Have you ever looked at a script from the East and felt mesmerized by its unique designs? Many of us have, and that’s because Asian written languages create beautiful stories out of forms, lines, and strokes.
If you’re curious to understand the meaning of these Asian scripts, then you’re in the right place. While most of the world’s languages use some form of alphabet, there are a number of Asian languages written with completely different systems.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at some Asian written languages and explain how they work.
Chinese Characters and Their Variations
What writing system is used in languages found throughout East Asia? Well, there are multiple answers to that question. Let’s start with Chinese characters, which are a major writing system used today with many variations.
These characters, also known as Hanzi, have existed for thousands of years in various forms. In mainland China, the standard writing system is simplified Chinese, which uses fewer strokes per character than traditional Chinese writing.
In Japan and Korea, their writing systems also use hanzi characters but with modifications. In Japan, these are referred to as Kanji and are further modified through diacritical marks known as Kana; while in Korea, the hanja characters are slightly different from the original Chinese characters. Taiwan, for instance, is a Chinese province where Hanzi, Kana, and the Latin alphabet are widely used.
By comprehending Asian writing systems found throughout East Asia, we can get a deeper understanding of how the region communicates with one another through the written word.
Chinese Characters: What You Need to Know
Have you ever been spellbound by a written language, only to discover it’s composed of unfamiliar symbols? Chinese characters are just that—unique, beautiful, and complex. They’re distinct from other written languages, so it’s important to know the basics of how they work.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Chinese characters are an ideographic writing system, which means each character represents an idea;
- There are over 100,000 characters in existence, although you only need to learn around 2,000 for basic literacy;
- The characters can be combined into larger components and words;
- The characters often have multiple meanings, creating puns and double entendres in written works.
Chinese characters are stunningly complex and intricate, but understanding their basics can be a great introduction for anyone interested in exploring the beauty of any Asian script.
Japanese Writing: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana
Japanese writing is probably familiar to you, but are you aware of its intricacies? There are three different writing systems in Japanese. These are kanji, hiragana, and katakana.
It is the system that uses Chinese characters, or ‘characters with meaning’, to express Japanese words. It has been used in Japan since the 5th century A.D (“Kanji”). In the 9th century A.D (Jilson), two syllabary scripts were developed: hiragana and katakana.
Hiragana is known as the ‘phonetic’ syllabary script—it’s made up of curved strokes that create syllables. This script developed from kanji and was mainly used by women in courtly fiction due to its soft character style. Today, hiragana is mainly used for native words that don’t have a kanji representation.
Katakana is an angular script consisting of “pieces” which are generally simple and straightforward to read when written correctly due to their linear structure, allowing for faster reading than hiragana or kanji combined. Katakana is generally used for loanwords from other languages such as English (i.e., テレビ[terebi] = television) or technical or scientific terms where a more precise pronunciation may be necessary (i.e., サーバー[sābā] = server).
Korean Language and Hangul Writing System
The Korean language is a language spoken in both North and South Korea. There are also some Korean speakers in China, Japan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. The writing system used is called Hangul, and it was developed during the 15th century (“Hangul | Alphabet Chart & Pronunciation | Britannica”) with the aim of spreading literacy.
Hangul was specifically designed to be easy to learn, so that Koreans from all social classes would be literate. In fact, even today, it only takes up to a few hours for most people to learn how to read and write in Hangul!
The Korean writing system is composed of syllables which each represent one vowel or consonant sound. In total, there are 10 vowels and 14 consonants grouped into syllables by their shape. The first general rule is that each block of syllables should start with a consonant. Naturally, there can be no syllable without at least one vowel.
Hangul syllables are written from left to right and from top to bottom — creating a ‘square shape’ — which makes reading much easier than other languages, where characters can flow together.
Complexity of Writing System
Despite its fundamental simplicity, Hangul has grown more complex over time; incorporating multiple layers of meanings into its characters due to cultural influences on the language over time. These complexities add layers of richness and expression that are unmatched in other languages.
Hangul is a writing system that allows for flexibility and creativity through the combination of characters into longer words or phrases. That allows native speakers to express their thoughts clearly and succinctly while still representing their cultural heritage.
Tagalog and Filipino Writing System
You might not know this, but Tagalog is written with a writing system called Abakada. It was created in the early 20th century by Lope K. Santos, and is based on an alphabet made up of 20 letters. It consists mainly of consonants, vowels, and syllables.
The revised alphabet that was published in 1976 by the Department of Education, Culture, and Sports (DECS) of the Philippines included the letters c, ch, f, j, ll,, q, rr, v, x, and z.
On the other hand, the official Filipino alphabet consists of 28 letters. It is known as the Modern Filipino Alphabet, or Makabagong Alpabetong Filipino.
Writing System in Vietnam
There is a unique writing system used in Vietnamese. It’s called chữ Quốc ngữ, and it’s based on the Latin alphabet. Interestingly, it was created by Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century (Russon) to help spread Christianity. This writing system later became popular among scholars, and by the 19th century it was widely adopted throughout Vietnam.
Today, the majority of Vietnamese literature utilizes chữ Quốc ngữ instead of classical Chinese characters. And because of that we can access and learn more about Vietnamese culture than before! So if you are looking to explore Southeast Asian alphabets and their writing systems, then make sure to consider learning about chữ Quốc ngữ too!
Khmer Writing System
While many East Asian languages use a variation of the Chinese writing system, in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, there are different Asian alphabets, originating from Khmer (Cambodian) script. Here are the most interesting facts about it:
- The writing direction is left to right;
- Khmer writing system utilizes Agibuda, which means that each symbol represents a syllable instead of just one single sound;
- Vowels can be written above, below, in front of, after, or around consonants using diacritics or separate letters;
- The first or second series of the consonant to which a vowel is attached determines how it is pronounced;
- The subscript form of each consonant is used to write the second consonant of a cluster;
- There are no spaces between words in Khmer writing; rather, spaces denote the end of a clause or sentence.
Despite efforts to standardize this different Asian writing, numerous words have multiple accepted spellings.
The Mon script, which was adapted from a southern Indian script in the 8th century (“Burmese/Myanmar language, alphabet and pronunciation”), is the basis for the Burmese or Myanmar script. The 11th century is when the earliest known inscriptions in Burmese script can be found.
Let’s break down the specifics of this writing system:
- Just like Khmer, Burmese written language uses Abiguda;
- The traditional writing medium of palm leaves is what gives letters their rounded appearance. The leaves would have been split by straight lines. The script is known as ca-lonh, or “round script,” in Burmese;
- Burmese is a tonal language with two additional tones—stopped and reduced—in addition to the three primary tones—high, low, and creaky. Diacritics or special letters are used in writing to indicate the tones.
Written Malay and Indonesian Languages
Malay is a Malayic language spoken in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand. In fact, Indonesian is the standard form of Malay, which is spoken in Indonesia.
The Latin script serves as the foundation for these two Asian alphabets.
The Jawi alphabet, which is a version of the Arabic alphabet, is sometimes used to write Indonesian and Malay in Muslim communities.
Can You Tell the Differences of Asian Written Languages Now?
From Chinese characters to the Hangul system of Korean, East Asian writing systems are rich and varied.
Asian written languages provide a wealth of complex and interesting topics to explore. From the mysterious and elegant Chinese characters to the sophisticated Japanese Hiragana and Kanji—each of these writing systems carry a unique history and culture. They are a reflection of how civilizations across East Asia have evolved, and continue to evolve to this day.
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