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An abjad (/ˈæbæd/,[1] Arabic: أبجد), also abgad,[2][3] is a writing system in which only consonants are represented, leaving vowel sounds to be inferred by the reader. This contrasts with alphabets, which provide graphemes for both consonants and vowels. The term was introduced in 1990 by Peter T. Daniels.[4] Other terms for the same concept include partial phonemic script, segmentally linear defective phonographic script, consonantary, consonant writing, and consonantal alphabet.[5]

Impure abjads represent vowels with either optional diacritics, a limited number 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, and d—to replace the more common terms "consonantary" and "consonantal alphabet", in describing the family of scripts classified as "West Semitic". Similar to other Semitic languages such as Phoenician, Hebrew and Semitic proto-alphabets: specifically, aleph, bet, gimel, dalet.


According to the formulations of Peter T. Daniels,[6] 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, a standalone glyph, or (in Canadian Aboriginal syllabics) by rotation of the letter. 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 contrast of abjad versus alphabet has been rejected by other scholars because abjad is also used as a term for the Arabic numeral system. Also, it may be taken as suggesting that consonantal alphabets, in contrast to e.g. the Greek alphabet, were not yet true alphabets.[7] Florian Coulmas, a critic of Daniels and of the abjad terminology, argues that this terminology can confuse alphabets with "transcription systems", and that there is no reason to relegate the Hebrew, Aramaic or Phoenician alphabets to second-class status as an "incomplete alphabet".[8] However, Daniels's terminology has found acceptance in the linguistic community.[9][10][11]


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 bclt.

See also: History of the alphabet § Descendants of the Aramaic abjad

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 (kanji 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-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.[12] 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.[13] This practice was at first rare and limited in scope but became increasingly common and more developed in later times.

Addition of vowels

Main article: Greek alphabet

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 abjad evolved into the Ge'ez abugida of Ethiopia between the 5th century BC and the 5th century AD. Similarly, the Brāhmī abugida of the Indian subcontinent 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's 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

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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 ك‌ت‌ب K-T-B (to write) can be derived the forms كَتَبَ kataba (he wrote), كَتَبْتَ katabta (you (masculine singular) wrote), يَكْتُبُ⁩ yaktubu (he writes), and مَكْتَبَة⁩ maktabah (library). 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, Yiddish, and some Romance languages such as Mozarabic, Aragonese, Portuguese, Spanish and Ladino.

Comparative chart of Abjads, extinct and extant

Name In use Cursive Direction # of letters Matres lectionis Area of origin Used by Languages Time period (age) Influenced by Writing systems influenced
Syriac yes yes right-left 22 consonants 3 Middle East Syriac Christianity, Assyrians Aramaic: Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Turoyo, Mlahso c. 100 BCE[14] Aramaic Nabatean, Palmyran, Mandaic, Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Avestan and Manichean[14]
Hebrew yes yes right-left 22 consonants + 5 final letters 4 Middle 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 yes yes right-left 28 3 Middle East and North Africa Over 400 million people Arabic, Kashmiri, Persian, Pashto, Uyghur, Kurdish, Urdu, many others[14] 512 CE[15][14] Nabataean Aramaic
Aramaic (Imperial) no no right-left 22 3 Middle East Achaemenid, Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires Imperial Aramaic, Hebrew c. 500 BCE[14] Phoenician Late Hebrew, Nabataean, Syriac
Aramaic (Early) no no right-left 22 none Middle East Various Semitic Peoples c. 1000 – c. 900 BCE
[citation needed]
Phoenician Hebrew, Imperial Aramaic.[14]
Nabataean no no right-left 22 none Middle East Nabataean Kingdom[16] Nabataean 200 BCE[16] Aramaic Arabic
Middle Persian, (Pahlavi) no no right-left 22 3 Middle East Sassanian Empire Pahlavi, Middle Persian c. 200 BCE – c.  700 CE Aramaic Psalter, Avestan[14]
Psalter Pahlavi no yes right-left 21 yes Northwestern China [14] Persian Script for Paper Writing[14] 0400 c. 400 CE[17] Syriac
[citation needed]
Phoenician no no right-left, boustrophedon 22 none Byblos[14] Canaanites Phoenician, Punic, Hebrew c. 1500 – c. 1000 BCE[14] Proto-Canaanite Alphabet[14] Punic (variant), Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew
Parthian no no right-left 22 yes Parthia (modern-day equivalent of Northeastern Iran, Southern Turkmenistan and Northwest Afghanistan)[14] Parthian & Sassanian periods of Persian Empire[14] Parthian c. 200 BCE[14] Aramaic
Sabaean no no right-left, boustrophedon 29 none Southern Arabia (Sheba) Southern Arabians Sabaean c. 500 BCE[14] Byblos[14] Ethiopic (Eritrea & Ethiopia)[14]
Punic no no right-left 22 none Carthage (Tunisia), North Africa, Mediterranean[14] Punic Culture Punic, Neo-Punic Phoenician
[citation needed]
Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite no no left-right 24 none Egypt, Sinai, Canaan Canaanites Canaanite c. 1900 – c. 1700 BCE In conjunction with Egyptian Hieroglyphs
[citation needed]
Phoenician, Hebrew
Ugaritic no yes left-right 30 none, 3 characters for gs+vowel Ugarit (modern-day Northern Syria) Ugarites Ugaritic, Hurrian c. 1400 BCE[14] Proto-Sinaitic
South Arabian no yes (Zabūr - cursive form of the South Arabian script) right-left, Boustrophedon 29 yes South-Arabia (Yemen) D'mt Kingdom Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Semitic, Cushitic, Nilo-Saharan
[citation needed]
900 BCE
[citation needed]
Proto-Sinaitic Ge'ez (Ethiopia and Eritrea)
Sogdian no no (yes in later versions) right-left, left-right (vertical) 20 3 parts of China (Xinjiang), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan Buddhists, Manichaens Sogdian 0400 c. 400 CE Syriac Old Uyghur alphabet[14]
Samaritan yes (700 people) no right-left 22 none Levant Samaritans (Nablus and Holon) Samaritan Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew c. 100 BCE – c. 1 CE Paleo-Hebrew Alphabet
Tifinagh yes no bottom-top, right-left, left-right, 31 yes North Africa Berbers Berber languages 2nd millennium BCE[18] Phoenician, Arabic

See also


  1. ^ "abjad". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ Boyes, Philip J.; Steele, Philippa M. (10 October 2019). Understanding Relations Between Scripts II. Oxbow Books. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-78925-092-3.
  3. ^ Lehmann, Reinhard G. (2012). de Voogt, Alex; Quack, Joachim Friedrich (eds.). The Idea of Writing: Writing Across Borders. Leiden, Boston: Brill. p. 35. ISBN 9789004215450.
  4. ^ 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."
  5. ^ 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). "
  6. ^ Daniels & Bright 1996.
  7. ^ Lehmann 2011.
  8. ^ Coulmas, Florian (2004). Writing Systems. Cambridge University Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-521-78737-6.
  9. ^ "Abjads / Consonant alphabets",, 2009, quote: "Abjads, or consonant alphabets, represent consonants only, or consonants plus some vowels. Full vowel indication (vocalisation) can be added, usually by means of diacritics, but this is not usually done." Accessed 22 May 2009.
  10. ^ Rogers, Henry (2005): Writing systems: a linguistic approach. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-23464-0, ISBN 978-0-631-23464-7. See esp. Chap. 7, pp. 115ff.
  11. ^ Schone, Patrick (2006): "Low-resource autodiacritization of abjads for speech keyword search", In INTERSPEECH-2006, paper 1412-Mon3FoP.13.
  12. ^ Daniels 2013.
  13. ^ Lipiński 1994.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Ager 2015.
  15. ^ Ekhtiar 2011, p. 21.
  16. ^ a b Lo 2012.
  17. ^ "PAHLAVI PSALTER – Encyclopaedia Iranica".
  18. ^ Franklin, Natalie R.; Strecker, Matthias (5 August 2008). Rock Art Studies - News of the World Volume 3. Oxbow Books. p. 127. ISBN 9781782975885.


  • Lipiński, Edward (1994). Studies in Aramaic Inscriptions and Onomastics II. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers. pp. 29–30. ISBN 9068316109.
  • Lo, Lawrence (2012). "Berber". Archived from the original on 26 August 2017.
  • Wright, W. (1967). A Grammar of the Arabic Language [transl. from the German of Caspari]. Vol. 1 (3rd ed.). CUP. p. 28. ISBN 978-0521094559.