I'm curious about how writing systems like Burmese or Thai - the characters of which look to my untrained eye far more similar than Latin or Japanese characters - are distinguished by native readers, and non-native readers.

Have there been any studies done into whether the characters in certain writing systems are more or less visually distinct?

By this I mean, many of the glyphs are easy to differentiate from one another, as opposed to b, p, q and d, for example, or <シ> and <ツ> in Japanese.

I'd be interested to see whether anyone has come up with a way of comparing different writing systems according to their distinctiveness.

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    I'm sure there is research because distinctiveness is very important for those with dyslexia.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 0:48
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    Tangentially I believe Sampson's Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction has a section on this topic as well but I have the book at home. Maybe for now have a look at linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/27453/1668
    – tripleee
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 9:06
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    @NickNicholas (@ did not work by the way.) I have heard that claim but I am not sure I believe it. It is possible that to someone who was never exposed to Latin (or Cyrillic or Greek which are close to it), it looks like soup too, but in my world there are very few such people. The other factor here is that the stylised versions of the same alphabet vary wildly. The Georgian alphabet(s) are an example of this, they are even considered separate alphabets, but really they were just versions used similarly to italics and casing. Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 12:38
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    @NickNicholas I do know that developers frequently increase the font size for Arabic and Armenian, but that is arguably just because the font designers made them too small. Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 12:38
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    So I am skeptical, anybody making a strong claim must account for those variables: size on the web, stylised versions and level of exposure. Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 12:40

1 Answer 1


The most confusing (lacking distinction among letters) writing system is the the oldest variety of the Arabic script, usually known as Rasm, 7th - 11th centuries AD.
The modern Arabic script has 28 letter of which only 18 letters have their distinct shapes, the rest are distinguished by the diacritic dots, 1 to 3 of them either below (1-2 of them) or above (1-3) the letters.
In the Rasm tradition, the letters were written without those dots, so, for example,
با [baː],
نا [naː],
يا [jaː],
تا [taː],
ثا [θaː],
were written the same way, that is, without the dots, like this:

enter image description here

Despite its ambiguity, the script was pretty legible, especially for the learned Muslim scholars.

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    (Surely you mean [j], not [y]?)
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 16:37
  • An ambiguous individual glyph can be disambiguated in context, but languages also differ in how much context they supply. I know Hebrew matres lectionis were introduced as a countermeasure when the historically (ostensibly) sufficient context no longer worked for new generations, but I can't even begin to articulate a proper model for how to assess, much less quantify this phenomenon.
    – tripleee
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 6:47

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