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Indian here, but it only suddenly struck me now that the abugida systems seem to have no disadvantages at all (except one). I'm only considering what seem like standard measures of "good" : (small) number of symbols, consistency in pronunciation, capacity to express large numbers of sounds, consistency in character combinations.

Advantages :

  • 1-1 correspondence between morphemesletters and phonemessyllables, upto 100% consistent.
  • Combinations of consonants and vowels enable learning only a small number of symbols
  • Conjuncts allow unlimited combinations of consonant sounds (theoretically ; some sound just awful)

Disadvantages :

  • Extremely difficult to typeset mechanically. This applies to pretty much any writing system other than Alphabetic.

If what I say makes any sense, then until the invention of the printing press, alphabetic systems should have had no great advantages and a disadvantage w.r.t pronunciation. Pictographic/Ideographic/Logographic would lose out on information precision, and syllabaries would lose out in terms of succinctness : each syllable has to be remembered separately. Abjads would lose out in pronunciation as well.

Am I overlooking/overemphasising something? Or is it odd that any writing systems other than Abugida and Alphabetic exist at all?

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  • You might want to look up morpheme and phoneme. I don't know of any natural language that has a one-to-one correspondence between these. Your second claimed advantage is incorrect too: Indian scripts have fairly large numbers of graphemes... just compare the UTF coverage of one of those languages against the coverage needed by alphabetic languages.
    – prash
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 14:58
  • @prash yeah you're right, that was wrong terminology. I have changed them both. The number of letters of (say) Devanagari required, is also lesser than for alphabetic languages, given a syllable, right?
    – Milind R
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 15:06
  • 1
    @guifa typesetting for abugidas involves a very large number of characters formed by combination of ANY consonant with ANY vowel. And naturally, the fewer the symbols, the longer the words. English makes up for the size of the alphabet in the length of the words.
    – Milind R
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 16:56
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    I would like to point out that the only writing system with a true 1-1 correspondence between sounds and letters is the IPA, an alphabet which was specifically designed for the purpose, and even then it depends on the context. That said, it isn't impossible to design an abugida, syllabary or even abjad with the same principals in mind (although the abjad will turn into an abugida or alphabet if you want to properly include vowels) - my point is that your first claimed advantage isn't inherent to abugidas, but must be intentionally designed.
    – No Name
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 7:08
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    Your second advantage may be true of abugidas as a theoretical entity, but most abugidas I’m familiar with is the exact opposite: combinations of consonants and vowels include so many unpredictable exceptions and idiosyncrasies that you end up having to learn far more symbols. Even if they didn’t, though, you’d still have to learn at least one symbol per consonant and one per vowel, which is no fewer than an alphabet. Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 13:02

4 Answers 4

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There are a few disadvantages that people have to contend with:

  1. In some languages (e.g. Hindi) the schwa is treated inconsistently.
  2. One needs to study not just letters for phonemes but the various forms it can take. Contrast these four forms of /r/: रस्ता कर्ण कृपा प्रदेश (the last word appears incorrectly for me on Chrome, but correctly on Firefox), or these three forms of /u/: उत्तर कुत्ता रुमाल. These are particularly troublesome on computers, where programmers have to create a large look-up table for all possible combinations of phonemes.
  3. Indians readily borrow words from English, but most of their vowels can't be notated. This may have been ameliorated if there had been a concerted effort to add new symbols.

As far as I know, these limitations are specific to indic languages. I have made no attempt to address other abugidas.


Further reading:

  1. Testing Considerations For Mozilla Indic Script Support
  2. Supporting Indic Scripts in Mozilla
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  • You're right about the limitations, but they only seem to apply to specific languages. Eg., Kannada and Sanskrit don't have Schwa deletion. Of course, new vowels are sorely needed. But what if we're talking about the abugida concept itself, not just any one (set of) languages? Are there any inherent disadvantages to the system itself? About the 2nd point, the exceptions seem few enough that special-casing should work better.
    – Milind R
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 5:12
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    @MilindR I agree with you about 1 and 3. 2 is a major problem because though the /u/ in कु पु सु look similar enough to a casual observer, the software (typography) developer has to accommodate each combination as a unique case. There is no escaping this in Kannada, where the /i/ modifies letters internally, and all forms such as ಕಿ ಖಿ ಗಿ ಘಿ ಚ ಛಿ ಜಿ ಝಿ have to be treated as unique forms. See the 4 stages in tug.org/TUGboat/tb23-1/rajkumar.pdf
    – prash
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 8:20
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The main problem that I see comes from viewing vowel marks as secondary, which in practice means that vowel marks are smaller and less visually distinct. If the language has a large vowel inventory this can be a problem. Another problem, which may be accidental and not inherent, is more complex rules for letter shape and positioning, as in the many ligatures of Devanagari or the multitude of positions for placing vowel signs, or the shape irregularities of Ge'ez script. If you were to invent a new abugida script, you could require complete contextual regularity of letter shapes, and positioning all vowels in a consistent position relative to the consonant. The resulting system would be pretty much ambiguous between "alphabet" and "abugida".

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  • 2
    Canadian syllabics is a an abugida without any such irregularities, I believe.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 0:28
  • Aren't vowels usually consistent in their placement? As I see it, it's the conjuncts that are inconsistent in their positioning.
    – Milind R
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 5:17
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I can't really see that this is a question that can be approached technically (and perhaps not even objectively), it seems more a matter of taste and culture, but I will attempt to address your question as best I can. I must say, though, I find it a little hard to follow you.

Let me begin by saying I personally really like the abugida approach and have always found it makes a lot of sense. When I invented a script of my own once, it was an abugida. But they're not objectively easy to work with!

1-1 correspondence between letters and syllables, upto 100% consistent.

I'm not really sure what you're getting at here. It's true that abugidas are built around the syllable and a single glyph in an abugida represents a syllable. But there's only a 1-1 correspondence between glyphs and open syllables. Closed syllables (syllables that end in a consonant, like English 'cat' or Hindi रात rāt) need two glyphs for one syllable.

Furthermore, although by convention something like को ko is treated as one glyph, it's clearly made up of two parts! Is that better or worse than 'ko'?

It's also not clear why a 1-1 correspondence between glyphs and syllables should be preferred to a 1-1 correspondence between glyphs and the phonemes that make up syllables. Alphabets are designed to represent the individual phonemes rather than the whole syllable. Is that a disadvantage? Not objectively, I think. It's certainly a lot less hassle as you don't need a different glyph for a vowel at the start of a syllable to a vowel after a consonant!

Now it's true that the English alphabet does not have a 1-1 correspondence between glyphs and phonemes, but that's a fact of English writing and not a necessary truth of alphabets in general. It's possible to design an alphabet with a 1-1 correspondence between glyphs and phonemes. It's also possible to have an abugida which does not have 1-1 correspondence between glyphs and syllables, and we see this in Hindi where त could be ta (as in तब tab) or t (as in रात rāt).

Combinations of consonants and vowels enable learning only a small number of symbols

Forgive me but combinations of consonants and vowels requires you to learn both the independent vowel (e.g. इ i) and the dependent vowel (in Hindi this is called the vowel mātra) (e.g. ति ti) and any special cases, such as रु ru and रू . And that's before we've even got to the conjuncts you mention in your next point. In an alphabet, an 'a' is an 'a'. You only have to learn it once. (It's true that in English we have upper and lower case, but case distinctions are not a necessary characteristic of alphabets.)

Conjuncts allow unlimited combinations of consonant sounds (theoretically ; some sound just awful)

Again I'm genuinely confused. In an alphabetic writing system you can arrange letters however you like to represent any combination of consonant sounds. With abugidas, well, I invite you to look up any list of Sanskrit conjuncts and you will see that it can get very difficult to join increasing numbers of letters. Few fonts can handle the relatively common Sanskrit conjuncts dbhya and ḍbhya for example. And this is actually very relevant, as you will soon see, if you look at lists of Sanskrit consonants, that a lot of effort has gone into formulating rules for joining characters together in an elegant and pleasing way. Which means familiarising yourself with conjuncts can mean learning dozens and dozens of extra glyphs individually! In an alphabet, I can write 'dbhya', 'dhbya', 'bydha', 'dlqwdyddda'. I can write whatever I want without changing the letters at all.

What are the disadvantages of Abugida writing systems?

Complexity, as I hope I have shown. They also don't work nearly as well for languages they weren't designed for. For example, Tamil is an abugida, and the script is now commonly employed in the Tamil country for writing Sanskrit. But Tamil has only one t-letter (த்). Whereas Sanskrit has t, th, d and dh. Now there are ways around this, in the same way that in English I need to use diacritics (such as 'ā') to represent foreign sounds, but these ways do rather destroy that elegant 1-1 correspondence between letters and syllables. With alphabets we can put letters in whatever combinations we want really.

Or is it odd that any writing systems other than Abugida and Alphabetic exist at all?

Not really, as I say, it seems to be a matter of culture. As you clearly understand, syllabaries work like abugidas, but each syllable has its own individual glyph, there aren't regular patterns. It's true that this requires more hard memorisation and it makes these writing systems poorly-suited to representing foreign words, but they work well for the languages that use them.

Pictograms/ideograms/logograms do take a lot of work to learn and are very complex but it's easy to see how they developed and of course the original pictographic writing would have been far easier for early humans to develop and understand than abstract symbols with complicated rules.

Abjads sacrifice absolute precision for, I suppose we could say, 'compression'. Shorthands tend to be abjads because you can make do without the vowels.

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  • While it is true that many abugidas have separate independent and dependent vowels, several scripts instead use an "empty character"/glottal stop character in the beginnings of words, such as in Thai, Khmer and Lao.
    – Masimatutu
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 15:11
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Abugidas are ok if it is just consonant plus vowel or vowel alone. If the syllable has a hard consonant final ending, then you need the consonant sound but you do not need the inherent vowel. So, in some languages where there are ending consonants in syllables, you have to create some diacritic to kill the inherent vowel. In other languages, there is no way to distinguish consonant only from consonant plus inherent vowel. the reader needs to understand that this consonant character is the final consonant of this syllable and that that character is not the start of another syllable with the inherent vowel. Other abugidas might have a diacritic that combines the vowel with ending consonant. There seems to be unnecessary marking, complexity, and confusion here. Abugidas might not work very well for languages that have lots of consonant clusters such as German and English. Imagine writing relatively simple words such as "church" or "shaft" with an abugida.

Without going into the inconsistencies of many languages that use alphabets, I will speak to the inherent nature of alphabets here. Alphabets allow you to combine vowel characters to represent a vowel sound that is different from the vowel symbols that together represent the sound. You can even put diacritical marks onto vowels and modify vowels as it is done in languages such as French, German, and Swedish. It can be difficult for a newbie to know how many syllables there are in words like "seance", "creator", "seal", "claim" because there is no way to instantly know without experience whether the vowel symbols are being used together to represent a single vowel sound or if the vowels are separate and are part of different syllables of a word. So, this would be a disadvantage for alphabet. Abugidas do not allow you to combine vowel symbols. Every vowel sound used in the language must have its own unique diacritical marking. Hence, once you learn to read an abugida, it's actually more easier, intuitive, and phonologically consistent.

Overall, I believe that an alphabet works better for a consonant heavy language like German or Czech. An abugida works better for languages that are more vowel-oriented like French, Italian, Japanese with very few consonant endings.

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  • French is not ‘more vowel-oriented’ – consider words like joindre /ʒwɛ̃dʀ/ or praître /pʀɛːtʀ/. Italian is perhaps a bit more so, but there are still plenty of clusters and geminates. Japanese, Hawai‘ian, Nāhuatl, etc., are much better examples of languages well-suited to abugida scripts. The ambiguity you mention for alphabets isn’t a disadvantage of alphabets, but of how alphabets are used, usually due to the language changing after spelling is fixed – the same disadvantage holds for abugidas as well. And abugidas disallowing vowel combinations is a disadvantage, not an advantage. Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 12:56
  • I think you missed my point when you made your argument. The question that I raised is how do you deal with words or syllables that have consonant finals. I repeat: consonant finals. French may have consonant clusters as you had mentioned, but those clusters come together BEFORE the vowel. So, in the example that you provided, the dr in joindre comes BEFORE an e. You don't end a word in -dr in French. On the other hand, in Germanic languages, consonant clusters appear at the end of words quite often. Abugidas are less effective for languages with consonant clusters at the end of syllables
    – Alan
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 19:56
  • You do absolutely end words in consonant clusters in French – just not (as often) in writing. Which only puts French in line (more or less) with various abugida writing systems where phonetically final consonants are written with an inherent, usually schwa-like or neutral, vowel and you need to know whether to pronounce it or not. Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 19:59
  • Regarding your other comment, I would actually disagree with you. It is not an advantage to use five letters of the alphabet to represent 20+ vowel sounds by way of combining vowels. I studied Thai language using Roman alphabet as well as the original Thai script. Thai script has 28 vowel symbols, one for every single vowel, and it includes sounds that are not used in English language. As a language learner, the Roman script confused me because I wasn't sure how it was working and there were many Thai romanization systems. I used the Thai script to make sure that my pronunciation was accurate.
    – Alan
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 20:06
  • Of course it’s not an advantage (from the point of view that clarity is desired) to use five vowel letters for 20+ vowel sounds. But again, that is not a feature of alphabets, but of how some languages use alphabets. If you have 22 vowel sounds and 22 vowel letters, there is no ambiguity, assuming you use them 1:1. Finnish, for example, has 16 vowel phonemes (8 long, 8 short) and writes them quite unambiguously with 8 vowel letters (doubled for long). Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 20:09

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