An abjad is a type of writing system where each symbol always or usually stands for a consonant, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vowel. It is a term suggested by Peter T. Daniels 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 (read from right to left: أ ب ج د) or أبجد.
According to the formulations of Daniels, 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.
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.
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 have characters for some vowels, optional vowel diacritics, or both. The term "pure" abjad refers to scripts entirely lacking in vowel indicators. However, most modern abjads, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Avestan, are "impure" abjads, that is, they also contain symbols for some of the vowel phonemes. An example of a "pure" abjad is ancient Phoenician.
Addition of vowels
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 used. The Greek alphabet thus became the world's first to have symbols representing vowel sounds.
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, the Arabic root ذ ب ح Dh-B-Ḥ (to slaughter) can be derived the forms ذَبَح dhabaḥa (he slaughtered), ذَبَحْتَ dhabaḥta (you (masculine singular) slaughtered), ذَبَّحَ dhabbaḥa (he slaughtered), يُذَبِّح yudhabbiḥ (he slaughters), and مَذْبَح madhbaḥ (slaughterhouse). In each case, 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
|ID||Name||In use||Cursive||Direction||# of letters||Area of origin||Used by||Languages||Time period (age)||Influenced by||Writing systems influenced|
|1||Syriac||yes||yes||right-left||22 consonants||Middle-East||Syrian Church||Aramaic, Syriac, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic||~ 100 BCE||Aramaic||Nabatean, Palmyran, Mandaic, Parthian, Pahlavi, Sogdian, Avestan and Manichean|
|2||Hebrew||yes||Only in Modern Hebrew||right-left||22 consonants + 5 final letters||Middle-East||Israelis, Some Jewish diaspora communities, Ancient Hebrew Tribes||Hebrew, Ladino, Bukhari, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Aramaic||> 1100 BCE||Proto-Hebrew, Early Aramaic|
|3||Arabic||yes||yes||right-left||28||Middle-East and North Africa||Over 400 million people||Arabic, Bosnian, Kashmiri, Kurdish, Kyrghyz, Malay, Persian/Farsi, Pashto, Balochi, Turkish, Urdu, Uyghur, others||~ 500 CE||Nabataean Aramaic|
|4||Aramaic (Imperial)||no||no||right-left||22||Middle-East||Archaemenid, Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires||Imperial Aramaic, Hebrew||~ 500 BCE||Phoenician||Late Hebrew, Nabataean, Syriac|
|5||Aramaic (Early)||no||no||right-left||22||Middle-East||Various Semitic Peoples||~ 1000-900 BCE||Phoenician||Hebrew, Imperial Aramaic.|
|6||Ancient Berber||no||no||top-bottom, right-left||22 (right-left) 25 (up-down)||North Africa||Women in Tuareg Society||Tifinagh||600 BCE||Punic, South Arabian||Tifinagh|
|7||Nabataean||no||no||right-left||22||Middle-East||Nabataean Kingdom||Nabataean||200 BCE||Aramaic||Arabic|
|8||Middle Persian, (Pahlavi)||no||no||right-left||22||Middle-East||Sassanian Empire||Pahlavi, Middle Persian||Aramaic||Psalter, Avestan|
|9||Mandaic||no||yes||right-left||24||Iraq, Iran||Ahvāz, Iran||Mandaic||~ 200 CE||Aramaic||Neo-Mandaic|
|10||Psalter||no||yes||right-left||21||Northwestern China ||Persian Script for Paper Writing||~ 400 CE ||Syriac|
|11||Phoenician||no||no||right-left, Boustrophedon||22||Byblos||Canaanites||Phoenician, Punic||~ 1000-1500 BCE||Proto-Canaanite Alphabet||Punic(variant), Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew|
|12||Parthian||no||no||right-left||22||Parthia (modern-day equivalent of Northeastern Iran)||Parthian & Sassanian periods of Persian Empire||Parthian||~ 200 BCE||Aramaic|
|13||Sabaean||no||no system||right-left, boustrophedon||29||Southern Arabia (Sheba)||Southern Arabians||Sabaean||~ 500 BCE||Byblos||Ethiopic (Eritrea & Ethiopia)|
|14||Punic||no||no||right-left||22||Carthage (Tunisia), North Africa, Mediterranean||Punic Culture||Punic, Neo-Punic||Phoenician|
|15||Proto-Sinaitic, Proto-Canaanite||no||no||left-right||30||Egypt, Sinai, Canaan||Canaanites||Canaanite||~ 1900-1700 BCE||In conjunction with Egyptian Hieroglyphs||Phoenician, Hebrew|
|16||Ugaritic||no||yes||left-right||30||Ugarit (modern-day Northern Syria)||Ugarites||Ugaritic, Hurrian||~ 1400 BCE||Proto-Sinaitic|
|17||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 BCE||Proto-Sinaitic||Ge'ez ((Ethiopia)(Eritrea))|
|18||Sogdian||no||no (yes in later versions)||right-left, left-right(vertical)||20||parts of China (Xinjiang), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan||Buddhists, Manichaens||Sogdian||~ 400 CE||Syriac||Old Uyghur alphabet, Yaqnabi (Tajikistan dialect) |
|19||Samaritan||yes (700 people)||no||right-left||22||Mesopatamia or Levant (Disputed)||Samaritans (Nablus and Holon)||Samaritan Aramaic, Samaritan Hebrew||~ 100-0 BCE||Paleo-Hebrew Alphabet|
- Abjad numerals
- Gematria (Hebrew system of mystical numerology)
- Shorthand (constructed writing systems that are structurally abjads)
- "Abjads / Consonant alphabets", Omniglot.com, 2009, quote: "Abjads, or consonant alphabets, represent consonants only, or consonants plus some vowels. Full vowel indication (vocalisation) can be added, usually by means of diacritics, but this is not usually done." Accessed 22 May 2009.
- Daniels, Peter T., et al. eds. The World's Writing Systems, Oxford. (1996), p.4.
- Reinhard G. Lehmann: "27-30-22-26. How Many Letters Needs an Alphabet? The Case of Semitic", in: The idea of writing: Writing across borders / edited by Alex de Voogt and Joachim Friedrich Quack, Leiden: Brill 2012, p. 11-52, esp. p. 22-27
- , http://www.omniglot.com/writing/alphabetic.htm.
- , http://www.ancientscripts.com/berber.html.
- , Encyclopædia Iranica.