An abugida is a script where consonant and vowels form a unit of some form, and are typical in South Asia.

Now, the Korean script isn't related to those languages, of course. But the Korean script is also formed of characters which have parts representing consonants, and parts representing vowels.

I'm not really familiar with any Abugida script, but I always wondered why Hangul isn't considered one. It's usually credited as an "artifical script", which is true I guess, but feels like somewhat unrelated to the typical categorization of scripts.

So, why isn't Hangul considered an Abugida?

  • 2
    It's definitely a conscript, and an alphabetic one at that. It just has rather complex and unusual kerning rules. – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 28 '18 at 9:54
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    The key feature of an abugida seems to be that each glyph has a characteristic consonant, plus an inherent vowel, and modifications alter only the inherent vowel. Hangul doesn't work that way; the components (jamo) are individual phonemes that are assembled into the syllable blocks.The individual jamo are not themselves modified to signal any phonemic changes. – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 28 '18 at 9:58
  • For an example of an abugida script, solve this puzzle about the Nagari writing system (used for Sanskrit in this case). – jlawler Apr 29 '18 at 17:08

disclaimer: I'm not an expert

Hangul does seem to meet the Wikipedia definition of Syllabary:

a syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables or (more frequently) moras which make up words.

So now let's see how we can tell syllabaries and abugidas apart.

From the "Differences from Abugidas" section:

In [abugidas], unlike in pure syllabaries, syllables starting with the same consonant are generally expressed with graphemes based in a regular way on a common graphical elements... In a true syllabary there may be graphic similarity between characters that share a common consonant or vowel sound, but it is not systematic or at all regular.

In Hangul, characters that share a common consonant or vowel sound have graphic similarity (the consonant part is identical). So far, Hangul is looking like an abugida.

But it's missing a subtle part of what is required by Wikipedia's definition of Abugida

a segmental writing system in which consonant–vowel sequences are written as a unit; each unit is based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is secondary. (emphasis mine)

The issue is that vowels are not secondary to consonants in Hangul.

In a true abugida, a single grapheme represents consonant+vowel, and graphemes representing the same consonant are similar, but vowels are not explicitly represented. However, in Hangul vowels are explicitly represented.

To take an example closer to home, we can try to pretend that the English alphabet is an abugida with some harmless gerrymandering. We can slice up "cat" into "ca" (consonant+vowel) and "t" (consonant). And we can also slice up "cut" into "cu" (consonant+vowel) and "t" (consonant). So far, this looks like an abugida, not a syllabary, because the "c" is repeated in "ca" and "cu".

But the illusion is over when we see that we slice "mat" into "ma" (consonant+vowel) and "t" (consonant) because the "a" part is common to both "ma" and "ca", showing that both vowels and consonants are represented, and we're working with an alphabet.

So I think Hangul could fairly be considered:

  • a syllabary, since the characters represent syllables
  • a featural writing system, since the shapes aren't arbitrary
  • almost an alphabet, since it represents consonants and vowels (almost, because the placement of the consonant and vowel parts within a character matter)

Because it isn't.

When one takes the arrangement of the Hangul jamos to syllables in square fields apart, it is a fully alphabetic writing system with separate and independent symbols for vowels and consonants.

  • But the same could essentially be said of something like Devanagari, which is considered an abugida. Each syllable consists of a consonant grapheme plus a vowel grapheme plus optionally a syllable-final consonant grapheme (some combinations have more or less irregular forms, but those are comparable to ligatures in Latin alphabets which don’t affect the classification of the system). The same is true of Hangul. The only real difference is that for vowel-initial syllables, Devanagari uses an otherwise unused element to ‘carry’ the vowel, while Hangul appropriates /ŋ/ for this purpose. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '20 at 13:09
  • @JanusBahsJacquet What are the independent vowel forms in Devanagari for then? I had assumed they were used for vowel initial syllables. – rchivers Jul 25 '20 at 13:27
  • @rchivers Arguably there aren’t any. Vowel-initial syllables (the ‘independent’ vowels) can be seen as more or less irregular combinations of a special zero grapheme plus the vowel grapheme (most easily recognisable in अ, आ, ओ, औ, etc.), the same way as how k + _ ṣ_ irregularly combine to form क्ष. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '20 at 13:37
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I ought to have spotted that, thanks. – rchivers Aug 1 '20 at 17:31

Historically speaking, abugida as a linguistic term was introduced by P.Daniels in this article. In speaking of Indic and Ethiopic scripts which have been termed "neo-syllablary" and "pseudo-alphabet", he notes

These are the scripts of Ethiopia and "greater India" that use a basic form for the specific syllable consonant + a particular vowel (in practice always the unmarked a) and modify it to denote the syllables with other vowels or with no vowel. Were it not for this existing term, I would propose maintaining the pattern by calling this type an "abugida," from the Ethiopian word for the auxiliary order of consonants in the signary

Nevertheless, the terminology was adopted and replaced the competing terms.

There is no "default vowel" in Hangul, as there is in Indic and Ethiopic. That is a defining characteristic of "abugida", at least according to Daniels (and ad adopted by H. Rogers). The Wiki definition ("consonant–vowel sequences are written as a unit") is true of Ethiopic, but not Devanagari, so the set of abugidas depends on which definition you use. Rogers' typology is richer, including a class "moraic" that covers Japanese kana, Cherokee, and Canadian syllabics (which don't have a "default vowel").

A further complication is that there can be a difference between an abstract description of how linguistic units are written, and how speakers of the language learn the writing system. Apparently, Hangul is learned as a syllabary, even though it is an alphabet.

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    This is the real difference, the only thing that unambiguously sets Hangul apart from abugidas: no inherent vowel. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 2 '20 at 18:40

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