scripts come in all shapes and sizes. If asked to think of language scripts apart from Latin and Cyrillic, you might think of Arabic and Korean hangul, which are both segmental scripts, or the Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji, hiragana and katakana (yes Japanese does indeed have at least 3 scripts!) that are principally logographic systems mixed with syllabaries. The Arabic script is used to write Modern Standard Arabic and, in an adapted form, Persian, while in the past it was also used to write Hausa and Malay, among others. Another script that is very common is the Devanagari script, which is used by over 120 languages including Hindi, Nepali, Sanskrit and Marathi. The Urdu script, like the Perso-Arabic script, is derived from the Arabic script and is used, as the name suggests, for writing Urdu.

Writing systems, like all things, change over time and reflect the community of speakers’ history and society. For example, to write what we call Chinese, you have two main scripts – Simplified and Traditional. Traditional script is in use in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan but in mainland China and Singapore, they use the Simplified Chinese script. The Simplified Chinese script is mainly the result of ‘simplifications’ proposed in the 1950s and 60s by the PRC government, whereas the Traditional script keeps to the older form. Interestingly, while Taiwan and Hong Kong both use the Traditional Chinese script, they are using it to write the Mandarin and Cantonese spoken languages respectively.

Of course, different communities and countries also use different scripts to write the same language. For example, Muslims in India use a form of Perso-Arabic script called Shahmukhi to write Punjabi, whereas other communities use a script called Gurmukhī. You can see similar patterns in the former Yugoslavia where Croatia mainly uses the Latin script while, officially, Serbia and Montenegro favour Cyrillic script, though popular media in these countries makes increasing use of Latin script.

While we mentioned previously that Kazakh uses Cyrillic, the Kazakhstani government plans that by 2025 the language will be written in Latin script instead. Kazakh is actually a very interesting microcosm of how history affects scripts; it was first written using the Arabic script, then switched to a form of Latin script adapted for Turkic languages, before changing to Cyrillic script in the 1940s as part of the Soviet Union’s russification policy. Tajik, a fellow language of the Asian former Soviet bloc which is related to Persian, also made a similar journey from Perso-Arabic to Latin in the 1920s, and then to Cyrillic in the 1930s, though so far there is no sign of a switch back to Latin there. Historically, similar changes occurred with Turkish under Atatürk, switching, in the 1920s, from the Arabic script used for a thousand years and by the Ottoman empire, to a form of Latin script which is still used today.

As you can see, there is a multitude of scripts to be explored, which is both the challenge and the appeal for the language learner, as in addition to grammar and vocabulary they may also need to learn an entirely new writing system!

Scripts, just like the languages that adopt them, reflect the history and culture of the people using them, from the days of the stylus and quill all the way up to the present day of the printing press, typesetting, and on-screen text. So next time you see an emoji, take a moment to reflect on the historical antecedents of this modern pictographic writing system – in many ways, they are the oldest script of all!

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