Thursday, November 28, 2013

A world of characters

Did you know that the word alphabet comes from alpha and beta to symbolize that there are both consonants and vowels represented in the alphabet.  A writing system that does not have both consonants and vowels as separate characters is not an alphabet.  Here are some different kinds of writing systems.

An abjad
An abjad contains only consonants.  The vowels are added through diacritics which are little marks added above or below the stream of consonants.
Arabic and Hebrew are examples of this writing system.

An abugida
A character from an abugida typically has both consonant and vowel components combining to make a syllable (though separate vowels are often included to so that a word can start/end with a vowel sound).     Diacritic marks are used to change or mute the vowel sound.
This type of writing system is common in Southeast Asia; examples include Thai, Lao, and Bengali.

A syllabary
A syllabary is a writing system that combines consonant and vowel sounds to make a syllable (again separate vowels are used as well).
Japanese Hiragana and Katakana are examples of this as well as Inuktitut (Eastern Canadian Inuit).

A semanto-phonetic 
These symbols represent both sound and meaning.  They typically have a large number of characters (some estimates of the number of Chinese characters go up to 80 000).  They include both pictograms which derive from pictures of things, ideograms which represent abstract ideas and compound characters which have both a semantic (hints at meaning) and phonetic (hints at pronunciation) element.
A modern example is Chinese (and therefore Japanese Kanji) and a historical example is ancient Greek hieroglyphics.

I find it interesting to think about how different the languages and therefore the starting point of some of my students actually is.  We often notice how students from a language which uses the Latin alphabet pick up some things faster than those who aren't.  Have you ever noticed the difference between those from a similar kind of alphabet and those from an entirely different kind of alphabet?

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