As I believe "alphabet" refers specifically to the latin a-z, is there a term that collectively refers to all collections of writing characters. ie, if I had a list that contained the entries "Latin, Kanji, Cyrillic" etc, what would that list be called? A single word is preferable, as I need the term to describe such a list in software I'm writing.

Note the answer is not "language" - eg English, French, German etc are all languages, but all use the Latin alphabet. On the other hand, Japanese is a language that can be written using Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Latin 'systems'. It's a hypernym for these 'systems' I'm after, not the languages.

  • You need to do some research. You could start by looking up "Greek alphabet", "Cyrillic alphabet", "Hebrew alphabet" etc. / Even for very different character sets, 'alphabet' is used: 'The third alphabet, kanji, was imported over the centuries from China.' [Japaneseup.com] – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 9:27
  • Hmm, I was sure I'd been taught that the "alphabet" was just the latin one - looks like I was wrong! Happy to accept this as an answer. – Kai Sep 4 '17 at 9:33
  • Not happy to give such an answer. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 9:34
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    @EdwinAshworth: The OP's question does not lack justification or explanation. He explicitly mentions his notion that "alphabet" inherently refers to the Latin A-Z; which is the basis for his question (the OP's notion means that the OP disagrees with the usage of "Hebrew alphabet", even if he sees it being used). If you argue that existing documentation or usage precludes the validity of a question, that means (by elimination) that the only valid questions on this site must focus on topics that are currently undocumented, which is demonstrably not the case. – Flater Sep 4 '17 at 10:58
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    'alphabet' works informally for Roman/Arabic/Devanagari, but technically is only for a very select few of those, and distinguishes between character for for phoneme (alphabet) vs character for consonant (abjad) vs character for syllable (syllabary). Writing systems that are not any one of these are things like Chinese or Mayan ideographs. – Mitch Sep 5 '17 at 17:15

Alphabet is the correct word.

As I believe "alphabet" refers specifically to the latin a-z

Your assumption is wrong.

The etymological origin of the word "alphabet" relates to the Greek alphabet, in which the first two characters are "alpha" and "beta".

However, "alphabet" is currently used for any comprehensive set of characters. Take note of definition 1.1, which shows you that it can be used more loosely and does not even need to refer to a linguistic character set.


  1. A set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language, especially the set of letters from A to Z.
    ‘the first letter of the alphabet’
    ‘a phonetic alphabet’

    1.1. The basic elements in a system which combine to form complex entities.
    ‘DNA's 4-letter alphabet’

The OED does mention that it can be taken to refer to the A-Z alphabet, but not exclusively.


You've somewhat answered your own question. From your question body:

English, French, German etc are all languages, but all use the Latin alphabet.

If you assume that "alphabet" inherently refers to the Latin A-Z, then why didn't you say:

English, French, German etc are all languages, but all use the alphabet.

The fact that you have to say "the Latin alphabet" contradicts your notion that "alphabet" always refers to the Latin A-Z. That would make "Latin alphabet" a pleonasm.
Needing to specify which alphabet means that there is more than one alphabet.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Matt E. Эллен Sep 5 '17 at 14:37
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    "Alphabet" technically excludes syllabaries, logographics, abjads, and abugidas. Even if some people include abjads and abugidas under alphabets, "alphabet" can never be used to refer to logographic writing systems. – curiousdannii Oct 16 '17 at 3:19
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    @Flater I would say, based on the example, and based all the times I've ever heard "alphabet" used, that definition 1.1 is only talking about non-linguistic systems. If you have counter examples, please do present them. – curiousdannii Oct 16 '17 at 11:18
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    Do you have examples of a native speaker of English calling Egyptian hieroglyphics, or Japanese Kanji an "alphabet"? If 1.1 is not about non-linguistic senses of the word then it is completely irrelevant to this question. I would contend that it is a poorly written entry in a condensed online dictionary, but that anyone with native speaker intuitions will know that you just can't use the word "alphabet" to talk about logographic writing systems. – curiousdannii Oct 16 '17 at 11:37
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    @Flater No, that's actually exactly what definition 1.1 is: jargon for non-linguistic systems. Outside of that, in both normal speech and linguistics, "alphabet" is just not used for ideographic writing systems. – curiousdannii Oct 16 '17 at 11:55

I tend to follow Omniglot and call them writing systems. This is because Omniglot - and I believe linguistics generally - uses different terms depending on certain characteristics of the writing system and how it represents sounds of the language. For example, English, French, Greek, Korean hangul, and Russian are written with alphabets; Hindi, Bengali, and Gujarati are written with abugidas; Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Farsi, and Urdu are written with abjads; Japanese kana, Cherokee, and Canadian Aboriginal writing are called syllabaries; and Japanese kanji, Korean hanja, and Chinese hànzì are ideograms.

To touch briefly on the differences:

  • An alphabet represents consonants and vowels each separately as individual letters.
  • An abjad represents consonants only as distinct letters; vowels are represented as diacritics. In some cases, the vowels may be omitted entirely, and are implied from context (Hebrew does this quite often).
  • An abugida represents consonants as separate letters, but the glyph used also implies a “default” vowel, and deletion or change of vowel is represented with modifications of the glyph, in a fashion similar to diacritics, but not the same.
  • A syllabary represents a syllable of the language - usually but not invariably in the form CV (consonant followed by vowel) - as a single glyph; there is no necessary relationship between glyphs that carry the same consonant, or the same vowel.
  • Ideograms use a single - often complex - glyph to represent a word or concept. In some languages, the ideogram may actually be compound, with one portion signalling the pronunciation, and another portion signalling the meaning.
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  • I won't go any deeper, but ODO defines << abjad (also abujad, abadjad, abjud) NOUN 1A system of notation in which each of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet is assigned a numerical value. Now chiefly historical. // 2Linguistics. Any of various writing systems having symbols for consonants only; a consonantal alphabet. >> So 'alphabet' works here too. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 '17 at 14:32
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    Yes, "alphabet" covers a multitude of sins, but there is a distinct difference between an alphabet like the Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, or Korean Hangul, where consonants and vowels are on a more-or-less equal footing, and an alphabet/abjad like Hebrew, Syriac, or Arabic, where the vowels are represented by diacritics only. Using ODO's description, you could equally assert that 'alphabet' can be used for abugidas and syllabaries, as well. Oxford is a descriptive dictionary of common usage, rather than technical usage; it's not a source for linguistic terminology. – Jeff Zeitlin Sep 5 '17 at 11:34
  • Hindi is a syllabilary, not an alphabet. And I have never heard anybody call it the "Hebrew abugida", only "Hebrew alphabet". – Peter Shor Sep 5 '17 at 11:43
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    @PeterShor - Nor am I asserting that Hindi is an alphabet; I am asserting that if you take EdwinAshworth's comment and ODO reference at face value, an abugida or syllabary could be called an 'alphabet' as easily as an abjad is. Hindi is not a syllabary; it is an abugida; Hebrew is an abjad. You are correct that Cherokee is a syllabary, and I said so in my answer. – Jeff Zeitlin Sep 5 '17 at 11:45
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    An abjad is a type of alphabet, and an abugida is a type of syllabary. Saying that Hebrew is an abjad and not an alphabet, or that Hindi is an abugida and not a syllabary, is like saying that an elephant is a mammal and not an animal. – Peter Shor Oct 17 '17 at 12:18

The Unicode standard, and ISO 15924: Codes for the representation of names of scripts use the term script.

So, there is the Latin script, the Han script (which contains the Chinese hànzì / Japanese kanji / Korean hanza), the Cyrillic script, ...

In Unicode parlance, a script is a "set of letters that are used together in writing languages" [Unicode §2.2], while a writing system* is "the way a particular language is written" [Unicode §6.1], which can involve several scripts, e.g. "the modern Japanese writing system uses four scripts: Han ideographs, Hiragana, Katakana and Latin (Romaji)" [Unicode §6.1 again].

The interested reader may also refer to Unicode Standard Annex #24: Unicode Script Property.

* In Unicode, writing system can also refer to "a way that families of scripts may be classified by how they represent the sounds or words of human language"[Unicode §6.1], namely alphabets, abjads, syllabaries, logosyllabaries.

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You may use character(s).

As you mention about alphabet, I assume your question is about classification of "writing system" according to relation between "sound unit" and "graphic representation".

Languages may use writing systems by implementing different set of characters. Usual process is to connect "sound unit" to a "graph". they may use alphabet at the phoneme level or syllabemes at syllable level or logograph at the word level. These are different types of characters that are used to connect sound unit to graphs

Please check these: wiki page for logograph , for alphabet, for Grapheme and a page from Western Washington University

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  • How is this an answer to the question? No offense intended. – Flater Sep 4 '17 at 10:31

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