Top 18: True Alphabets Currently in Use

Alphabets, or phonemic alphabets, are sets of letters, usually arranged in a fixed order, each of which represents one or more phonemes, both consonants and vowels, in the language they are used to write. A true alphabet has letters for the vowels of a language as well as the consonants. The first “true alphabet” in this sense is believed to be the Greek alphabet, which is a modified form of the Phoenician alphabet.

18. Xibe

Xibe is a Tungusic language spoken in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in north west China by about 30,000 people. It is closely related to Manchu, though the Xibe people consider themselves a separte ethnic group. The Xibe were moved to the region in 1764 by the Ch’ing emperor Qianlong. The language is also known as Sibe, Xibo or Sibo.

Xibe is written in the Xibe script, which has its origins in the Manchu script. Xibe script diverges from Manchu in that the positions of the letters in some words has changed, Xibe lacks 13 out of 131 syllables in Manchu, and has three syllables not found in Manchu (wi, wo, and wu).

17. Thaana

The Thaana script was developed during the 18th century by an unknown inventor. It first appeared in government documents in 1703 and replaced an older alphabet known as Dhives akuru.

Some of the Thaana letters were derived from Dhives akuru, while others were modelled on Arabic numerals. Vowel indication is modelled on the Arabic system of diacritics.

Thaana, Taana or Tāna is the modern writing system of the Maldivian (Dhivehi) that is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by about 340,000 people in the Maldives and on India’s Minicoy Islands.

16. Bassa

Bassa in a tonal language. Tones are marked using a system of dots and dashes which appear inside the vowel letters. Bassa is a Kru language spoken by about 400,000 people in Liberia and by about 5,000 people in Sierra Leone.

15. Coorgi-Cox

The Coorgi-Cox alphabet was developed in 2005 by a German linguist, Gregg M. Cox, and is used to write Kodava (ಕೊಡವ ತಕ್‌), a Dravidian language spoken in district of Kodagu in Karnataka State in India by about 500,000 people. The alphabet was developed in response to a request from Kodava speakers for a unique alphabet to write their language. It’s also known as Kodava Takk, Kodava takka or Coorgi. The Coorgi-Cox alphabet uses a combination of 26 consonants, five vowel markings and a diphthong marker. Each letter represents a single sound and there are no capital letters.

14. Tai Dam

Tai Dam, or Black Tai/Tai Noir, a Tai-Kadai language closely related to Lao and Thai which is spoken by around half a million people in north-western Vietnam and northern Laos. There are also Tai Dam speakers in Yunnan province of China, and in parts of northeastern and central Thailand, where they are known as Lao Song or Lao Song Dam.

13. Kalmyk

Kalmyk (Хальмг келн) is a member of the Kalmyk-Oirat subgroup of Mongolic languages. It is spoken by about 500,000 people in Kalmykia in the Russian Federation between the Volga and Don rivers, and in Western China and in Western Mongolia.

12. Kayah Li

The Kayah Li alphabet was devised by Htae Bu Phae in March 1962. It is taught in schools in refugee camps in Thailand. It appears to be modelled, to some extent, on scripts such as Thai and Burmese.

Kayah or Kayah Li is a member of Karen branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is spoken by about 590,000 people in the Kayah and Karen states of Burma (Myanmar). The language and people who speak it are also known as Western Kayah, Karenni, Karennyi, Red Karen, Yang Daeng or Karieng Daeng.

11. Pollard Miao

The Pollard script, which is also known as Pollard Miao or Miao, was devised in 1905 by Samuel Pollard (1864-1915), a British missionary, with help from Yang Yage and Li Shitifan. Before Pollard came along, the A-Hmao language, when written at all, was written with Chinese characters. Pollard Miao underwent many changes and revisions and only became stable in 1936, when a translation of the New Testament was published in the Pollard Miao.

Pollard Miao is used to write A-Hmao, a Hmong-Mien language spoken by about 300,000 people in Guizhou and Yunnan provinces in southern China. Lipo (Lolopo / Lolongo), a member of the Lolo branch of Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in China, Burma, India and Thailand by about 420,000 people. Sichuan Miao, or Sichuan-Guizhou-Yunnan Miao, a Hmong-Mien language spoken in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan in China. Nasu or Eastern Yi, a member of the Lolo branch of Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan in China by about 800,000 people.

10. Georgian

The Georgian alphabet (Georgian: ქართული დამწერლობა, [kʰɑrtʰuli dɑmt͡sʼɛrlɔbɑ], literally “Georgian script”) is the writing system used to write the Georgian language. It is a phonemic orthography, and the modern alphabet has 33 letters. Georgian language is spoken by about 4.1 million people mainly in Georgia, and also in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.

9. Mongolian (монгол)

The classical Mongolian script, was the first writing system created specifically for the Mongolian language, and was the most successful until the introduction of Cyrillic in 1946. Derived from Uighur, Mongolian is a true alphabet, with separate letters for consonants and vowels.

The Mongolian script has been adapted to write languages such as Oirat and Manchu. Alphabets based on this classical vertical script are used in Inner Mongolia and other parts of China to this day to write Mongolian, Sibe and, experimentally, Evenki.

Mongolian is an Altaic language spoken by approximately 5 million people in Mongolia, China, Afghanistan and Russia. There are a number of closely related varieties of Mongolian: Khalkha or Halha, the national language of Mongolia, and Oirat, Chahar and Ordos, which are spoken mainly in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China. Other languages considered part of the Mongolian language family, but separate from Mongolian, include Buryat and Kalmyk, spoken in Russia and Moghul or Mogul, spoken in Afghanistan.

8. Santali alphabet (Ol Cemet’/Ol Chiki)

The Santali alphabet, which is also known as Ol Cemet’, Ol Ciki or simply Ol, was created in the 1920s by Pandit Raghunath Murmu as part of his efforts to promote Santali culture. Every other major language in India had its own alphabet, so he thought Santali should as well. Santali or Santhali is a Munda language spoken by about 5.8 million people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

7. Armenian

The Armenian alphabet is an alphabet that has been used to write the Armenian language since the year 405 or 406. It was introduced by Saint Mesrop Mashtots, an Armenian linguist and ecclesiastical leader, and originally contained 36 letters.

Armenian language is an Indo-European language with about 6.7 million speakers mainly in Armenia (Հայաստան [Hayastan]) and Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto, though unrecognised, independent republic in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the South Caucasus. There are also Armenian speakers in many other countries, including Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, Cyprus, Poland and Romania.

6. N’Ko

The N’Ko alphabet was invented by Soulemayne Kante of Kankan, Guinea, in 1949. It is mainly used by speakers of Maninka, Bambara, Dyula and their dialects in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. Maninka (Maninkakan), or Eastern Maninka, is a group of closely related languages and dialects belonging to the southeastern Manding subgroup of the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo languages.

There are about 3.3 million Maninka speakers mainly in Guinea and Mali, and also in Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. Maninka is closely related to Bambara. Dioula (Julakan), a Mande language spoken by about 2.7 million people in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. It is about known as Jula and Dyula and is closely related to Bambara. It is written with the Latin, Arabic and N’Ko alphabets. Bambara (Bamanankan), a Mande language with about 3 million speakers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

5. Greek

Today the Greek alphabet is used only to write Greek, however at various times in the past it has been used to write such languages as Lydian, Phrygian, Thracian, Gaulish, Hebrew, Arabic, Old Ossetic, Albanian, Turkish, Aromanian, Gagauz, Surguch and Urum. The Greek alphabet has been in continuous use for the past 2,750 years or so since about 750 BC. It was developed from the Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet and the order and names of the letters are derived from Phoenician. The Greek language is an Indo-European language spoken by about 14 million people mainly in Greece and Cyprus, where it is an official language. Greek is also recognised as a minority language in parts of Turkey, Italy and Albania.

4. Tifinagh

The Tifinagh alphabet is thought to have derived from the ancient Berber script. The name Tifinagh possibly means ‘the Phoenician letters’, or possibly from the phrase tifin negh, which means ‘our invention’. Since September 2003, the Tifinagh alphabet children in Moroccan primary schools have been taught to write Tamazight with the Tifinagh alphabet. It is also used by the Tuareg, particularly the women, for private notes, love letters and in decoration. Tamazight (Tamaziɣt) is a family of Berber languages spoken by between 16 and 30 million people mainly in Morocco and Algeria, and also in Libya, Mali, Niger, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Mauritania.

3. Korean

The Korean alphabet, also known as Hangul, or Chosongul (officially transcribed Han-geul in South Korea and Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea), is the native alphabet of the Korean language. Korean (한국어 / 조선말) is a language spoken by about 63 million people in South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. The relationship between Korean and other languages is not known for sure, though some linguists believe it to be a member of the Altaic family of languages. Grammatically Korean is very similar to Japanese and about 70% of its vocabulary comes from Chinese. Chinese writing has been known in Korea for over 2,000 years. It was used widely during the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108 BC to 313 AD. By the 5th century AD, the Koreans were starting to write in Classical Chinese – the earliest known example of this dates from 414 AD. They later devised three different systems for writing Korean with Chinese characters: Hyangchal (향찰/鄕札), Gukyeol (구결/口訣) and Idu (이두/吏讀). These systems were similar to those developed in Japan and were probably used as models by the Japanese.

2. Cyrillic (Кириллица)

The Cyrillic alphabet is named after St. Cyril, a missionary from Byzantium. It was invented sometime during the 10th century AD, possibly by St. Kliment of Ohrid, to write the Old Church Slavonic language. The Cyrillic alphabet achieved its current form in 1708 during the reign of Peter the Great. Four letters were eliminated from the alphabet in a 1917/18 reform. The Cyrillic alphabet has been adapted to write over 50 different languages, mainly in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. In many cases additional letters are used, some of which are adaptations of standard Cyrillic letters, while others are taken from the Greek or Latin alphabets.

1. Latin/Roman

The modern Latin alphabet consists of 52 letters, including both upper and lower case, plus 10 numerals, punctuation marks and a variety of other symbols such as &, % and @. Many languages add a variety of accents to the basic letters, and a few also use extra letters and ligatures. It is used as the standard method of writing most Western and Central European languages, as well as many languages from other parts of the world. Latin script is the basis for the largest number of alphabets of any writing system and is the most widely adopted writing system in the world.