Approximately how many writing systems do we know, that succeeded in being systematically used?

In order to qualify as such, an established writing system should have some basic properties:

1) It should be complete, that is, able to model sentences and tales, and not just dates and appointments (like quechua kipus) or names and fortunes (like germanic runes?)

2) There should be a relevant number of native speakers that used it and traded it to their children. Folk-tale records or Bible distributions made by non-native linguists do not qualify.

3) There must be a (de facto) consensus on how an spoken utterance is correctly written and what is wrong. Dialect speech, written "on the fly", does not qualify as a system, even if done by native speakers.

On the other hand, a writing system should not be confused with an alphabet: different languages, if written, do usually define different writing systems (like English and Spanish, or Arabic and Farsi, or Yiddish and Hebrew). Even in the case where a significant language change or alphabet change lead to widely different orthography rules (as of middle high German shifting to present day German, or the case of Turkish in 1928), such a change would define different writing systems.

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    Your no. (3) rules out Greek, which never had a standardised "correct" form, but only ever existed as a bundle of dialects. – fdb Aug 25 '16 at 13:03
  • @fdb: That is interesting, would it mean that (say) New Testament Greek did not follow consistent orthographical rules? Or that present Greek schoolchildren are allowed to write as they like? I am quite willing to qualify Greek as a writing system, but not as a lot of different systems, one for each local dialect. – Goswin Aug 25 '16 at 13:49
  • I am actually talking about the classical (pre-Roman) period. In the Roman and Byzantine periods you have the standardised literary language based on Attic, and the popular non-standardised language of the New Testament and other writings in colloquial (Koine) language. Modern Demotic Greek does have an official, standardised orthography. – fdb Aug 25 '16 at 14:19
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    There were a lot, and some of them meet your criteria. Others don't. You'll have to decide for yourself. Start with Daniels and Bright's The World's Writing Systems, which is pretty thorough. – jlawler Aug 25 '16 at 15:56
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    @Goswin Runic script is not just for "names and fortunes". This is a widespread prejudice. Runic is an alphabetical writing system used for writing many Germanic languages, starting from what is called simply Runic, a form of Old Norse and very close to Gothic. Texts of various extent are known in this script. – Artemij Keidan Apr 1 '17 at 16:53

The prospects for a definitive answer are bleak, because the qualifications for distinct established writing system are not entirely clear. Re: consensus on correctness, if taken literally this is an impossible requirement to actually satisfy. Suppose that "American English" is a language with an established writing system, is different from the British English writing system (see well-known spelling differences like theater, color, the suffix -ize). There is no way to determine the consensus spelling of accommodate, reference, until. There aren't any practical but scientifically valid survey methods that would tell you what most people think is the correct spelling. Psychology tests will sample only current undergraduates in universities enrolled in courses where they are compelled to be experimental subjects, which is not a valid basis for extrapolating to the population (which anyhow first needs to be defined, since 7 year olds do not have valid opinions). Sampling from written samples likewise gives you a highly skewed sample. There are normative answers contained in pedagogical spelling materials and dictionaries, but appeal to authority is quite anti-consensus. I'm not arguing for a populist approach to spelling, I'm arguing that the issue of standards needs to be sharpened up. I would say that there is a standard for American English spelling (so, yes, I am arguing for appeal to authoritative sources), but it is not rigorously respected, to the point that "nite" is not generally considered a misspelling anymore. Question: do you could "nite, brite, lite" spelling as defining a distinct writing system, or not?

Within the sphere of American English, you would almost certainly have to recognize a number of dialect variants. Some people pronounce "thing" as [θæŋ], and some people pronounce "with" as [wɪf]. While we don't find large-scale adaptation of "thang" and "wif" in writing, a number of authors writing (partially or wholely) in those dialects do employ alternative dialect spellings. Should we recognise this as a different standard (insofar as it is reasonably standard within the context of writing those dialects)?

The desideratum that "There should be a relevant number of native speakers that used it and traded it to their children" seems reasonable, since probably all languages with at least a dozen speakers have some written materials created by a linguist, but there hasn't been uptake on all of those efforts. The idea that native speaker parents teach their children how to write is maybe a bit over-optimistic (I learned how to write in school, my parents didn't teach me, and actually one of my teachers was not a native speaker though she know how to read, write and teach English). If we substitute the desideratum "is adopted by native speakers", and stipulate that the system should be used by at least one person not professionally engaged in promulgating the writing system, then we may have a suitable filter. If you want a larger set of professionally-disinterested writers (e.g. "at least 100 individuals"), this would filter out very many languages, over 10% of current languages, which have too few speakers, and probably much more than that because minor languages tend to have literacy problems.

In languages whose writing systems are newly developed, especially in African languages, the phonemic system is rich and the orthography often includes many distinctions that are unattractive to speakers – symbols like ɪ ʊ ə ʃ š ŋ plus diacritics as in á à ̋a ǎ. There is an observed tendency to omit such diacritics, which would lead to distinct writing systems (the officially sanctioned system, versus the system used by people). Hence official Kikuyu distinguishes [i ĩ u ũ] and ordinary writing omits the diacritic -- does this count as two writing systems?

Depending on how these issues are resolved, the ballpark would be on the order of 10,000 systems.

The reason for the up-tick relative to the number of Ethnologue-listed languages is because of the aforementioned factors. For instance, Lule Saami has different writing systems for Norway and Sweden but it's one language. Surprisingly, English is a single language (but multiple writing systems). I'm also including increases for historical changes in spelling. North Saami has had at least 4 spelling systems over about 400 years; languages spoken in the Russian sphere of influence (esp. the southern zone) have changed between Cyrillic, Latin, Arabic and other bases for writing within the past 150 years; many African languages have gone through two or three spelling systems just within 100 years. There are also quite a number of writing systems in India, for instance Punjabi which has two (Indian and Pakistani), Devanagari, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada... Each of these has a distinct script.

The statement "different languages, if written, do usually define different writing systems (like English and Spanish)" is a bit unclear. English does not use <ñ> or any accents, which Spanish does. Maybe you mean that because of those different letters, English and Spanish have different writing systems. Shona and Swahili are completely different languages, but they happen to use the same letters from the Latin alphabet, so you might say that they have the same writing system (even though there are combinations in one that aren't possible in the other: <sv, tsv, bh, n'> in Shona, <gh, ng'> in Swahili.

If you want to restrict the set of "established writing systems", I would suggest (1) being lax about "sameness" whereby "color" and "colour" don't reflect different writing systems, they reflect different spellings and (2) raise the bar on what it takes to be "established": government recognition might be what you're after.

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  • @ user6726: Your comments are quite relevant to me, since I am actually trying to define what an "established" writing system could be; more than knowing how many there are. But wow, I am really surprised at your estimation of 10,000, are you serious about that? I expected that there be somewhere between 200 and 500 established systems. – Goswin Aug 26 '16 at 0:59
  • There are only about 6000 languages at all, and (I guess) a big majority of them do NOT use a writing system let alone trade it to their children (to me, sending them to grade school counts as trading). And that includes languages with millions of speakers like Egyptian Arabic, which prefers to use an almost alien writing system. I also would guess it to be extremely unusual for a language to have more than one established writing system (I only know the cases of Turkish and Serbian), since Koine Greek and Demotic Greek are considered different languages in the ethnologue 6000 count. – Goswin Aug 26 '16 at 1:11

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