In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish "true" alphabets from two other types of segmental script, abjads and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants. In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters. Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts ; true alphabets include Latin , Cyrillic, and Korean hangul ; and abugidas are used to write Tigrinya , Amharic , Hindi , and Thai.
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In the wider sense, an alphabet is a script that is segmental at the phoneme level—that is, it has separate glyphs for individual sounds and not for larger units such as syllables or words. In the narrower sense, some scholars distinguish "true" alphabets from two other types of segmental script, abjads and abugidas. These three differ from each other in the way they treat vowels: abjads have letters for consonants and leave most vowels unexpressed; abugidas are also consonant-based, but indicate vowels with diacritics to or a systematic graphic modification of the consonants.
In alphabets in the narrow sense, on the other hand, consonants and vowels are written as independent letters. Examples of present-day abjads are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts ; true alphabets include Latin , Cyrillic, and Korean hangul ; and abugidas are used to write Tigrinya , Amharic , Hindi , and Thai. The Canadian Aboriginal syllabics are also an abugida rather than a syllabary as their name would imply, since each glyph stands for a consonant that is modified by rotation to represent the following vowel.
In a true syllabary, each consonant-vowel combination would be represented by a separate glyph. All three types may be augmented with syllabic glyphs. These are the only time vowels are indicated. The boundaries between the three types of segmental scripts are not always clear-cut. For example, Sorani Kurdish is written in the Arabic script , which is normally an abjad.
However, in Kurdish, writing the vowels is mandatory, and full letters are used, so the script is a true alphabet. Other languages may use a Semitic abjad with mandatory vowel diacritics, effectively making them abugidas. On the other hand, the Phagspa script of the Mongol Empire was based closely on the Tibetan abugida , but all vowel marks were written after the preceding consonant rather than as diacritic marks.
Although short a was not written, as in the Indic abugidas, one could argue that the linear arrangement made this a true alphabet. Conversely, the vowel marks of the Tigrinya abugida and the Amharic abugida ironically, the original source of the term "abugida" have been so completely assimilated into their consonants that the modifications are no longer systematic and have to be learned as a syllabary rather than as a segmental script.
Even more extreme, the Pahlavi abjad eventually became logographic. See below. For tonal languages , further classification can be based on their treatment of tone, though names do not yet exist to distinguish the various types.
Some alphabets disregard tone entirely, especially when it does not carry a heavy functional load, as in Somali and many other languages of Africa and the Americas. Such scripts are to tone what abjads are to vowels. Most commonly, tones are indicated with diacritics, the way vowels are treated in abugidas.
This is the case for Vietnamese a true alphabet and Thai an abugida. In Thai, tone is determined primarily by the choice of consonant, with diacritics for disambiguation. In the Pollard script , an abugida, vowels are indicated by diacritics, but the placement of the diacritic relative to the consonant is modified to indicate the tone. More rarely, a script may have separate letters for tones, as is the case for Hmong and Zhuang. For most of these scripts, regardless of whether letters or diacritics are used, the most common tone is not marked, just as the most common vowel is not marked in Indic abugidas; in Zhuyin not only is one of the tones unmarked, but there is a diacritic to indicate lack of tone, like the virama of Indic.
The number of letters in an alphabet can be quite small. The Book Pahlavi script, an abjad, had only twelve letters at one point, and may have had even fewer later on. Today the Rotokas alphabet has only twelve letters. However, Hawaiian Braille has only 13 letters. While Rotokas has a small alphabet because it has few phonemes to represent just eleven , Book Pahlavi was small because many letters had been conflated—that is, the graphic distinctions had been lost over time, and diacritics were not developed to compensate for this as they were in Arabic , another script that lost many of its distinct letter shapes.
For example, a comma-shaped letter represented g, d, y, k, or j. However, such apparent simplifications can perversely make a script more complicated. In later Pahlavi papyri , up to half of the remaining graphic distinctions of these twelve letters were lost, and the script could no longer be read as a sequence of letters at all, but instead each word had to be learned as a whole—that is, they had become logograms as in Egyptian Demotic.
A Venn diagram showing the Greek left , Cyrillic bottom and Latin right alphabets, which share many of the same letters , although they have different pronunciations The largest segmental script is probably an abugida, Devanagari. The Hindi alphabet must represent both Sanskrit and modern vocabulary, and so has been expanded to 58 with the khutma letters letters with a dot added to represent sounds from Persian and English.
Thai has a total of 59 symbols, consisting of 44 consonants, 13 vowels and 2 syllabics, not including 4 diacritics for tone marks and one for vowel length. The largest known abjad is Sindhi , with 51 letters. The largest alphabets in the narrow sense include Kabardian and Abkhaz for Cyrillic , with 58 and 56 letters, respectively, and Slovak for the Latin script , with With 33 letters, it is the largest true alphabet where each letter is graphically independent. The Georgian alphabet is much closer to Greek than the other Caucasian alphabets.
The letter order parallels the Greek, with the consonants without a Greek equivalent organized at the end of the alphabet. The origins of the alphabet are still unknown. Syllabaries typically contain 50 to glyphs, and the glyphs of logographic systems typically number from the many hundreds into the thousands.
Thus a simple count of the number of distinct symbols is an important clue to the nature of an unknown script. It was created in year A.
Alphabetical order Main article: Alphabetical order Alphabets often come to be associated with a standard ordering of their letters, which can then be used for purposes of collation —namely for the listing of words and other items in what is called alphabetical order.
In French, these are not considered to be additional letters for the purposes of collation. It is unknown whether the earliest alphabets had a defined sequence. However, a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BC preserve the alphabet in two sequences. Runic used an unrelated Futhark sequence, which was later simplified.
Arabic uses its own sequence, although Arabic retains the traditional abjadi order for numbering. The Brahmic family of alphabets used in India use a unique order based on phonology : The letters are arranged according to how and where they are produced in the mouth. This organization is used in Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korean hangul , and even Japanese kana , which is not an alphabet. Names of letters The Phoenician letter names, in which each letter was associated with a word that begins with that sound acrophony , continue to be used to varying degrees in Samaritan , Aramaic , Syriac , Hebrew , Greek and Arabic.
The names were abandoned in Latin , which instead referred to the letters by adding a vowel usually e before or after the consonant; the two exceptions were Y and Z , which were borrowed from the Greek alphabet rather than Etruscan, and were known as Y Graeca "Greek Y" pronounced I Graeca "Greek I" and zeta from Greek —this discrepancy was inherited by many European languages, as in the term zed for Z in all forms of English other than American English. The French names from which the English names are derived preserve the qualities of the English vowels from before the Great Vowel Shift.
In Cyrillic originally the letters were given names based on Slavic words; this was later abandoned as well in favor of a system similar to that used in Latin. Letters of Armenian alphabet also have distinct letter names. Orthography and pronunciation Main article: Phonemic orthography When an alphabet is adopted or developed to represent a given language, an orthography generally comes into being, providing rules for the spelling of words in that language. In accordance with the principle on which alphabets are based, these rules will generally map letters of the alphabet to the phonemes significant sounds of the spoken language.
In a perfectly phonemic orthography there would be a consistent one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the phonemes, so that a writer could predict the spelling of a word given its pronunciation, and a speaker would always know the pronunciation of a word given its spelling, and vice versa.
However this ideal is not usually achieved in practice; some languages such as Spanish and Finnish come close to it, while others such as English deviate from it to a much larger degree. The pronunciation of a language often evolves independently of its writing system, and writing systems have been borrowed for languages they were not designed for, so the degree to which letters of an alphabet correspond to phonemes of a language varies greatly from one language to another and even within a single language.
Languages may fail to achieve a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds in any of several ways: A language may represent a given phoneme by a combination of letters rather than just a single letter. Two-letter combinations are called digraphs and three-letter groups are called trigraphs.
Kabardian also uses a tetragraph for one of its phonemes, namely "кхъу". A language may represent the same phoneme with two or more different letters or combinations of letters.
A language may spell some words with unpronounced letters that exist for historical or other reasons. Pronunciation of individual words may change according to the presence of surrounding words in a sentence sandhi. Different dialects of a language may use different phonemes for the same word. A language may use different sets of symbols or different rules for distinct sets of vocabulary items, such as the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries, or the various rules in English for spelling words from Latin and Greek, or the original Germanic vocabulary.
National languages sometimes elect to address the problem of dialects by simply associating the alphabet with the national standard. Some national languages like Finnish , Armenian , Turkish , Russian , Serbo-Croatian Serbian , Croatian and Bosnian and Bulgarian have a very regular spelling system with a nearly one-to-one correspondence between letters and phonemes.
Strictly speaking, these national languages lack a word corresponding to the verb "to spell" meaning to split a word into its letters , the closest match being a verb meaning to split a word into its syllables. In standard Spanish , one can tell the pronunciation of a word from its spelling, but not vice versa, as certain phonemes can be represented in more than one way, but a given letter is consistently pronounced. French , with its silent letters and its heavy use of nasal vowels and elision , may seem to lack much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, but its rules on pronunciation, though complex, are actually consistent and predictable with a fair degree of accuracy.
At the other extreme are languages such as English, where the pronunciations of many words simply have to be memorized as they do not correspond to the spelling in a consistent way. For English, this is partly because the Great Vowel Shift occurred after the orthography was established, and because English has acquired a large number of loanwords at different times, retaining their original spelling at varying levels.
Even English has general, albeit complex, rules that predict pronunciation from spelling, and these rules are successful most of the time; rules to predict spelling from the pronunciation have a higher failure rate. Sometimes, countries have the written language undergo a spelling reform to realign the writing with the contemporary spoken language. These can range from simple spelling changes and word forms to switching the entire writing system itself, as when Turkey switched from the Arabic alphabet to a Latin-based Turkish alphabet.
The standard system of symbols used by linguists to represent sounds in any language, independently of orthography, is called the International Phonetic Alphabet. See also.
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