An abjad (pronounced /ˈæbɑːd/[1] or /ˈæbæd/)[2] is a type of writing system where each symbol or glyph stands for a consonant, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vowel. So-called impure abjads do represent vowels, either with optional diacritics, a limited number of distinct vowel glyphs, or both. The name abjad is based on the old Arabic alphabet's first four letters a, b, j, d to replace the common terms "consonantary", "consonantal alphabet" or "syllabary" to refer to the family of scripts called West Semitic.


The name "abjad" (abjad أبجد) is derived from pronouncing the first letters of the Arabic alphabet in order. The ordering (abjadī) of Arabic letters used to match that of the older Hebrew, Phoenician and Semitic alphabets: ʾ (aleph) - b - g - d.


According to the formulations of Daniels,[3] 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 the 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 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.[4]


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 wherever they went.

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'yougana (Chinese characters, or 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 Greek alphabet and Aramaic, a widely used abjad. 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

Impure abjads have characters for some vowels, optional vowel diacritics, or both. The term pure abjad refers to scripts entirely lacking in vowel indicators.[5] 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.[6] 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, around the 3rd century BC, the Brāhmī script developed (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 ح Dh-B-Ḥ (to slaughter) can be derived the forms ذَبَحَ dhabaḥa (he slaughtered), ذَبَحْتَ dhabaḥta (you (masculine singular) slaughtered), يُذَبِّحُ yudhabbiḥu (he slaughters), and مَذْبَح madhbaḥ (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 while reading for practiced readers.

Comparative chart of Abjads, extinct and extant

Name In use Cursive Direction # of letters Area of origin Used by Languages Time period (age) Influenced by Writing systems influenced
Syriacyesyesright-left22 consonantsMiddle-EastChurch of the East, Syrian ChurchAramaic, Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic~ 100 BC[7]AramaicNabatean, Palmyran, Mandaic, Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Avestan and Manichean[7]
Hebrewyesonly in modern Hebrewright-left22 consonants + 5 final lettersMiddle-EastIsraelis, Some Jewish diaspora communities, Ancient Hebrew TribesHebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino> 1100 BC Proto-Hebrew, Early Aramaic
Arabicyesyesright-left28Middle-East and North AfricaOver 400 million peopleArabic, Bosnian, Kashmiri, Malay, Persian, Pashto, Balochi, Turkish, Urdu, others[7] ~ AD 500[7]Nabataean Aramaic
Aramaic (Imperial)nonoright-left22Middle-EastArchaemenid, Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empiresImperial Aramaic, Hebrew~ 500 BC[7]PhoenicianLate Hebrew, Nabataean, Syriac
Aramaic (Early)nonoright-left22Middle-EastVarious Semitic Peoples~ 1000-900 BCPhoenicianHebrew, Imperial Aramaic.[7]
Libyc (Ancient Berber)yesnotop-bottom, right-left[7]22 (right-left) 25 (up-down)[8]North Africa[8]Women in Tuareg Society[8]Tifinagh[8]600 BCMaybe Punic[8]Tifinagh[8]
Nabataeannonoright-left22Middle-EastNabataean Kingdom[8]Nabataean200 BC[8]AramaicArabic
Middle Persian, (Pahlavi)nonoright-left22Middle-EastSassanian EmpirePahlavi, Middle PersianAramaicPsalter, Avestan[7]
Mandaicnoyesright-left24Iraq, IranAhvāz, IranMandaic~ AD 200AramaicNeo-Mandaic
Psalter Pahlavinoyesright-left21Northwestern China [7]Persian Script for Paper Writing[7]~ AD 400[9]Syriac
Phoeniciannonoright-left, Boustrophedon22Byblos[7]CanaanitesPhoenician, Punic~ 1000-1500 BC[7]Proto-Canaanite Alphabet[7]Punic (variant), Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew
Parthiannonoright-left22Parthia (modern-day equivalent of Northeastern Iran)[7]Parthian & Sassanian periods of Persian Empire[7]Parthian~ 200 BC[7]Aramaic
Sabaeannono systemright-left, boustrophedon29Southern Arabia (Sheba)Southern ArabiansSabaean~ 500 BC[7]Byblos[7]Ethiopic (Eritrea & Ethiopia)[7]
Punicnonoright-left22Carthage (Tunisia), North Africa, Mediterranean[7]Punic CulturePunic, Neo-PunicPhoenician
Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanitenonoleft-right30Egypt, Sinai, CanaanCanaanitesCanaanite~ 1900-1700 BCIn conjunction with Egyptian Hieroglyphs Phoenician, Hebrew
Ugariticnoyesleft-right30Ugarit (modern-day Northern Syria)UgaritesUgaritic, Hurrian~ 1400 BC[7]Proto-Sinaitic
South Arabiannoyes (Zabūr - cursive form of the South Arabian script)Boustrophedon29South-Arabia (Yemen)D'mt KingdomAmharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Semitic, Chushitic, Nilo-Saharan 900 BC Proto-SinaiticGe'ez ((Ethiopia)(Eritrea))
Sogdiannono (yes in later versions)right-left, left-right(vertical)20parts of China (Xinjiang), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, PakistanBuddhists, ManichaensSogdian~ AD 400SyriacOld Uyghur alphabet, Yaqnabi (Tajikistan dialect) [7]
Samaritanyes (700 people)noright-left22Mesopotamia or Levant (Disputed)Samaritans (Nablus and Holon)Samaritan Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew~ 100-0 BCPaleo-Hebrew Alphabet

See also



  • Daniels, Peter T. (2013). "The Arabic Writing system". In Owens, Jonathan. The Oxford Handbook of Arabic Linguistics. Oxford University Press. p. 415. 
  • Daniels, Peter T. & Bright, William, eds. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. OUP. p. 4. ISBN 978-0195079937. 
  • Lehmann, Reinhard G. (2011). "Ch 2 27-30-22-26. How Many Letters Needs an Alphabet? The Case of Semitic". In de Voogt, Alex & Quack, Joachim Friedrich. The idea of writing: Writing across borders. Leiden: Brill. pp. 11–52. ISBN 978-9004215450. 
  • Lipiński, Edward (1994). Studies in Aramaic Inscriptions and Onomastics II. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers. pp. 29–30. ISBN 9068316109. 
  • Lo, Lawrence (2012). "Berber". 
  • Wright, W. (1967). A Grammar of the Arabic Language [transl. from the German of Caspari]. 1 (3rd ed.). CUP. p. 28. ISBN 978-0521094559. 
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