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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?

  • 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 Dec 17 '14 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 Dec 17 '14 at 15:06
  • I'm not sure your advantages and disadvantages or actually such. English has 26 symbols, Cherokee has 85, that's means one needs to learn more, Ge'ez even more. Even the limited hiragana/katanas could be reduced to far fewer symbols if they were alphabetic. I also don't know what's per se hard to typset an abugida. There's nothing inherently hard about a syllabary (nor inherently easy with alphabets). – user0721090601 Dec 17 '14 at 16:29
  • @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 Dec 17 '14 at 16:56
  • A syllabary is hard because every single syllable has a different symbol. In abugidas, these syllables are formed by regular combination of consonants and vowels, which is obviously better than having a symbol primitive. – Milind R Dec 17 '14 at 16:57
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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 Dec 19 '14 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 Dec 19 '14 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 Dec 18 '14 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 Dec 19 '14 at 5:17

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