I am looking for languages with writing systems that are almost completely ideally phonemic (i.e. no silent letters and an unambiguous one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the phonemes). Two that I have found so far are Swahili and Esperanto. Does anyone know of more? It would be great to compile as many as possible.

  • Most recently-developed orthographies are phonemic, having a one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes. So it may well be the case that the majority of orthographies on earth are truly phonemic. Oct 11 '13 at 23:42
  • They don't always stay as phonetic as when they were developed. I believe the Canadian syllabary took off but changed for either Cree or a language in Nunavit. I don't have details at hand though sorry. Oct 12 '13 at 10:07
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    Since you include Esperanto, you probably could include practically all constructed languages, including lojban, Klingon, Na'vi, etc. The list will be endless because as soon as you complete it, someone could invent another language, on the spot, making your list incomplete.
    – prash
    Oct 12 '13 at 19:11

Most recently developed orthographies are phonemically straight forward - they become less ideal as time goes on and the spoken language goes under sound shifts, but the written language doesn't.

Most of the languages SIL has worked with did not have an orthography before, so you'll be able to find many in their archive.

  • But how many of those languages they've developed orthographies for have gone on to achieve high literacy among their communities? Oct 12 '13 at 10:05
  • Most of them have gone on to become extinct. An example is Lushootseed, which is at best moribund, but which has a very nice and quite phonemic orthography. Here's an inscription in Lushootseed in the new wing of the University of Washington Library, and some grammatical puzzles in Lushootseed.
    – jlawler
    Oct 12 '13 at 15:04
  • @jlawler 'most of them have gone on to become extinct'?? That may be true in some areas (eg North America and Australia), but not yet in the rest of the world. Oct 12 '13 at 22:19
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    Cherokee had a pretty phonemic orthography -- Sequoiah's syllabary -- and got near 100% literacy very fast. Of course this was before the First Nations were sent to concentration camps and they had freedoms just like Americans.
    – jlawler
    Oct 12 '13 at 23:07
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    @hippietrail While there are certainly examples where communities have made little use of the orthography developed for their language, I can think of many cases where communities do indeed use their recently-developed orthography. They may not be writing novels, but it's used in education, in community notices, letter-writing, song writing etc. I guess the regions I have in mind are Australia, PNG, the Pacific and south-east Asia. Oct 13 '13 at 21:09

Armenian is one of such languages. More, it is one of the oldest languages known to be mostly phonemic.
Quoting from here:

In the late 4th century AD, king Vramshapuh of Armenia asked Mesrop Mashtots, one of the officials in his chancellery and a prominent scholar, to create a new alphabet for Armenian.

Mashtots travelled to Alexandria, where he studied the principles of writing and came to the conclusion that the Greek alphabet was the best alphabet in use at that time because there was an almost one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. He used this model to come up with a new alphabet, which he presented to the king when he returned to Armenia in 405 AD. The new alphabet was well-received and a new Armenian translation of the bible was published in 405 AD. Other literary works soon followed.

There are some differences between spoken and written language:

  • Two sounds, [f] and palatalized [ja] that have been adopted from Russian.
  • Other subtle differences have primarily dialectic nature.
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    One problem with an interesting solution in the case of Armenian is that the two major dialects, Eastern (in Armenia) and Western (in the diaspora) each utilize slightly different spelling as they try to reflect their different pronunciations. I believe Western Armenian might also have not adopted some of the reforms to Armenian orthography that were brought about during Soviet times. Oct 13 '13 at 10:49
  • @bytebuster Armenian is not a good example since it has at least one digraph, i.e. in at least one case a sequence of two letters correspond to just one phoneme, namely /u/ spelled ‹ou›. This makes the Armenian script something less than a perfectly phonemic alphabet. Apr 2 '17 at 10:11

This is pretty much the case with Turkish.

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    Do you have any sources?
    – Daudi
    Oct 11 '13 at 22:45
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    Turkish still retains a few quirks such as the "silent" ğ that lengthens the previous vowel, and it has a circumflex accent to indicate long vowels which is seldom used now and mainly I believe for some surviving words of Arabic and Persian origin - but also for a separate native Turkish quirk I now can't recall the details of. Oct 12 '13 at 10:10
  • References on Turkish long vowel / circumflex: [1], [2], [3], [4] Oct 12 '13 at 10:24
  • The different realisations of ğ is a phonetic issue, not a phonological one. The positing of a single phoneme /ğ/ is certainly a sustainable analysis. â does not designate a long vowel (at least not in a Turkish context), but indicates the palatalisation of the preceding consonant.
    – fdb
    Oct 12 '13 at 20:07
  • @fdb: SigueSigueBen's answer to a previous question here has some info on the circumflex and long vowels in Turkish: In Turkish, how exactly does “ğ” affect the vowel it follows? Oct 13 '13 at 10:42

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