Here is a glossary of some of the more technical terms I use, how I use them.  Links that are in bold take you to the Wikipedia entry, which will be more detailed and usually and more correct, but longer and perhaps not exactly representative of how I use the term.

Abjad — A writing system where some (most?) of the vowels are usually not written.  Examples: Hebrew, Arabic.

Abugida — A type of syllabary which has a “default” vowel associated with its syllables.  Almost all the abugidas are derived from Brahmi, and are mostly found in India, the Himalayas, and the countries between India and China. This type of writing system is more compact than an alphabet but has fewer characters than a non-abugida syllabary at the expense of more diacritics and rules.  In particular, handling cases where there are consonant clusters (like the “str” in “street”) gets tricky, and there are several strategies for showing that there is no vowel in between those characters:

  • None, i.e. making the reader figure it out.  Example: Syloti Nagari.
  • Virama — a diacritic placed on the syllable glyph to show that that character does not have a vowel.  Virama is the Hindi word for it; it has different names in different  Examples of Virama-using scripts: Devanagari, Gurmukhi.
  • Consonant conjunct — a glyph of multiple syllables that are smooshed together in some special manner which shows that those syllables only get one vowel (usually at the end).  Examples: Bengali, Jenticha.

Alphabet — In the context of this blog, I use “alphabet” as a technical term meaning a writing system which has glyphs separate and independent vowels and consonants, where the vowels are almost always written.  Examples: Coptic, Latin, Greek.

Aspirated — A phoneme with a “breathy” sound (unusual in English).  My mother has an aspirated “w” in “whale”, while I think I have an unaspirated “w”, pronouncing “whale” the same as “wail”.  I believe that the Mexican pronunciation of the “h” sound at the start of “Juan” is aspirated, while the Anglo pronunciation is unaspirated.

Consonant conjunct — See explanation under Abugida.

Declension — A subset of inflections which does not include verb inflection.

Diacritic — A graphical decoration put onto a glyph which changes its pronunciation slightly.  Examples: accent marks in Latin scripts, the dakuten in Hiragana and Katakana.

Glyph — The graphical representation of the fundamental unit of a writing system, what is frequently called “a character”.  Why don’t I just call it “a character”?  Because “a character” is, in some sense, independent of the exact representation.  In the Latin script, for example, a script “a”, a Helvetica “a”, and a Fraktur “a” glyphs might look very different, but they all represent the same “a” character.  There are some writing systems (like Naxi Dongba or Mixtec) where the fundamental element is not really a “character, it’s more like a picture.

Inflection — A sound stuck onto a word to change the meaning slightly .  Common declensions change the case, tense, or conjugation of a verb, or to change the gender or number (e.g. singular and plural) of a noun.  Examples: “-ing”, “-ed”, or “-s” in English.

Phoneme — The smallest unit of recognizable sound.  Generally one consonant is one phoneme; one vowel is one phoneme.  “Th” is two glyphs but one phoneme; “ス” (the Japanese Katakana “sa”) is one glyph but two phonemes.

Syllabary — A writing system where each glyph represents a syllable, not an isolated consonant or an isolated vowel.  Examples: Cree, Manyogana.

Virama — See explanation under Abugida.

Voiced — A consonant pronounced with the vocal cords vibrating, giving a “humming” sound.  You can’t whisper a voiced consonant (like “d” or “b”); you can’t put a musical note on an unaspirated consonant (like “t” or “p”).

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