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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" or "consonantal alphabet" to refer to the family of scripts called West Semitic.


The name "abjad" (abjad أبجد) is derived from pronouncing the first letters of the Old alphabet order in Arabic. 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 Peter T. 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 all 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 some 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]


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 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 (Chinese characters 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 abjadsEdit

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. 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 vowelsEdit

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 languagesEdit

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[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, and Yiddish.

Comparative chart of Abjads, extinct and extantEdit

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 Church of the East, Syrian Church Aramaic, Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic ~ 100 BCE[7] Aramaic Nabatean, Palmyran, Mandaic, Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Avestan and Manichean[7]
Hebrew yes as a secondary script right-left 22 consonants + 5 final letters 4 Middle East Israelis, Jewish diaspora communities, Second Temple Judea Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, Karaim 2nd century BCE Paleo-Hebrew, Early Aramaic
Arabic yes yes right-left 28 3 Middle East and North Africa Over 400 million people Arabic, Bosnian, Kashmiri, Malay, Persian, Pashto, Uyghur, Kurdish, Urdu, many others[7] 512 CE[8][7] Nabataean Aramaic
Aramaic (Imperial) no no right-left 22 3 Middle East Archaemenid, Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires Imperial Aramaic, Hebrew ~ 500 BCE[7] Phoenician Late Hebrew, Nabataean, Syriac
Aramaic (Early) no no right-left 22 none Middle East Various Semitic Peoples ~ 1000-900 BCE[citation needed] Phoenician Hebrew, Imperial Aramaic.[7]
Libyc (Ancient Berber) yes no top-bottom, right-left[7] 22 (right-left) 25 (up-down)[9] word-final dot indicates an unspecified vowel North Africa[9] Women in Tuareg Society[9] Tifinagh[9] 600 BCE Maybe Punic[9] Tifinagh[9]
Nabataean no no right-left 22 none Middle East Nabataean Kingdom[9] Nabataean 200 BCE[9] Aramaic Arabic
Middle Persian, (Pahlavi) no no right-left 22 3 Middle East Sassanian Empire Pahlavi, Middle Persian Aramaic Psalter, Avestan[7]
Psalter Pahlavi no yes right-left 21 yes Northwestern China [7] Persian Script for Paper Writing[7] ~ 400 CE[10] Syriac[citation needed]
Phoenician no no right-left, boustrophedon 22 none Byblos[7] Canaanites Phoenician, Punic,Hebrew ~ 1000-1500 BCE[7] Proto-Canaanite Alphabet[7] 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)[7] Parthian & Sassanian periods of Persian Empire[7] Parthian ~ 200 BCE[7] Aramaic
Sabaean no no right-left, boustrophedon 29 none Southern Arabia (Sheba) Southern Arabians Sabaean ~ 500 BCE[7] Byblos[7] Ethiopic (Eritrea & Ethiopia)[7]
Punic no no right-left 22 none Carthage (Tunisia), North Africa, Mediterranean[7] Punic Culture Punic, Neo-Punic Phoenician[citation needed]
Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite no no left-right 24 none Egypt, Sinai, Canaan Canaanites Canaanite ~ 1900-1700 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 ~ 1400 BCE[7] Proto-Sinaitic
South Arabian no yes (Zabūr - cursive form of the South Arabian script) Boustrophedon 29 yes South-Arabia (Yemen) D'mt Kingdom Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Semitic, Chushitic, 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 ~ 400 CE Syriac Old Uyghur alphabet, Yaqnabi (Tajikistan dialect) [7]
Samaritan yes (700 people) no right-left 22 none Mesopotamia or Levant (Disputed) Samaritans (Nablus and Holon) Samaritan Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew ~ 100-0 BCE Paleo-Hebrew Alphabet

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "abjad - Definition of abjad in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries - English.
  2. ^ "abjad". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Daniels & Bright 1996.
  4. ^ Lehmann 2011.
  5. ^ Daniels 2013.
  6. ^ Lipiński 1994.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Ager 2015.
  8. ^ Ekhtiar 2011.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Lo 2012.
  10. ^ "PAHLAVI PSALTER – Encyclopaedia Iranica".


  • 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. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
  • Wright, W. (1967). A Grammar of the Arabic Language [transl. from the German of Caspari]. 1 (3rd ed.). CUP. p. 28. ISBN 978-0521094559.