Inuktitut is one of the principal Inuit languages of Canada. It is a polysynthetic language, a language “in which words are composed of many morphemes (word parts that have independent meaning but may or may not be able to stand alone).” Because of this, writing words using Latin characters becomes unwieldy, because the language features very long sentence-words.

Instead, as explained in the video below, an abugida is used in place of an alphabet. An abugida is a writing system in which each symbol represents a consonant and a vowel. The shape of the symbol tells you the consonant, and the direction it’s pointing tells you the vowel. It was created in the 1760’s by missionaries, and offers an interesting example of the cleanness and simplicity of a written language system that was designed, rather than the more complicated systems we are used to, which evolved over long periods of time.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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Discussion

5 Thoughts on "A Written Language Without an Alphabet"

I’m a big fan of syllabaries and abugidas for strongly syllabic languages. Abugidas are so elegant because there aren’t usually as many symbols to memorize as there can be with a syllabary. I’ve had a constructed linguistics hobby for more than two decades now, and I’ve only in the last few years started developing a language that uses an abugida. It still needs a lot of work, but I really feel good about the direction it’s headed. Thanks for this tidbit about Inuktitut. I didn’t realize it used this writing system as well. Beautiful!

I was wondering, maybe you were too, about the difference between an abugida and a syllabary. Wikipedia says, “an abugida is in contrast with a syllabary, where letters with shared consonants or vowels show no particular resemblance to one another, and also with an alphabet proper, where independent letters are used to denote both consonants and vowels.”

Exactly right. Japanese has a system of two syllabaries: hiragana for native words and katakana for imported words. They are typically taught as series grouped by consonant sounds. So, for example, ka ki ku ke ko. It was always interesting to me that each consonant series didn’t use some common base symbol that was modified in some minor way to indicate which vowel sound accompanied it. If it had done so, it would be an abugida instead of a syllabary. It’s a lot of symbols to memorize, each syllabary has 46 basic symbols, 71 when you include diacritics, but it’s very pretty and a neat way to handle written language.

The discussion of alphabets, abugidas, and syllabaries leaves out the abjads, writing systems in which the writing of vowels tends to be deprecated. Arabic and Hebrew are the best-known abjads. Semitic morphology and syntax make it relatively easy, if one is fluent in the language, to guess correctly the vowels needed for the spoken words to “make sense”.

Good point. I didn’t realize abjad was its own category. I wondered at first how speakers (or writers, rather) of the language overcome the potential for significant ambiguity, but as you said, morphology and syntax provides adequate constraints on the possible interpretations of vowel sounds in the words. One really nice aspect of it is that, in Arabic for example, common roots can easily be discerned for words, despite any inflections that might change the vowel sounds in those words. In fact, abjads seem to be well suited for languages that are vocalically inflectional.

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