Grappling with Graphemes

July 2014 Amy Lupin

Writing systems originated as a means of keeping records and, in some cases, as a means of divination. These days, though, writing systems are used for more than just that, and they have therefore become an essential part of communication.

There are several types of writing systems, including alphabets, logographies, syllabaries, abjads and abugidas. Some writing systems, however, make use of several different types of graphemes or symbols. As a result, the lines between the different writing systems are sometimes blurred.

A grapheme is essentially the smallest unit of a writing system, and it can be used to represent a particular sound or a group of sounds. Graphemes typically do not have any meaning on their own.

Alphabets make use of graphemes or letters that represent a particular sound. Alphabets typically include letters for both consonants and vowels.The very first alphabet was the Phoenician alphabet, which emerged prior to 1200 BC, although it can also be classified as an abjad. The Phoenician alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic alphabet and to the Greek alphabet, which in turn gave rise to the Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet is widely used today, but it is by no means the only one used.

Unlike alphabets, abjads only have symbols that indicate consonants. That is not to say, though, that the spoken languages represented by abjads don't make use of vowels, as vowels form an integral part of all syllables. Abjads are typically used in Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew. Some abjads have been expanded to include diacritics in order to differentiate between the vowel sounds. Hebrew, for example, makes use of a series of dots and lines to indicate the different vowel sounds.

Logographies make use of logograms, which are graphemes that represent words or morphemes. Logograms are sometimes referred to as ideograms, but there is contrast between the two terms. Ideograms generally refer to graphemes that represent ideas, rather than words or morphemes specifically. A number of ancient scripts, like cuneiform and hieroglyphics, made use of logograms. An example of a modern language that makes use of logograms is Chinese.

Syllabaries consist of syllabograms, which are symbols that represent syllables.These typically represent either just a vowel or a consonant followed by a vowel. Generally, there is one symbol for each syllable in that particular language or script. A number of scripts from ancient times used syllabaries, including Linear B. Japanese uses two types of syllabaries, hiragana and katakana.

Abugidas are also sometimes referred to as alphasyllabaries. Their symbols represent consonants with inherent vowels. However, unlike with syllabaries, these symbols can be modified in order to indicate other vowels. For example, symbols can be rotated, or they can include diacritics to make this distinction. Some languages that make use of abugidas are Inuktitut and Hindi.