14

If you ask an English speaker to spell a word, there are specific, widely-known names for all the letters to fill this need. The same appears to be true for all Phoenician-derived alphabets that I can think of, incl. Arabic, Hebrew, etc. (Although I don’t actually know whether they commonly use those names when spelling words since those names are longer than English’s — perhaps someone can enlighten me here?)

I think we can disregard syllabaries because the names for the letters here are obvious. Similarly for other scripts in which each lexeme constitutes a syllable (such as Han). Nevertheless, feel free to include interesting tidbits about this if you have any.

But what about other alphabetic/abjad scripts that are unrelated to Phoenician? What about the Brahmi scripts (Devanagari etc.)? Unfortunately I don’t know about many other scripts, but according to Unicode there must be loads. :) Can letter names for spelling be regarded as universal, or do some cultures really have no means of spelling out a word?

  • 2
    The Brahmic scripts are almost syllabaries (sometimes called alphasyllabaries or syllabics), so the names for letters are pretty obvious. Most letters in Brahmic scripts can be pronounced individually while spelling out a word. Diacritics that cannot be individually pronounced have names (e.g., anusvāra, visarga). On a less serious note, if a script does not have names for its letters, how do children sing the alphabet song? – Robin Sep 18 '11 at 0:16
  • 4
    For what it's worth: Spanish-speakers, when asked how to write something, usually just say it slowly. Since the writing system is almost phonetic, this is usually enough; if not, they name the few letters which can be confused (b/v, s/z, and y/ll mostly) and leave the others out. Letter-by-letter spelling is pretty much a last resort. – Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Sep 18 '11 at 2:25
  • @Robin: Since I've been in the Balkans I've heard one local bemoan the lack of an alphabet song like we have for English. I think it was a Macedonian but I'm not sure. – hippietrail Sep 18 '11 at 8:54
11

The alphabet has only been invented a few times, so this is easier to describe than you'd think.

The first lineage of alphabets is the Phoenician lineage, which includes the modern Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabets, as well as a number of less prominent scripts both living and dead. While I haven't checked every one of these scripts, the Phoenicians themselves named their letters, and the tradition of naming letters was passed down to every derived script that I know of. Some of them kept or adapted the Phoenician names (Hebrew, Greek, Arabic), while others created a simplified naming scheme of their own (Latin, Cyrillic), but they all have names.

The second major lineage of alphabets is the Brahmic lineage, which includes Devanagari as its most prominent member, but includes all of the myriad scripts of India and Southeast Asia in its family tree. Here, too, the original script had named letters, and the tradition of named letters seems to have been kept in all of the daughter scripts.

That covers all of the unambiguous alphabets in the world. There is a third, somewhat contentious example, however.

Korean hangul are usually presented as a syllabary, but unlike most syllabaries every hangul syllabic glyph can be fully decomposed into a set of strokes that consistently and predictably represent individual segments in the syllable, with well-defined rules for placement. Therefore hangul arguably represents an alphabet with an unusual, syllabic arrangement system, in contrast with the simple linear arrangement used in the other major alphabets. And to the best of my knowledge the individual strokes that make up a hangul glyph do not have names--or if they do, their names are somewhat specialized terms that aren't commonly used by people describing how to spell something. This is as close as I think you're going to get to an alphabet without names for its letters.

Update: Hangul does have names for its letters, as pointed out in the comments.

  • 2
  • @Peter, how about that. They must not teach that to language learners :). – JSBձոգչ Sep 18 '11 at 10:45
  • I always thought that the 'Brahmic' scripts were also ultimately derived from Phoenician, not from the indigenous Harrappan script. – Mitch Sep 18 '11 at 13:57
  • can you give a source that says that there's only those lineages of the alphabet? – Louis Rhys Sep 18 '11 at 16:10
  • @Louis: Wikipedia has this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphabet#History. This is not an authoritative source, of course, but it reflects the consensus view that all known alphabets are descendants of one or possibly two ancestors. – JSBձոգչ Sep 20 '11 at 16:30
0

I don't think there's an alphabet without names for the characters because if there wasn't, how can they spell the words? In certain circumstances spelling is neccessary. Even logographic scripts like Chinese have "names" for the strokes and "names"/pronunciations for the radicals.

The strangest I've ever seen is the character ん/ン(n) in Japanese. To spell it we only produce a nasal sound inside the throat without a vowel because in Japanese that character represents the coda and is the only one that cannot produce a complete syllable alone. So IMO it's hardly called a "pronounceable name" although we can still spell the words.

  • i cannot corroborate your observation. i have on numerous occasion overheard Japanese people to use an isolated, emphatic ん to mean 'yes'. it is as much pronounceable as is Czech vlk, and yes, it can form a syllable on its own. – flow Sep 4 '14 at 12:25
  • @flow For yes Japanese people often use ううん. Anyway this is "strangest" in my opinion because as I said I think any characters have its pronunciation – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Sep 4 '14 at 17:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.