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An abjad ( /ˈæbæd/ ) [1] is a type of writing system in which (in contrast to true alphabets) each symbol or glyph stands for a consonant, in effect leaving it to readers to infer or otherwise supply an appropriate vowel. The term is a neologism introduced in 1990 by Peter T. Daniels. [2] Other terms for the same concept include: partial phonemic script, segmentally linear defective phonographic script, consonantary, consonant writing and consonantal alphabet. [3]


So-called impure abjads represent vowels with either optional diacritics, a limited number[ specify ] of distinct vowel glyphs, or both. The name abjad is based on the Arabic alphabet's first (in its original order) four letters — corresponding to a, b, j, d — to replace the more common terms "consonantary" and "consonantal alphabet", in describing the family of scripts classified as "West Semitic."


The name "abjad" (abjadأبجد) is derived from pronouncing the first letters of the Arabic alphabet order, in its original order. This ordering matches that of the older Phoenician, Hebrew and Semitic proto-alphabets: specifically, aleph, bet, gimel, dalet.


According to the formulations of Peter T. Daniels, [4] abjads differ from alphabets in that only consonants, not vowels, are represented among the basic graphemes. Abjads differ from abugidas, another category defined by Daniels, in that in abjads, the vowel sound is implied by phonology, and where vowel marks exist for the system, such as nikkud for Hebrew and ḥarakāt for Arabic, their use is optional and not the dominant (or literate) form. Abugidas mark all vowels (other than the "inherent" vowel) with a diacritic, a minor attachment to the letter, or a standalone glyph. Some abugidas use a special symbol to suppress the inherent vowel so that the consonant alone can be properly represented. In a syllabary, a grapheme denotes a complete syllable, that is, either a lone vowel sound or a combination of a vowel sound with one or more consonant sounds.

The antagonism of abjad versus alphabet, as it was formulated by Daniels, has been rejected by some other scholars because abjad is also used as a term not only for the Arabic numeral system but, which is most important in terms of historical grammatology, also as term for the alphabetic device (i.e. letter order) of ancient Northwest Semitic scripts in opposition to the 'south Arabian' order. This caused fatal effects on terminology in general and especially in (ancient) Semitic philology. Also, it suggests that consonantal alphabets, in opposition to, for instance, the Greek alphabet, were not yet true alphabets and not yet entirely complete, lacking something important to be a fully working script system. It has also been objected that, as a set of letters, an alphabet is not the mirror of what should be there in a language from a phonological point of view; rather, it is the data stock of what provides maximum efficiency with least effort from a semantic point of view. [5]


A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script containing a phrase which may mean 'to Baalat'. The line running from the upper left to lower right reads mt l b lt. Ba`alat.jpg
A specimen of Proto-Sinaitic script containing a phrase which may mean 'to Baalat'. The line running from the upper left to lower right reads mt l b lt.

The first abjad to gain widespread usage was the Phoenician abjad. Unlike other contemporary scripts, such as cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Phoenician script consisted of only a few dozen symbols. This made the script easy to learn, and seafaring Phoenician merchants took the script throughout the then-known world.

The Phoenician abjad was a radical simplification of phonetic writing, since hieroglyphics required the writer to pick a hieroglyph starting with the same sound that the writer wanted to write in order to write phonetically, much as man'yōgana (Chinese characters used solely for phonetic use) was used to represent Japanese phonetically before the invention of kana.

Phoenician gave rise to a number of new writing systems, including the widely used Aramaic abjad and the Greek alphabet. The Greek alphabet evolved into the modern western alphabets, such as Latin and Cyrillic, while Aramaic became the ancestor of many modern abjads and abugidas of Asia.

Impure abjads

Al-`Arabiyya, meaning "Arabic": an example of the Arabic script, which is an impure abjad. Arabic albayancalligraphy.svg
Al-ʻArabiyya, meaning "Arabic": an example of the Arabic script, which is an impure abjad.

Impure abjads have characters for some vowels, optional vowel diacritics, or both. The term pure abjad refers to scripts entirely lacking in vowel indicators. [6] However, most modern abjads, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Pahlavi, are "impure" abjads that is, they also contain symbols for some of the vowel phonemes, although the said non-diacritic vowel letters are also used to write certain consonants, particularly approximants that sound similar to long vowels. A "pure" abjad is exemplified (perhaps) by very early forms of ancient Phoenician, though at some point (at least by the 9th century BC) it and most of the contemporary Semitic abjads had begun to overload a few of the consonant symbols with a secondary function as vowel markers, called matres lectionis . [7] This practice was at first rare and limited in scope but became increasingly common and more developed in later times.

Addition of vowels

In the 9th century BC the Greeks adapted the Phoenician script for use in their own language. The phonetic structure of the Greek language created too many ambiguities when vowels went unrepresented, so the script was modified. They did not need letters for the guttural sounds represented by aleph , he , heth or ayin , so these symbols were assigned vocalic values. The letters waw and yod were also adapted into vowel signs; along with he, these were already used as matres lectionis in Phoenician. The major innovation of Greek was to dedicate these symbols exclusively and unambiguously to vowel sounds that could be combined arbitrarily with consonants (as opposed to syllabaries such as Linear B which usually have vowel symbols but cannot combine them with consonants to form arbitrary syllables).

Abugidas developed along a slightly different route. The basic consonantal symbol was considered to have an inherent "a" vowel sound. Hooks or short lines attached to various parts of the basic letter modify the vowel. In this way, the South Arabian alphabet evolved into the Ge'ez alphabet between the 5th century BC and the 5th century AD. Similarly, the Brāhmī script developed around the 3rd century BC (from the Aramaic abjad, it has been hypothesized).

The other major family of abugidas, Canadian Aboriginal syllabics, was initially developed in the 1840s by missionary and linguist James Evans for the Cree and Ojibwe languages. Evans used features of Devanagari script and Pitman shorthand to create his initial abugida. Later in the 19th century, other missionaries adapted Evans' system to other Canadian aboriginal languages. Canadian syllabics differ from other abugidas in that the vowel is indicated by rotation of the consonantal symbol, with each vowel having a consistent orientation.

Abjads and the structure of Semitic languages

The abjad form of writing is well-adapted to the morphological structure of the Semitic languages it was developed to write. This is because words in Semitic languages are formed from a root consisting of (usually) three consonants, the vowels being used to indicate inflectional or derived forms. For instance, according to Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, from the Arabic root ذ ب حDh-B-Ḥ (to slaughter) can be derived the forms ذَبَحَdhabaḥa (he slaughtered), ذَبَحْتَdhabaḥta (you (masculine singular) slaughtered), يُذَبِّحُyudhabbiḥu (he slaughters), and مَذْبَحmadhbaḥ (slaughterhouse). In most cases, the absence of full glyphs for vowels makes the common root clearer, allowing readers to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from familiar roots (especially in conjunction with context clues) and improving word recognition[ citation needed ][ dubious ] while reading for practiced readers.

By contrast, the Arabic and Hebrew scripts sometimes perform the role of true alphabets rather than abjads when used to write certain Indo-European languages, including Kurdish, Bosnian, and Yiddish.

Comparative chart of Abjads, extinct and extant

NameIn useCursiveDirection# of letters Matres lectionis Area of originUsed byLanguagesTime period (age)Influenced byWriting systems influenced
Syriac yesyesright-left22 consonants3Middle East Church of the East, Syrian Church Aramaic, Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic~ 100 BCE [8] AramaicNabatean, Palmyran, Mandaic, Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Avestan and Manichean [8]
Hebrew yesas a secondary script right-left22 consonants + 5 final letters4Middle East Israelis, Jewish diaspora communities, Second Temple Judea Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Italian, Yiddish, Ladino, many others 2nd century BCE Paleo-Hebrew, Early Aramaic
Arabic yesyesright-left283Middle East and North AfricaOver 400 million peopleArabic, Bosnian, Kashmiri, Malay, Persian, Pashto, Uyghur, Kurdish, Urdu, many others [8] 512 CE [9] [8] Nabataean Aramaic
Aramaic (Imperial) nonoright-left223Middle EastAchaemenid, Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empiresImperial Aramaic, Hebrew~ 500 BCE [8] PhoenicianLate Hebrew, Nabataean, Syriac
Aramaic (Early) nonoright-left22noneMiddle EastVarious Semitic Peoples~ 1000-900 BCE [ citation needed ]PhoenicianHebrew, Imperial Aramaic. [8]
Nabataean nonoright-left22noneMiddle EastNabataean Kingdom [10] Nabataean200 BCE [10] AramaicArabic
Middle Persian, (Pahlavi) nonoright-left223Middle East Sassanian Empire Pahlavi, Middle PersianAramaicPsalter, Avestan [8]
Psalter Pahlavi noyesright-left21yesNorthwestern China [8] Persian Script for Paper Writing [8] ~ 400 CE [11] Syriac [ citation needed ]
Phoenician nonoright-left, boustrophedon 22noneByblos [8] CanaanitesPhoenician, Punic, Hebrew ~ 1000-1500 BCE [8] Proto-Canaanite Alphabet [8] Punic (variant), Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew
Parthian nonoright-left22yesParthia (modern-day equivalent of Northeastern Iran, Southern Turkmenistan and Northwest Afghanistan) [8] Parthian & Sassanian periods of Persian Empire [8] Parthian~ 200 BCE [8] Aramaic
Sabaean nonoright-left, boustrophedon 29noneSouthern Arabia (Sheba)Southern ArabiansSabaean~ 500 BCE [8] Byblos [8] Ethiopic (Eritrea & Ethiopia) [8]
Punic nonoright-left22noneCarthage (Tunisia), North Africa, Mediterranean [8] Punic CulturePunic, Neo-PunicPhoenician [ citation needed ]
Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite nonoleft-right24noneEgypt, Sinai, CanaanCanaanitesCanaanite~ 1900-1700 BCEIn conjunction with Egyptian Hieroglyphs [ citation needed ]Phoenician, Hebrew
Ugaritic noyesleft-right30none, 3 characters for gs+vowelUgarit (modern-day Northern Syria)UgaritesUgaritic, Hurrian~ 1400 BCE [8] Proto-Sinaitic
South Arabian noyes (Zabūr - cursive form of the South Arabian script) Boustrophedon 29yesSouth-Arabia (Yemen)D'mt KingdomAmharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Semitic, Cushitic, Nilo-Saharan [ citation needed ]900 BCE [ citation needed ]Proto-SinaiticGe'ez (Ethiopia and Eritrea)
Sogdian nono (yes in later versions)right-left, left-right (vertical)203parts of China (Xinjiang), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, PakistanBuddhists, ManichaensSogdian~ 400 CESyriac Old Uyghur alphabet [8]
Samaritan yes (700 people)noright-left22noneLevantSamaritans (Nablus and Holon)Samaritan Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew~ 100-0 BCEPaleo-Hebrew Alphabet
Tifinagh yesnobottom-top, right-left, left-right,23yesNorth Africa Berbers Berber languages 2nd millennium BC [12] Phoenician, Arabic

See also

Related Research Articles

Alphabet Standard set of letters that represent phonemes of a spoken language

An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols or graphemes that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character represents a syllable, for instance, and logographic systems use characters to represent words, morphemes, or other semantic units.

Abugida Writing system

An abugida, sometimes known as alphasyllabary, neosyllabary or pseudo-alphabet, is a segmental writing system in which consonant-vowel sequences are written as a unit; each unit is based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is secondary. This contrasts with a full alphabet, in which vowels have status equal to consonants, and with an abjad, in which vowel marking is absent, partial, or optional. The terms also contrast them with a syllabary, in which the symbols cannot be split into separate consonants and vowels.

Arabic alphabet Alphabet for Arabic and other languages

The Arabic alphabet, or Arabic abjad, is the Arabic script as it is codified for writing Arabic. It is written from right to left in a cursive style and includes 28 letters. Most letters have contextual letterforms. The Arabic script is also a religious text, it is used mainly in Islamic countries, namely in Arabia, North Africa, Persia/Iran, Central Asia and the Northwestern Indian Subcontinent.

A diacritic is a glyph added to a letter or basic glyph. The term derives from the Ancient Greek διακριτικός, from διακρίνω. Diacritic is primarily an adjective, though sometimes used as a noun, whereas diacritical is only ever an adjective. Some diacritical marks, such as the acute ( ´ ) and grave ( ` ), are often called accents. Diacritical marks may appear above or below a letter, or in some other position such as within the letter or between two letters.

The Hebrew alphabet, known variously by scholars as the Ktav Ashuri, Jewish script, square script and block script, is an abjad script used in the writing of the Hebrew language and other Jewish languages, most notably Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian. It is an offshoot of the Imperial Aramaic alphabet, which flourished during the Achaemenid Empire and which itself derives from the Phoenician alphabet.

Matres lectionis are consonants that are used to indicate a vowel, primarily in the writing down of Semitic languages such as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. The letters that do this in Hebrew are alephא‎, heה‎, wawו‎ and yodי‎, and in Arabic, the matres lectionis are ʾalifا‎, wāwو‎ and yāʾي‎. The 'yod and waw in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants.

In the linguistic study of written languages, a syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables or moras which make up words.

Writing Representation of language in a textual medium

Writing is a medium of human communication that involves the representation of a language with symbols. Writing systems are not themselves human languages ; they are means of rendering a language into a form that can be reconstructed by other humans separated by time and/or space. While not all languages utilize a writing system, those with systems of inscriptions can complement and extend capacities of spoken language by enabling the creation of durable forms of speech that can be transmitted across space and stored over time. It has also been observed that the activity of writing itself can have knowledge-transforming effects, since it allows humans to externalize their thinking in forms that are easier to reflect on and potentially rework. Writing relies on many of the same semantic structures as the speech it represents, such as lexicon and syntax, with the added dependency of a system of symbols to represent that language's phonology and morphology. The result of the activity of writing is called a text, and the interpreter or activator of this text is called a reader.

Phoenician alphabet Oldest verified alphabet

The Phoenician alphabet is an alphabet known in modern times from the Canaanite and Aramaic inscriptions found across the Mediterranean region.

Ugaritic alphabet Cuneiform consonantal alphabet of 30 letters

The Ugaritic alphabet is a cuneiform abjad used from around either the fifteenth century BCE or 1300 BCE for Ugaritic, an extinct Northwest Semitic language, and discovered in Ugarit, Syria, in 1928. It has 30 letters. Other languages were occasionally written in the Ugaritic script in the area around Ugarit, although not elsewhere.

Peter T. Daniels is a scholar of writing systems, specializing in typology. He was co-editor of the book The World's Writing Systems (1996). He was a lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Chicago State University.

Syriac alphabet Writing system

The Syriac alphabet is a writing system primarily used to write the Syriac language since the 1st century AD. It is one of the Semitic abjads descending from the Aramaic alphabet through the Palmyrene alphabet, and shares similarities with the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic and Sogdian, the precursor and a direct ancestor of the traditional Mongolian scripts.

Aleph is the first letter of the Semitic abjads, including Phoenician ʾālep 𐤀, Hebrew ʾālef א, Aramaic ʾālap 𐡀, Syriac ʾālap̄ ܐ, and Arabic alif ا. It also appears as South Arabian 𐩱, and Ge'ez ʾälef አ.

The history of alphabetic writing goes back to the consonantal writing system used for Semitic languages in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BCE. Most or nearly all alphabetic scripts used throughout the world today ultimately go back to this Semitic proto-alphabet. Its first origins can be traced back to a Proto-Sinaitic script developed in Ancient Egypt to represent the language of Semitic-speaking workers and slaves in Egypt. Unskilled in the complex hieroglyphic system used to write the Egyptian language, which required a large number of pictograms, they selected a small number of those commonly seen in their Egyptian surroundings to describe the sounds, as opposed to the semantic values, of their own Canaanite language. This script was partly influenced by the older Egyptian hieratic, a cursive script related to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

A defective script is a writing system that does not represent all the phonemic distinctions of a language. This means that the concept is always relative to a given language. Taking the Latin alphabet used in Italian orthography as an example, the Italian language has seven vowels, but the alphabet has only five vowel letters to represent them; in general, the difference between the phonemes close and open is simply ignored, though stress marks, if used, may distinguish them. Among the Italian consonants, both and are written ⟨s⟩, and both and are written ⟨z⟩; stress and hiatus are also not reliably distinguished.

Geʽez is a script used as an abugida (alphasyllabary) for several Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It originated as an abjad and was first used to write the Geʽez language, now the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and Beta Israel, the Jewish community in Ethiopia. In Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is often called fidäl (ፊደል), meaning “script” or “letter”.


A semi-syllabary is a writing system that behaves partly as an alphabet and partly as a syllabary. The main group of semi-syllabic writing are the Paleohispanic scripts of ancient Spain, a group of semi-syllabaries that transform redundant plosive consonants of the Phoenician alphabet into syllabograms.

In orthography, a zero consonant, silent initial, or null-onset letter is a consonant letter that does not correspond to a consonant sound, but is required when a word or syllable starts with a vowel. Some abjads, abugidas, and alphabets have zero consonants, generally because they have an orthographic rule that all syllables must begin with a consonant letter, whereas the language they transcribe allows syllables to start with a vowel. In a few cases, such as Pahawh Hmong below, the lack of a consonant letter represents a specific consonant sound, so the lack of a consonant sound requires a distinct letter to disambiguate.

Writing system Any conventional method of visually representing verbal communication

A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication, based on a script and a set of rules regulating its use. While both writing and speech are useful in conveying messages, writing differs in also being a reliable form of information storage and transfer. Writing systems require shared understanding between writers and readers of the meaning behind the sets of characters that make up a script. Writing is usually recorded onto a durable medium, such as paper or electronic storage, although non-durable methods may also be used, such as writing on a computer display, on a blackboard, in sand, or by skywriting. Reading a text can be accomplished purely in the mind as an internal process, or expressed orally.


  1. "abjad" . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. Daniels, P. (1990). Fundamentals of Grammatology. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 110(4), 727-731. doi:10.2307/602899: "We must recognize that the West Semitic scripts constitute a third fundamental type of script, the kind that denotes individual consonants only. It cannot be subsumed under either of the other terms. A suitable name for this type would be "alephbeth," in honor of its Levantine origin, but this term seems too similar to "alphabet" to be practical; so I propose to call this type an "abjad," [Footnote: I.e., the alif-ba-jim order familiar from earlier Semitic alphabets, from which the modern order alif-ba-ta-tha is derived by placing together the letters with similar shapes and differing numbers of dots. The abjad is the order in which numerical values are assigned to the letters (as in Hebrew).] from the Arabic word for the traditional order6 of its script, which (unvocalized) of course falls in this category... There is yet a fourth fundamental type of script, a type recognized over forty years ago by James- Germain Fevrier, called by him the "neosyllabary" (1948, 330), and again by Fred Householder thirty years ago, who called it "pseudo-alphabet" (1959, 382). These are the scripts of Ethiopia and "greater India" that use a basic form for the specific syllable consonant + a particular vowel (in practice always the unmarked a) and modify it to denote the syllables with other vowels or with no vowel. Were it not for this existing term, I would propose maintaining the pattern by calling this type an "abugida," from the Ethiopian word for the auxiliary order of consonants in the signary."
  3. Amalia E. Gnanadesikan (2017) Towards a typology of phonemic scripts, Writing Systems Research, 9:1, 14-35, DOI: 10.1080/17586801.2017.1308239 "Daniels (1990, 1996a) proposes the name abjad for these scripts, and this term has gained considerable popularity. Other terms include partial phonemic script (Hill, 1967), segmentally linear defective phonographic script (Faber, 1992), consonantary (Trigger, 2004), consonant writing (Coulmas, 1989) and consonantal alphabet (Gnanadesikan, 2009; Healey, 1990). "
  4. Daniels & Bright 1996.
  5. Lehmann 2011.
  6. Daniels 2013.
  7. Lipiński 1994.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Ager 2015.
  9. Ekhtiar 2011.
  10. 1 2 Lo 2012.
  11. "PAHLAVI PSALTER – Encyclopaedia Iranica". www.iranicaonline.org.
  12. Franklin, Natalie R.; Strecker, Matthias (5 August 2008). Rock Art Studies - News of the World Volume 3. Oxbow Books. p. 127. ISBN   9781782975885.


The Science of Arabic Letters, Abjad and Geometry, by Jorge Lupin