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.
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 – Examples: Arabic and Hebrew, the greens on both maps.
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.
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.
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).
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.
tip: to hear your country’s language spoken, search for it at YouTube or copy and paste some English into Google Translate.
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.
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.
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.