browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Languages

Humans speak thousands of different languages but use only about three dozen different scripts or writing systems. The systems you may be familiar with use either alphabets, abjads, abugidas, or a logographic+syllabic system.

Vowels and consonants

All human languages are composed of vowels and consonants. What is the difference between a vowel (in English a, e, i, o, u) and consonant (all the rest)? A vowel shapes a continuous sound. A consonant momentarily stops or restricts sound. You can sing a vowel but not a consonant. To spell a consonant, you use a vowel (bee, cee, dee, ef, etc,). To spell a vowel, you use only the vowel.

writing systems

writing systems

Full alphabet

alphabet – Examples: Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, the grays and blues on the map below right.

Each unit is a consonant or vowel. Vowels have status equal to consonants.

Latin writing system – used for English, Dutch, and other Western European languages. Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia use alphabet writing systems, too.

Abjad

abjad – Examples: Arabic and Hebrew, the greens on both maps.

writing systems worldwide

writing systems worldwide

Each symbol always or usually stands for a consonant, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vowel.

Arabic – used for Arabic – see alphabet below

The Arabic script is written from right to left in a cursive style.

Hebrew – used for Hebrew and Aramaic (Jesus’ language) – example on right

The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters; five have different forms when they are used at the end of a word. Hebrew is written from right to left.

Biblical Hebrew

Biblical Hebrew

Abugida

abugida – the oranges and yellows on the map above right

Each unit is based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is obligatory but secondary.

Brahmic, specifically Devanagari – used for Sanskrit and Hindi

Siamese, the language of Thailand, is also an abugida language.

Arabic alphabet

Arabic alphabet

It is written from left to right, does not have distinct letter cases (capitalization), and is recognizable by a horizontal line that runs along the top of full letters.

A note on these terms

The first four letters of the Greek alphabet are  α,β,γ,δ: alpha, beta, gamma, delta. The word “alphabet” uses the first two. The word “abugida” uses all four: a – bu – gi – da. The word “abjad” uses the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet: a-b-j-d: أبجد (ʾábjad).

Logographic+syllabic

Logogram – the reds on the map above right. Egyptian hieroglyphics are logograms.

Chinese – used for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean

A character generally represents one syllable of spoken Chinese and may be a word on its own or a part of a polysyllabic word. The characters themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects, abstract notions, or pronunciation.

The 30 Most Spoken Languages of the World

tip: to hear your country’s language spoken, search for it at YouTube or copy and paste some English into Google Translate.

Creole

Worldwide, there are several dozen creole languages. They are complete languages that developed from a mixture of two or more other languages. Creoles are  the dominant, native language of a community.

List of creole languages

Pidgin

A pidgin is a simplified language that lets two or more groups of people who do not have a language in common communicate, usually for trading purposes. It is not the native language of any speech community, but is instead learned as a second or third language.

Romanization

How can native English speakers learn to pronounce these languages? Romanization lets someone who is unfamiliar with the original script pronounce the significant sounds of the source language with reasonable accuracy. Romanizations are used for teaching, foreign-language publications, and computer keyboards.

worldlanguages2