For the traditional ordering of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, see Abjad numerals.

An abjad (pronounced /ˈæbɑːd/[1] or /ˈæbæd/)[2] is a type of writing system where each symbol stands for a consonant, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vowel. The name abjad was suggested by Peter T. Daniels[3] 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 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 phonemic or even 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]


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.

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 about two dozen symbols. This made the script easy to learn, and Phoenician seafaring 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 phoneme that the writer wants to write in order to write phonetically, much like how man'yougana (Chinese characters, or kanji, used solely for phonetic use) was used to represent Japanese phonetically before the invention of kana.

Phoenician gave way 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

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.[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. An example of a "pure" abjad is (perhaps) 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 it 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 the 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), ذَبَّحَ dhabbaḥa (he 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
Syriac yes yes right-left 22 consonants Middle-East Church of the East, Syrian ChurchAramaic, Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic ~ 100 BC[7] Aramaic Nabatean, Palmyran, Mandaic, Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Avestan and Manichean[7]
Hebrew yes only in modern Hebrew right-left 22 consonants + 5 final letters Middle-East Israelis, Some Jewish diaspora communities, Ancient Hebrew Tribes Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic > 1100 BC Proto-Hebrew, Early Aramaic
Arabic yes yes right-left 28 Middle-East and North Africa Over 400 million people Arabic, Bosnian, Kashmiri, Malay, Persian/Farsi, Pashto, Balochi, Turkish, Urdu, others[7] ~ AD 500[7] Nabataean Aramaic
Aramaic (Imperial) no no right-left 22 Middle-East Archaemenid, Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires Imperial Aramaic, Hebrew ~ 500 BC[7] Phoenician Late Hebrew, Nabataean, Syriac
Aramaic (Early) no no right-left 22 Middle-East Various Semitic Peoples ~ 1000-900 BC Phoenician Hebrew, Imperial Aramaic.[7]
Ancient Berber no no top-bottom, right-left[7] 22 (right-left) 25 (up-down)[8] North Africa[8] Women in Tuareg Society[8] Tifinagh[8] 600 BC Punic,[8] South Arabian[7] Tifinagh[8]
Nabataean no no right-left 22 Middle-East Nabataean Kingdom[8] Nabataean 200 BC[8] Aramaic Arabic
Middle Persian, (Pahlavi) no no right-left 22 Middle-East Sassanian Empire Pahlavi, Middle Persian Aramaic Psalter, Avestan[7]
Mandaic no yes right-left 24 Iraq, Iran Ahvāz, Iran Mandaic ~ AD 200 Aramaic Neo-Mandaic
Psalter no yes right-left 21 Northwestern China [7] Persian Script for Paper Writing[7] ~ AD 400[9] Syriac
Phoenician no no right-left, Boustrophedon 22 Byblos[7] Canaanites Phoenician, Punic ~ 1000-1500 BC[7] Proto-Canaanite Alphabet[7] Punic(variant), Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew
Parthian no no right-left 22 Parthia (modern-day equivalent of Northeastern Iran)[7] Parthian & Sassanian periods of Persian Empire[7] Parthian ~ 200 BC[7] Aramaic
Sabaean no no system right-left, boustrophedon 29 Southern Arabia (Sheba) Southern Arabians Sabaean ~ 500 BC[7] Byblos[7] Ethiopic (Eritrea & Ethiopia)[7]
Punic no no right-left 22 Carthage (Tunisia), North Africa, Mediterranean[7] Punic Culture Punic, Neo-Punic Phoenician
Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite no no left-right 30 Egypt, Sinai, Canaan Canaanites Canaanite ~ 1900-1700 BC In conjunction with Egyptian Hieroglyphs Phoenician, Hebrew
Ugaritic no yes left-right 30 Ugarit (modern-day Northern Syria) Ugarites Ugaritic, Hurrian ~ 1400 BC[7] Proto-Sinaitic
South Arabian no yes (Zabūr - cursive form of the South Arabian script) Boustrophedon 29 South-Arabia (Yemen) D'mt Kingdom Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Semitic, Chushitic, Nilo-Saharan 900 BC Proto-Sinaitic Ge'ez ((Ethiopia)(Eritrea))
Sogdian no no (yes in later versions) right-left, left-right(vertical) 20 parts of China (Xinjiang), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan Buddhists, Manichaens Sogdian ~ AD 400 Syriac Old Uyghur alphabet, Yaqnabi (Tajikistan dialect) [7]
Samaritan yes (700 people) no right-left 22 Mesopatamia or Levant (Disputed) Samaritans (Nablus and Holon) Samaritan Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew ~ 100-0 BC Paleo-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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