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The World's Major Written Languages: Letters & Symbols

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  • 0:11 Learning the Alphabet
  • 1:17 The Origins of Written…
  • 2:34 Written Language Today
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we explore how written language is expressed in different areas of the world. You'll see examples of other languages that operate with their own characteristics to document information important to that culture.

Learning the Alphabet

Bella is three years old. She can't yet write, but she's already using words to talk. She also draws pictures. Eventually, a particular type of picture, the letters of the alphabet, will become a big part of her world. She already sees this alphabet everywhere - on signs and billboards, on TV, books and magazines, on computers, phones, and tablets. She even knows a song to sing about her ABCs.

A good portion of her childhood schooling will be spent learning how to draw these letters and interpret them. If Bella's family moves to a region of the world that doesn't use this alphabet, she'll learn a completely different set of letters, characters, or symbols in order to communicate in writing.

As an adult, you probably take for granted that the alphabet you learned as a child just is. You don't think too much about these letters on an everyday basis. They're probably just as ingrained in you as the language you speak. In this lesson, we'll see examples of the letters and symbols from other cultures, and how written languages vary by region of the world.

The Origins of Written Language

A very early example of a written language is the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Historians consider hieroglyphic text to be one of the first alphabets. Hieroglyphs sometimes represent an entire word for each image used, but there are also images that represent single letters.

There is a rough match-up between the 26 letters of the English alphabet and hieroglyphs for single letters, but not all of the sounds are the same as ours. For instance, if Bella was living in ancient Egypt, she might be taught that there are several sounds for a letter, like H, and that there are separate symbols for some sounds like sh, as in the word shake, though we do not have one individual symbol for this in English.

At about the same time, Mesopotamia's writing system of cuneiform was emerging as well. One of the main uses of this system was to record information about trade and commerce, like the amounts of crops produced. Another use was to record stories and myths. Many cultures used writing for political, legal, and religious purposes, and for poetry and the arts. As written languages evolved, various regions of the world developed their own alphabets or sets of characters as systems for documenting and spreading information.

Written Language Today

Depending on which region of the world is Bella's home, she may write her alphabet from right to left or from left to right. She may write either vertically or horizontally. Writing from right to left or vertically might feel very strange to you at first if you tried this now, but if you'd been born into a culture that writes this way, it would feel natural to you.

Certain languages make use of diacritics, or accent marks or cedillas that help a reader determine the proper pronunciation of a word. Even in English, Bella may learn a few words with accent marks that help her know which syllable to emphasize. If Bella has a visual impairment, she might also learn a form of written language like Braille, which involves raised dots that represent letters, numbers, and punctuation.

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