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"The history of the various primitive graphic systems, such as the Chinese, the Cuneiform, or the Egyptian, shows that the art of writing has invariably begun with hieroglyphic ideograms, slowly developed into phonograms, and passing gradually through syllabism towards alphabetism, the successive stages of the process occupying in every instance vast periods of time."--The History of the Alphabet (1899) by Isaac Taylor

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A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables or (more frequently) moras which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel. That is, the symbol for ka does not resemble in any predictable way the symbol for ki, nor the symbol for a.

A symbol in a syllabary, called a syllabogram, typically represents an (optional) consonant sound (simple onset) followed by a vowel sound (nucleus)—that is, a CV or V syllable—but other phonographic mappings such as CVC and CV-tone are also found in syllabaries.



A writing system using a syllabary is complete when it covers all syllables in the corresponding spoken language without requiring complex orthographic / graphemic rules, like implicit codas (⟨C1V⟩ ⇒ /C1VC2/) silent vowels (⟨C1V1+C2V2⟩ ⇒ /C1V1C2/) or echo vowels (⟨C1V1+C2V1⟩ ⇒ /C1V1C2/). This loosely corresponds to shallow orthographies in alphabetic writing systems.

True syllabograms are those that encompass all parts of a syllable, i.e. initial onset, medial nucleus and final coda, but since onset and coda are optional in at least some languages, there are middle (nucleus), start (onset-nucleus), end (nucleus-coda) and full (onset-nucleus-coda) true syllabograms. Most syllabaries only feature one or two kinds of syllabograms and form other syllables by graphemic rules.

Syllabograms are pure, analytic or arbitrary if they do not share graphic similarities that correspond to phonic similarities, otherwise they are synthetic, if they vary by onset, rime, nucleus or coda, or systematic, if they vary by all of them.

Languages using syllabaries

Languages that use syllabic writing include Mycenaean Greek (Linear B), the North American languages Cherokee and Cree, the African language Vai, the English-based creole Ndyuka written with the Afaka script, Yi language and formerly Nü Shu for the language of the Yao people in China. In addition, the undecoded Cretan Linear A is also believed by some to be a syllabic script, though this is not proven. The Chinese, Cuneiform, and Maya scripts are largely syllabic in nature, although based on logograms. They are therefore sometimes referred to as logosyllabic.

The contemporary Japanese language uses two syllabaries together called kana, namely hiragana and katakana (developed around AD 700). They are mainly used to write some native words and grammatical elements, as well as foreign words, e.g. hotel is written with three kana, ホテル (ho-te-ru). Because Japanese uses many CV (consonant + vowel) syllables, a syllabary is well suited to write the language. As in many syllabaries, however, vowel sequences and final consonants are written with separate glyphs, so that both atta and kaita are written with three kana: あった (a-t-ta) and かいた (ka-i-ta). It is therefore sometimes called a moraic writing system.

Languages that use syllabaries today tend to have simple phonotactics, with a predominance of monomoraic (CV) syllables. For example, the modern Yi script is used to write a language that has no diphthongs or syllable codas; unusually among syllabaries, there is a separate glyph for every consonant-vowel-tone combination in the language (apart from one tone which is indicated with a diacritic).

Few 'syllabaries' have glyphs for syllables that aren't monomoraic, and those that once did have simplified over time to eliminate that complexity. For example, the Vai syllabary originally had separate glyphs for syllables ending in a coda (doŋ), a long vowel (soo), or a diphthong (bai), though not enough glyphs to distinguish all CV combinations (some distinctions were ignored). The modern script has been expanded to cover all moras, but at the same time reduced to exclude all other syllables. Bimoraic syllables are now written with two letters, as in Japanese: diphthongs are written with the help of V or hV glyphs, and the nasal coda is written with the glyph for ŋ, which can form a syllable of its own in Vai.

In Linear B, which was used to transcribe Greek, a language with complex syllables, complex consonant onsets were either written with two glyphs or simplified to one, while codas were generally ignored, e.g. "ko-no-so" for Knōsos, "pe-ma" for sperma.

The Cherokee syllabary generally uses dummy vowels for coda consonants, but also has a segmental grapheme for /s/, which can be used both as a coda and in an initial /sC/ consonant cluster.

Difference from abugidas

The languages of South Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as the Ethiopian languages, have a type of alphabet called an abugida or alphasyllabary. In these scripts, unlike in true syllabaries, syllables starting with the same consonant are expressed with characters that are based on the same sign, and generally each character representing a syllable consists of several elements which designate the individual sounds of that syllable. In the 19th century these systems were called syllabics, a term which has survived in the name of Canadian Aboriginal syllabics (also an abugida). In a true syllabary there is no systematic graphic similarity between characters that share a common consonant or vowel sound. That is, the characters for 'ke', 'ka', and 'ko' have no similarity to indicate their common "k" sound (e.g. hiragana け, か, こ). Compare abugida, where each grapheme typically represents a syllable but where characters representing related sounds are similar graphically (typically, a common consonantal base is annotated in a more or less consistent manner to represent the vowel in the syllable). For example, in Devanagari, an abugida, the same characters for 'ke', 'ka' and 'ko' are के, का and को respectively, with क indicating their common "k" sound.

Comparison to English alphabet

The English language allows complex syllable structures, making it cumbersome to write English words with a syllabary. A "pure" syllabary would require a separate glyph for every syllable in English. Thus one would need separate symbols for "bag", "beg", "big", "bog", "bug"; "bad", "bed", "bid", "bod", "bud", etc. However, such pure systems are rare. A work-around to this problem, common to several syllabaries around the world (including English loanwords in Japanese), is to write an echo vowel, as if the syllable coda was a second syllable: ba-gu for "bag", etc. Another common approach is to simply ignore the coda, so that "bag" would be written ba. This obviously would not work well for English, but was done in Mycenean Greek when the root word was two or three syllables long and the syllable coda was a weak consonant such as n or s (example: chrysos written as ku-ru-so).

A separate solution would be that used by the Mayan script, that of a subtractive nature. For example, Bag would be written ba-ga, where the second vowel is ignored if it's the same as the first. To write the word "baga", one would either still write ba-ga as the Mayans did, leaving it unclear as to whether "bag" or "baga" is meant, or write ba-ga-a, so that the second a is subtracted but the third left over.

See also

Other types of writing systems

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