Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. Catch up on past installments here.

Illustration of the Dear Duolingo logo with Duo wearing sunglasses, looking cool, and surfing on a pencil. Behind the pencil is a line of graphite forming a Japanese character.

Hi, everyone! I'm Dr. Elizabeth Strong, and this is my first Dear Duolingo column. I'm a former French teacher, and I've studied many languages, including Irish and Italian—and I've always been interested in spelling and writing systems. That's why I was so eager to answer this week's question!

Our question this week:

Dear Duolingo,

How does one explain the different scripts or writing systems? Like Japanese kanji and Chinese, to the Arabic script and Greek script.

Thank y'all,
Spell It Out

Writing systems can vary significantly across languages, and each system captures certain kinds of information while leaving out others. Let's dig into all the different kinds of writing systems used around the world!

What is a writing system?

When people talk about a writing system, they’re usually referring to a script: a way of representing word sounds, signs (as in sign languages), or meanings through written symbols. For example, the words you’re reading right now use a script called the Roman (or Latin) alphabet. Many languages use this same script, often with adaptations like additional symbols or markings—for example, English, Spanish, German, Welsh, Polish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese all use the Roman alphabet!

Sometimes when people talk about a writing system, they are referring not just to a language’s script, but to a combination of its script and its orthography. Orthography refers to what the symbols of a script actually represent, as well as how they can be combined. 

A script is a language's written symbols, and its orthography is the spelling rules about what the symbols represent.

For example, English, Spanish, and German all use the letter j, but they have different rules of orthography (where the letter can be used and what sound it represents). In English, this letter usually represents the sound at the beginning of the word judge. In Spanish, it makes what English speakers would usually call an "h" sound, and in German, it makes what English speakers would usually call a "y" sound.

A language’s writing system may also be represented in different styles, such as print or cursive, and fonts, such as Comic Sans or Times New Roman. These are just slightly different visual ways of representing a script, and today we'll be focusing on the scripts themselves!

How to compare scripts

Scripts can be divided into individual letters or characters, depending on the script. The term letter is often used for languages like English where the symbol represents a sound in the language, while character is for languages like Chinese (or Japanese kanji) where the symbol represents some meaning. For example, in English the written symbol "d" stands for a sound made with your tongue on the ridge just behind your upper teeth, but it doesn't have a *meaning* the way dog *means* a specific kind of animal.

There can also be some variation in these terms depending on the language. For example, Japanese has three different scripts and you usually hear the word character used to describe symbols in all three of them, even though they represent different things:

  • kanji: symbols that represent meanings, for example 肉 is pronounced "niku" and means "meat"
  • hiragana: symbols that represent sounds, for example あ is pronounced "a"
  • katakana: symbols that represent sounds, for example ア is pronounced "a"

Some writing systems have diacritics or accent marks: symbols like dots or dashes attached to a letter or character. Diacritics and accent marks don't represent a specific sound or meaning, but they instead tell a reader something about the letter or character. For example, in Spanish, most accent marks tell you about which part of the word is stressed (so habló "he spoke" has stress on the "o"), while in French they tell you about which sound a letter makes (so French readers know é is pronounced like the vowel in the English word may and è is pronounced like English met).

6 types of scripts used around the world

There are many scripts that have been used to write languages over the millennia—some are still used today, but others have fallen out of use. You can find a list at the end of this post of the most commonly recognized scripts and examples of languages that can be written in them.

We can think of all these scripts as falling into one of six categories, based on what their letters or characters represent:

1. Featural scripts

Featural scripts represent some aspect of language other than consonants and vowels.

For example, Korean uses the Hangeul script, which is based on the places in the mouth where sounds are produced. The symbol ᄀ can have slightly different sounds depending on where in a word it occurs, but the symbol itself always represents a sound made in the back of the mouth.

SignWriting is another featural script that represents handshapes, movements, placement of the hands and arms, and facial features in signed languages.

2. Abjads

Abjad scripts traditionally represent only the consonants of a language as separate symbols. That's right—in some languages, you don't write the vowels at all! It is assumed that readers can figure out what vowels would go in the word just by reading the words in context. Sometimes these scripts also use diacritics (tiny symbols added to a main letter) as a way to optionally add vowels.

Hebrew is one of the most well-known examples of a language that uses an abjad. The word for "book" (sefer) can be written two ways:

  • Without diacritics: ספר (read right to left as s f r)
  • With diacritics: סֵפֶר (read right to left as se fe r)

Yiddish also uses Hebrew script, but always includes diacritics.

3. Alphabets

Alphabetic scripts represent consonant and vowel sounds as separate symbols.

Roman (or Latin), Greek, and Cyrillic are all alphabets, and despite their visual differences, they all work the same way: A symbol represents a sound, and symbols are combined in words to represent each sound of a word. Here are a few letters from three alphabets:

Roman Greek Cyrillic
A a
Α α А а
B b Β β Б б
D d Δ δ Д д

4. Abugidas

Abugida scripts represent syllables (a combination of consonant and vowel sounds) in a single symbol.

For example, Devanagari, the script used for Hindi, is an abugida. Syllables that start with the same consonant sound might look similar—here are syllables starting with with the sound "k":

  •  क (ka)
  •  कि (ki)
  •  कू (ku)
  •  के (ke)
  •  कॊ (ko)

5. Syllabaries

Syllabaries also represent syllables with a single symbol. However, with syllabary scripts, there isn't an element that looks the same across syllables with the same sound.

In the Japanese script hiragana, characters that represent a "k" plus a vowel sound don't have a similar appearance:

  • か (ka) 
  • き (ki)
  • く (ku)
  • け (ke)
  • こ (ko)

6. Logographies

Logographic scripts represent units of meaning as separate characters.

The Chinese script hànzì is a logography: Each character has a meaning, and combinations of characters can have different meanings. For example:

  • 你 (nǐ) “you”
  • 好 (hǎo) “good”
  • 你好 (nǐ hǎo) “hello”

A note about transliteration

Transliteration is the process of representing the pronunciation of one script in the conventions of another script. For example, in the section above, the pronunciations in parentheses for the Hindi, Japanese, and Chinese symbols are transliterations of the pronunciation into the Roman alphabet. When something is transliterated into this specific alphabet, you may also hear it referred to as Romanization.

Some languages have a single, fairly standard set of transliteration conventions, but others may have multiple systems of conventions developed by various people at different times.

Now that's worth writing home about!

Learning about writing systems is a fun way to see just how differently people and cultures around the world represent their languages.

For more answers to your language and script questions, get in touch with us by emailing dearduolingo@duolingo.com.

Other major scripts of the world

Note that some of the languages listed here may also be written in other scripts.

Script Type Example languages
Arabic abjad Arabic, Persian (with modifications), Urdu (with modifications)
Aramaic abjad Aramaic
Armenian Alphabet Armenian
Balinese abugida Austronesian Balinese, Old Javanese, Sanskrit
Bengali (or Bangla) abugida Bengali (Bangla), Sanskrit
Burmese abugida Burmese, Pali, Sanskrit
Canadian syllabics abugida Blackfoot, Cree, Inuktitut, Ojibwe/Chippewa
Cherokee syllabary Cherokee
Coptic alphabet Coptic, Egyptian
Cuneiform logography Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite, Old Persian, Sumerian
Ditema tsa Dinoko featural script IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sesotho, Setswana, Xitsonga
Garay alphabet Mandinka, Wolof
Gothic alphabet Gothic
Great Lakes Algonquian featural script Fox, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Potawatomi
Gujarati abugida Gujarati, Kutchi, Rajput Garasia, Sanskrit
Gurmukhī abugida Punjabi
Hieroglyphics logography Egyptian
Javanese abugida Indonesian, Javanese, Sanskrit, Sundanese
Khmer abugida Khmer, Pali, Sanskrit
Lao abugida Isan, Lao, Thai
Malayalam abugida Jeseri, Konkani, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tulu
Mayan logography Ch’orti’, Yucatec
Mongolian alphabet Mongolian
Ogham alphabet Old Irish, Pictish
Osage featural script Osage
Phoenician abjad Ammonite, Edomite, Moabite, Phoenician, Punic
Runes alphabet Old English, Old High German, Old Norse
Shahmukhi abugida Punjabi
Sinhala abugida Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala
Tamil abugida Badaga, Irula, Paniya, Saurashtra, Tamil
Telugu abugida Gondi, Sanskrit, Telugu
Thai abugida Southern Thai, Thai
Tibetan abugida Balti, Dzongkha, Sanskrit, Sherpa, Tibetan