10 of the Most Interesting Alphabets in the World
If you are reading this then you are familiar with the English alphabet, but did you know there are somewhere between 200-400 different interesting alphabets in the world? Nobody is quite sure of the exact number of alphabets currently in use due to the rise and fall of cultures across the world. Many of the great civilizations from centuries back had their own alphabet that is now obsolete, while there are also small tribes that have their own alphabet and language the rest of the world knows little about.
As Tim Brookes, the author of the online resource, Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, told Mental Floss, “The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems – really something between 15 and 20. And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”
Not wanting to forget some of these interesting alphabets that are becoming close to being extinct, here is a look at some unique alphabets that make up the world language.
10 of the Most Interesting Alphabets in the World
There are actually three different alphabets used by the Georgian people. They are Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri, and Mkhedruli. While each script is written differently, the letters share the same name and are written the same way, from left to right. Nobody is quite sure when the Georgian alphabet came into use, with most speculating it was sometime during the 5th century.
All three of the alphabets include 33 letters (originally 38 letters) and Mkhedruli is the most widely used by citizens. Asomtavruli and Nuskhuri are predominantly used by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Developed by Armenian linguist Mesrop Mashtots, the Armenian alphabet was widely used throughout the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. Consisting of 39 letters, (there were originally 36 but three more were added over the years) the alphabet looks like a bunch of lines and squiggles written using Comic Sams. Many of the letters used by Armenians form words that no other European nation uses and have unique sounds when spoken.
What makes the Cherokee alphabet so fascinating is that it’s relatively new. Despite the Cherokee people having existed for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that an alphabet was created for the language they spoke. What’s even more remarkable is the guy who came up with the alphabet, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah, who had no clue how to read or write.
Fearful of the written language, the Cherokee thought it was evil magic, but Sequoyah believed that it could be a useful tool for his people. He developed a writing system known as a syllabary in 1803, with each symbol he wrote representing different syllables. He ended up with an 86-character alphabet that the Cherokee quickly embraced, with Sequoyah in charge of teaching those who wanted to learn.
“The Cherokee achieved 90% literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes told Mental Floss. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.” The sad news is that the alphabet is almost lost today, with the Indian Removal Act of 1830 causing a decline in its use.
Developed sometime before the birth of Christ, Ge’ez is a script used by people across Ethiopia and Eritrea. Another syllabary language, the 26-letter Ge’ez alphabet was created for the Ge’ez language, which is now only used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. That said, the Ge’ez script has influenced several other languages that are still being used by millions of people today.
The Sinhala language is one of the most widely used in Sri Lanka, with the Sinhala script the written version of the language. Consisting of two sets of letters, Sinhala is also used to write Sanskrit and Pali religious texts. Created around the third century BC, Sinhala is another alphabet still in use today, with over 17 million understanding the characters that make up the complex alphabet.
Descending from the Brahmic scripts, Sinhala might look like a lot of strange drawings, but it’s actually an in-depth language with many uses. Interestingly the Sinhalese language puts verbs at the end of sentences in a similar fashion to the way Yoda from Star Wars speaks.
The traditional Mongolian script was once known as Hudum Mongol bichig. It is a vertical script that looks similar to Arabic, with separate letters for consonants and vowels. It’s actually a quite beautiful script to gaze upon when compared to the Greek alphabet or Roman alphabet. It’s believed a Turkish tribe by the name of the Uighurs brought the alphabet to Mongolia in the 1100s. Genghis Khan was one of the first leaders to use the script to detail his historic deeds.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Mongolia ditched the ancient script for the Cyrillic alphabet. Despite this, the ancient alphabet is still in use, especially among those who live in the heart of the country. The alphabet is another that is taught syllable by syllable to the locals, although English-speaking people are taught letter by letter.
Originating from the ancient Brahmi script that first came to prominence in the third century BC Asia, the Balinese script is one of the main alphabets used by those who live on the island of Bali, Indonesia. Also known as Aksara Bali and Hanacaraka by the locals, it is used to write Balinese, Old Javanese, and Sanskrit.
Although Latin script has replaced the Balinese alphabet in everyday use, it is still used to write religious texts and for ceremonies. It consists of 47 letters and is known as an abugida, which is a letter system with a consonant-vowel combination.
Glagolitic is the oldest known Slavic alphabet, created sometime around the 9th century. A monk by the name of Saint Cyril was the man who came up with the new script. Based on the local dialect of the Slavic tribes, he designed the alphabet to translate old liturgical books into a newer language the Slavic people would understand.
As is often the case, Glagolitic has slowly been fazed out over the years, with the Cyrillic alphabet and Latin alphabet taking over. While some elderly citizens still communicate with the Glagolitic alphabet, it is mainly used when writing and translating religious texts.
Another cursive alphabet that’s a descendant of the Brahmi script, the Burmese alphabet is written left to right like most alphabets. What sets it apart from other similar alphabets is the fact that words are written without any spaces between them, although contemporary use has seen the addition of spaces to help prevent grammatical errors and make texts that much easier to understand.
First recorded in 1035, the Burmese alphabet contains 33 letters, with each representing a different syllable. Small marks known as diacritics are placed over or under constants so readers understand where to use the vowel in the symbol.
10. Ersu Shaba
This ancient Tibetan script differs from the rest of the alphabets on this list as it is a pictographic script. This means that instead of letters representing words, it’s pictures that make up the different words, with around 200 glyphs having been recognized. so far.
The images are drawn using a bamboo brush or animal hair, with the instruments dipped in different colored inks (mainly white, black, red, blue, green, and yellow). The colors can give the symbols different meanings, adding a whole other level of complexity to this alphabet.
Each word that the images represent is also a loose interpretation, so if you read each symbol in a row it won’t necessarily make sense. The reader has to interpret what the script is trying to say. As it can be hard to decipher, it is only used by high priests these days.
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