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What do you call a language that doesn't use the European alphabet (abcd...), like Mandarin and Japanese?

Is there a word for it, or maybe an adjective that characterizes as being "non-alphabetic"?

I really can't think of a word.

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    Did you only want to include languages in which characters represent ideas or words, or did you also want to include languages with non-Latin alphabets such as Russian or Arabic? – Kevin Mar 16 at 23:35
  • There is no "European alphabet"; there are three common alphabet families in modern use for representing European languages, Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic, plus a host of runic and other systems which are no longer in use. Mind you, what a scholar defines as an alphabet also differs from what might be called an alphabet by the general public (e.g. written Chinese is not technically an alphabet) . – choster Mar 16 at 23:48
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Chinese uses ideograms. It has an ideographic character set. Each character represents an idea.

Ancient Egyptian used hieroglyphs. It had a hieroglyphic character set. Each character was a more-or-less recognizable picture of something.

Most Slavic languages use Cyrillic alphabets. Their characters are letters. Saint Cyril developed the first such alphabet as part of his work converting the Moravians.

Arabic and Hebrew are written in scripts that are named for their languages. They have letters for their consonants. Since medieval times, Hebrew has had diacritic marks for its vowels. Some Arabic vowel sounds are represented by letters; others are optionally represented by diacritic marks.

  • The Greek alphabet is not the Cyrillic alphabet, though the latter owes much to the former; the modern Greek alphabet is quite close to its ancient counterpart. By the by, the categorisation of different phonetic writing systems - abjads, alphabets, abugidas - is quite fascinating. – SamBC Mar 16 at 23:47
  • You might find the creation of written Cherokee by Sequoyah, AKA George Gist, if interest. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoyah – DrMoishe Pippik Mar 17 at 1:08
  • @Erik -- Thank you. "Hieroglyphics" would be an awesome spelling bee word. – Jasper Mar 17 at 14:56
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In technical writing, you should talk about "Logograms" (ie Chinese characters), in which each character represents a word or morpheme. Chinese is a logographic writing system. (The Hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were partly logographic but mostly phonetic on the "rebus" principle.)

There are syllabaries, in which each character represents a syllable. Japanese kana is an example, and written Japanese is a mixed system with both logograms and two syllabaries.

There are then abugida (such as Devanagari used in India), Abjad (such as Arabic, or Hebrew in which vowels are omitted), and Alphabets in which vowels and consonants are written with separate symbols

Examples of alphabets include the Greek, Latin, Cyrillic and Hangul (Korean) writing systems. Many languages can be written in several different scripts: Turkish, for example, can be written in Arabic or a version of the Latin script.

There's no short way to specify "Languages that don't use Latin script", just as there is no short phrase for "fruit that are not apples".

However, if you are writing about Chinese character systems used for Japanese or Manderine then "Logographic" is the correct word. Technically "Ideographic" refers to systems such as "road signs" in which a symbol represents an idea.

  • Although you make a strong case for the term "logograph," it's worth noting that such usage isn't universal. For example, the Unicode Consortium, responsible for how the world's writing systems are represented by modern computer systems, calls Chinese characters ideographs, and in some of my university classes, we treated blurred the line between the two. I believe that you're technically correct about the distinction, but I wanted to pitch in to note that people don't always make that distinction. – Scott Severance May 28 at 20:39

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