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A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables, which make up words. A symbol in a syllabary typically represents an optional consonant sound followed by a vowel sound.

Languages using syllabaries

Languages that use syllabic writing include Mycenaeanmarker Greek (Linear B), the American Indian languages Cherokee and Cree, the African language Vai, the English-based creole language Ndyuka (the Afaka script), and Yi language in Chinamarker. Nü Shu is a syllabary that was used to write the language of the Yao people in Chinamarker. The Chinese, Cuneiform, and Maya scripts are largely syllabic in nature, although based on logograms. They are therefore sometimes referred to as logosyllabic.The 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), in Japanese. 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 which 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 transcribed Greek, a language with complex syllables, complex consonant onsets were either written with two glyphs or simplified to one, while codas were generally ignored: "ko-no-so" for Knōsos, "pe-ma" for sperma. The Cherokee syllabary generally uses dummy vowels for coda consonants, but also has a glyph for /s/, which can be used both as a coda and in an initial /sC/ consonant cluster.

Difference from abugidas

Indian languages and Ethiopian languages have a type of alphabet called an abugida or alphasyllabary. These are sometimes mistaken for syllabaries, but unlike in syllabaries, all syllables starting with the same consonant are based on the same symbol, and generally more than one symbol is needed to represent a 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 substractive 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

External links

  • Syllabaries - Omniglot's list of syllabaries and abugidas, including examples of various writing systems.

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