Why is it that in Europe, most written languages (Spanish, English, German, ect.) use very similar alphabets (Latin), while countries in South East Asia, which are similarly geographically close to one another as in Europe, use vastly different alphabets from one another (Thai, Mandarin, Japanese, Sanskrit, ect.)?

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    The premise is extremely wrong. Asia is 4.4 times bigger than Europe by land area; that not "similarly geographically close" at all. Furthermore, each of your Asian examples belong to a different language family. In contrast most European languages are Indo-European, and yet many uses the Cryllic script, not Latin. Having said that, Thai, Mandarin, and Japanese (and Korean and Vietnamese etc etc) all used Chinese characters once upon a time. Things changed because those are very different languages. – Semaphore Feb 22 '15 at 22:33
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    @Semaphore. The question is about "alphabets" (scripts), not "language families". – fdb Feb 22 '15 at 23:40
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    @fdb I know. What's your point? Did you bother to actually read my comment? – Semaphore Feb 23 '15 at 0:04
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    Eastern and South-Eastern Asia did largely use the same (Chinese) script. There are significant geographical barriers between them and South Asia, which used Sanskrit. – Semaphore Feb 23 '15 at 0:09
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    @Semaphore Actually the scripts used in Southeast Asia are Indic. The real dividing line is between East Asia and South/SE Asia. – neubau Feb 23 '15 at 1:12

The answer to this question is fairly straightforward along the lines of historical developments and cultural influences and goes pretty much along the lines offered by jamesqf's answer.

However, a much more illuminating answer would focus on the problematic nature of the assumptions behind the question.

First, Europe and South East Asia are not necessarily the best categories for this sort of comparison.

When it comes to writing systems, you may be better off talking about Mediterranean-Atlantic cultural sphere. Here, you will find at least five different (albeit related) writing systems: Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew currently in wide usage (millions of users across multiple languages). They can all trace their origins to similar roots but ultimately they underwent independent processes of development and cultural spread.

On the other side you have at least two historical spheres of cultural influence: Brahmic (Indian languages, Tibetan, Thai, Lao) and Sinic (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese). So, talking just about South East Asia as one area is misleading.

If you only focus on the artificial concept of 'modern Europe', you will find that the prevalence of the Latin script is due mostly to its mono-cultural origins of learning in Western Christendom. What may now seem like some sort of inevitable default state is, in fact, a consequence of Europe being a cultural and technological backwater for well over a thousand years while other places around the world flourished and promoted the development of more or less independent cultural traditions strong enough to carry their own literacy. The surface dominance of the Latin alphabet is only about 200 years old coming on the heels of mass literacy in the West spurred by industrial revolution (to simplify things greatly).

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  • +1 for mentioning the rise of Christianity. Europe historically had many different writing systems, but influence from Christian churches and powers influenced transitions over to the scripts that were already being used by educated priests. English itself used to use the Germanic rune "futhorc" alphabet, but influence from Latin-speaking clergy caused English speakers to switch over (this turned out to not work so well in the long run). Even nowadays, the script used by a nation is more likely to come from religion than something else - historically Catholic nations use Roman script, etc. – Robert Columbia Jul 14 at 10:05

Some factors:

  1. Most if not all the area of Europe which uses the Latin alphabet was once part of the Roman Empire, and used Latin as the language of trade even if it wasn't the native language (much like English today). Many European languages (the Romance family) are direct descendants of Latin, so not surprising they'd keep the alphabet as well.

  2. After the Empire fell, the Roman Christians used Latin, so it eventually became the language of scholarship, pushing out local writing systems (e.g. Norse, Irish).

  3. China and India are in fact quite isolated from each other. While I'm no expert (and welcome correction), what I've read suggests that there was more contact between Greece/Rome and India, than between India and China.

  4. Japanese does use Chinese characters (kanji) in its writing. Because the language is very different - lots of inflected endings for tenses &c - they added kana, so each Japanese word is typically kanji+kana. (I think Korean is similar.)

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    I do want to add to your 4th comment that although kanji and hanzi use the same base, and have lots of similarities, there are pretty significant divergences between the two that developed over numerous generations of Japanese isolation. Not so big that they're altogether totally different scripts, but something to note if we're talking about regional differences - eastasiastudent.net/regional/hanzi-and-kanji – Kasierith Feb 23 '15 at 3:19
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    There's also pretty significant divergences between the varieties of the Latin script used across European languages. The two cases are comparable for the purposes of this QA. – hippietrail Feb 23 '15 at 23:15

I don't know that much about south Asian linguistics, mostly European and Eastern Asian, so my answer will be limited but I hope helpful given those limitations.

The most important thing to remember when comparing eastern vs western script is that for a long, long ways back, European script was phonetic, whereas Chinese script and such was not. By this, I mean that alphabets such as Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, and Latin were meant to represent sounds, which were combined to represent words. What this meant, and why this is significant, is that it means they are easily interchangeable. The Rosetta stone is an example of how easy it is to crack multiple phonetic alphabets. Each phonetic language has a symbol for the "k" sound (though some have "kh" differentiated). In addition to being interchangeable, this made it far easier to adapt a certain alphabet to different languages. The Catholic Church in particular had a resounding impact in this; they made it their mission to provide the Bible in numerous languages. Sometimes, they displaced preexisting scripts entirely; Germanic runes were replaced for the much more fluid Latin script. Other times, alphabets were made entirely from scratch by the church; the single greatest undertaking of this was the creation of Cyrillic script from the Slavic languages, when the Orthodox church requested that the church help them formulate a written means of communication, and two priests by the name of Methodius and Cyril formed an entirely new script composed of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin letters and suited for the consonent and trill heavy Slavic tongue. So to answer the European side, it started out diverse, but the Church used its influence to push a very efficient script capable of suiting multiple languages throughout the various lands and nationalities.

Eastern Asia, on the other hand, has traditionally followed a very different form; their script, instead of focusing on somatic components, instead were meant to represent individual ideas and concepts and words. So instead of having six letters for "finger," they would have one letter for "finger." The actual script themselves were often meant to relate to the idea, much like the formations of stars are meant to depict constellations. This gets cluttered, however, when you consider two things: 1) it is not easily interchangeable, and 2) multiple lands were doing this simultaneously. Regional divergence was highly significant, and is the reason why there are so many characters that can represent the same idea. It was also complex and difficult to teach; although certain symbols were universally used such as markings for roads or types of buildings, most of the more abstract concepts of actually writing were essentially impossible to incorporate into the general population. It got to the point that the Korean king Sejong the Great had some of the best minds in his kingdom create a new, somatic alphabet, one that is commonly esteemed to be the most phonetically "accurate" because the characters are not only phonetically representative, but are meant to represent the positions of the tongue and throat while making the sound. Another nation, Japan, also eventually adopted another alphabet following somatic components, as well as adding on a third alphabet later on typically used to represent Western concepts, giving Japan a total of three modern working languages. China followed similar routes as well. So the basis for alphabetic confusion in Eastern Asia is basically that it started as a conceptually similar use of a non-phonetic alphabet, which is very vulnerable to regional divergence, and different lands used different means to eventually cope with this and change it to a regionally acceptable phonetic alphabet.

To add a little to Sanskrit and Indochinese scripts, though, although I can't go into detail on their development, it is important to point out that despite your assumption, they were not geographically close. India and the main parts of China were significantly seperated, by distance, jungle, and massive mountain peaks. Indochina was isolated by extensive jungle regions not suitable for agrarian societies. The expectation that they would have linguistically similar origins are slim at best.

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    Japanese doesn't actually have three working languages (or writing systems). If you ignore the modern use of the Latin alphabet (Romaji), there are three character sets, all of which are used in writing. The 1800 or so kana are ideographs derived from Chinese. One or more of these convey the meaning of the word. The kanji are followed by hiragana, which give inflections/tenses to the word. Katakana are used for transcribing foreign words, technical terms, and other special uses. Both kanji and kana are integral parts of the one writing system. – jamesqf Feb 23 '15 at 5:09
  • You are very right, and thank you for elaborating on that. I had meant to say three character sets, and had made a mistake in labeling them as languages. – Kasierith Feb 23 '15 at 12:44
  • South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc) is not a topic of the question. Maybe you meant to write Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, etc)? – hippietrail Feb 23 '15 at 23:17
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    Considering he specifically mentioned Sanskrit, India is very much within the topic of conversation... I also 1) mentioned that I was focusing primarily on Eastern Asian and Europe at the start of my post, and 2) only mentioned Indochinese and Sanskrit in my short bit at the end. Indochina includes all of those, including Thailand if you go by modern geography as opposed to French Indochina which does not. – Kasierith Feb 23 '15 at 23:35

It more or less a historical artefact the Europe has so few writing systems. At the turn from the medieval age to modern era, most European languages had developed their own style of writing the Latin alphabet and the difference in style can be seen in the typefaces for early prints. Some of these differences survived until today where an uncial style is associated with Ireland and fraktur with Germany. But somehow those differences levelled out and weren't seen as anything but differences in style.

On the other side, all the scripts of India derived from the Brahmi script were considered separate scripts despite sharing the same order of the syllabary, the same set of basic letters, and the same principles of forming syllables.

The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean script are independent developments from that and are unrelated to the Indic scripts.

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I'll try to answer this from Indian perspective. In ancient India (the Vedic Period), Sanskrit has been the lingua-franca. All our religious texts including the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. have been written in Sanskrit language (the Devanagari script). And India in those times, extended upto Persia in the West and the Himalayas in the east. Some of you were right in pointing out that we had more interaction with Greece and Persia during ancient times than China. The reason being, the Himalaya mountains which acted as a great geographical barrier between India and China.

Since there were no such major obstacles between Greece and India, trade and information exchange was possible. Alexander invaded India just before Chandragupta Maurya established the Maurya empire around 320 B.C. During the Maurya period, the Pali language was gaining more and more importance which was nothing more than a corrupted version of Sanskrit. Indeed, most of the Buddhist texts were originally written in Pali and not Sanksrit.

However, when you move towards South India, you will find totally different languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada) which are written in their own scripts and have no link whatsoever to Sanskrit. The reason for that is speculative, though some scholars suggest the Indo Aryan migration hypothesis.

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    This is a great bit of information, but I'm not sure how it's meant to answer the question. To me, it only seeks to ask more questions, such as why does India alone have so many written languages with their own scripts while a broader area like Europe does not. Are you pointing out how far removed India was from SE Asia, which might account for the difference in alphabets? Because if so, as I mentioned, this lack of connectivity does not account for the many scripts found in India itself, which I imagine is pretty well connected. By that logic, Indian scripts ought to be similar to each other – Premier Bromanov Feb 23 '15 at 22:28
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    You seem to be confusing Sanskrit and Devanagari early in your answer. The scripts of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada are indeed well known to be related to Devanagari though the languages are not related to Sanskrit. – hippietrail Feb 23 '15 at 23:20
  • @TomSterkenburg Yes, the geographical barrier of Himalayas well explains why India is culturally far removed from China and other countries on the eastern border. It also explains the Persian influence which is quite apparent on both Sanskrit and Hindi (which is just a derivative of Sanskrit). As for why India has so many written languages with their own scripts, it could only be speculated that the Aryan Migration could be responsible for it. – Prahlad Yeri Feb 24 '15 at 6:12
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    @hippietrail I only stated that earlier texts were written using Devanagari script which is common script to express Sanskrit, Pali and even Hindi language in modern times. The scripts for Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada could have some links to Devanagari, but their alphabets are drastically different. For instance, even a layman can say that people using symbols like this: தமிழ் would have a far different culture than those using this: संस्कृतम्. For those unaware, the former word is Tamil written in the Tamil script, while the latter is Sanskritam written in Devanagari script. – Prahlad Yeri Feb 24 '15 at 11:53
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    @PrahladYeri Your laymen argument is appaling. Have you ever bother to know about the sounds of alphabets of Telugu, Kannada etc.? I have, because I'm a Telugu, and I learnt Hindi in school. They are more or less similar.(A aa, e ee, u, uu e tc) Although the language families are different for Sanskrit and Dravidian languages, the scripts used are all derived from the Brahmi Script(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telugu_script, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devanagari) parents for both of these is Brahmi (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmi_script) – pinkpanther Sep 17 '17 at 18:15

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