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. In a true syllabary there is no systematic graphic similarity between phonetically related characters (though some do have graphic similarity for the vowels). That is, the characters for "ke", "ka", and "ko" have no similarity to indicate their common "k"-ness. 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).
The Japanese language uses two syllabaries, namely hiragana and katakana (developed around 700 AD). They are mainly used to write some native words and grammatical elements, as well as foreign words, e.g. hotel is ho-te-ru in Japanese. Because Japanese uses a lot of CV (consonant + vowel) type syllables, a syllabary is well suited to write the language. (It is sometimes argued that the Japanese kana should be called moraic writing systems rather than syllabaries, as they are based on morae, not syllables. However, at the time kana developed, Japanese was still a syllable-timed language, so the label is not entirely inaccurate.)
The English language, on the other hand, allows more complex syllable structures, making it cumbersome to write English words with a syllabary. To write English using a syllabary, every possible syllable in English would have to have a separate symbol. Thus, you would need separate symbols for "bag," "beg," "big," "bog," "bug;" "bad," "bed," "bid," "bod," "bud," etc.
Other languages that use syllabic writing include Mycenaean Greek (Linear B) and Native American languages such as Cherokee. Several languages of the Ancient Near East used Cuneiform, which is a syllabary with some non-syllabic elements.
The Indian languages and the Ethiopian languages have alphabets (called abugidas by some scholars) that are sometimes mistaken for syllabaries. Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics is also an abugida, although it is not usually called one.
- Syllabaries http://www.omniglot.com/writing/syllabaries.htm - Omniglot's http://www.omniglot.com/ list of syllabaries and abugidas, including examples of various writing systems
Last updated: 02-03-2005 13:02:25