The joy of languages

Boost Your Japanese, Chinese or Korean With These 10 Kick-Ass Expressions

1. The old man lost his horse

Japanese: 塞翁が馬  sai-ō-ga-uma
Chinese: 塞翁失马  sài-wēng-shī-mǎ
Korean: 새옹지마  se-ung-ji-ma

Meaning: a setback can turn out to be a blessing in disguise


Once upon a time in Ancient China, there was a man who everybody called Sài Wēng 塞翁. One day, his horse ran away and he was really upset, but then after some time, his horse came back, and brought with it an even better horse. Lucky, right?

2. To paint a snake and add legs

Japanese: 蛇足  da-soku
Chinese: 画蛇添足  huà-shé-tiān-zú
Korean: 사족  sa-jok

Meaning: to ruin something by doing something unnecessary or superfluous


Once upon a time, a man in Ancient China, let’s call him John for the sake of the story, entered a snake-painting competition. Within five minutes, John painted a stunning picture of a snake and was sure no one would be able to beat him. After seeing that everyone else was still painting, John, decided to pass the time, and added four little legs to his snake. Needless to say, John, having now painted a lizard, lost the competition for his stupidity.


3. Spear-shield

Japanese: 矛盾  mu-jun
Chinese: 矛盾  máo-dùn
Korean: 모순  mo-sun

Meaning: a contradiction


Once upon a time, a weapon salesman in Ancient China went to the market shouting, “Come buy my spear, special price, today only! This spear can pierce any armour, and any shield! And here I have the world’s strongest shield; it can’t be pierced by any arrow, sword, or spear”. Some people saw the ‘contradiction’ in his claims, and began to use the word ‘矛盾’ to describe just that: a contradiction.


4. ‘Chu’ songs from all directions

Japanese: 四面楚歌  shi-men-so-ka
Chinese: 四面楚歌  sì-miàn-chǔ-gē
Korean: 사면초가  sa-myoen-cho-ga

Meaning: to be surrounded by obstacles on all sides with no one to turn to for help


In the year 202 BC, the Chǔ city of Gāixià 垓下 was surrounded by the Hàn army. At night, the leader of the Hàn army ordered his men to sing songs at the Chǔ army, not just any old songs though; songs from the Chǔ kingdom in the native Chǔ language. The sound of these songs made the soldiers of the Chǔ army feel homesick, and they couldn’t help but join in with the singing and no longer wanted to fight. The moment that the Chǔ leader heard the sound of these songs from all directions, he realised that the battle was over and he was defeated.


5. A frog in a well has no idea of the expanse of the ocean

Japanese: 井の中の蛙  i-no naka-no kawazu
Chinese: 井底之蛙  jíng-dǐ-zhī-wā
Korean: 정저지와  jeong-jeo-ji-wa

Meaning: to be naïve and ignorant of the wider world


There was once a little frog who had lived her whole life in a well, and one day a turtle turned up and told her about the wonders of the open ocean. The frog had never seen the ocean, and her mind was totally blown at the idea that anything could be better than the well, and so she vowed never to return to the well again.


5. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Japanese: 千里の道も一歩から  senri-no michi-mo ippo-kara
Chinese: 千里之行始于足下  qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià
Korean: 천리길도 한 걸음부터  qenligil-do han geoleum-bute

Meaning: great success is an accumulation of smaller successes


This is a good one to tell yourself in the morning after you’ve got out of bed, brushed your teeth, had a shower, and got dressed; you’re already well on the way to a successful day! Well done!


6. No matter how good you are, there is always someone better

Japanese: 上には上がいるもんだ  ue-ni-wa ue-ga iru-monda
Chinese: 人外有人,天外有天  rén wài yǒu rén, tiān wài yǒu tiān
Korean: 뛰는 놈 위에 나는 놈 있다  dui-neun num uei-e naneun num itda

Meaning: there are always more talented people in the world than yourself


These three phrases are a little different in each language, but all have the same basic meaning. Japanese: there are always people higher than those above you. Chinese: there are people beyond people, and heavens beyond heavens. Korean: above those who run are those who fly.

7. If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you can’t catch the tiger cub

Japanese: 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず koketsu-ni hairazunba koji-o ezu
Chinese: 不入虎穴,焉得虎子 búrù hǔxuè, yān dé húzǐ
Korean: 호랑이 굴에 들어가지 않고는 호랑이를 잡을 수 없다 horangyi gur-e deu-oegaji anko-neun horangyi-reur jabeursu ebda

Meaning: nothing ventured, nothing gained

tiger cub

You can’t really argue with this logic; I personally wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to get a tiger cub without venturing into a tiger’s cave.


9. The weak are meat for the strong to eat

Japanese: 弱肉强食  jaku-niku-kyō-shoku
Chinese: 弱肉强食  ruò-ròu-qiáng-shí
Korean: 약육강식 yang-yuk-gang-sik

Meaning: it’s a dog-eat-dog world; survival of the fittest


There is no story to this one. If you are weak, you are meat for those stronger than you to eat. Simples!


10. When entering a village, follow the local customs

Japanese: 郷に入っては郷に従え gou-ni itte-wa gou-ni shitagae
Chinese: 入乡随俗 rù xiāng suí sú

Meaning: when in Rome, do as the Romans do


The Japanese and Chinese versions of this are similar to each other, but Koreans actually tend to use an expression similar to the English one: 로마에 가면 로마의 법을 따라야 한다 roma-e gamyoen roma-ui boeb-eul ddaraya handa – “When in Rome, follow Roman laws”.

Culture around the world

What do Mexican and US place names mean?




Guadalajara is the capital of the western Jalisco region of Mexico. Its name means ‘river or valley of stones’. Guadalajara in Mexico is named after the city Guadalajara in Spain, Much of Spain was ruled by Moorish Arabs until 1492, and so as a result this name actually comes from Arabic: وادي الحجارة (wādi al-ḥiŷara).



Zapopan, located right next door to Guadalajara, has a name that derives from the indigenous Náhuatl language. It literally means “place of the zapote fruit”. Its name derives from a Náhuatl hieroglyph, which depicts a sapote tree with a flag by its side.

Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl


The city of Nezahualcóyotl, is a district of the Greater Mexico City metropolitan area, with just over a million inhabitants. Locals know it just as ‘Ciudad Neza’, and also know it as one of Mexico City’s most infamous ghettos. They may also know it as the place that gave birth to the famous Mexican ‘albur‘, or sexual innuendo. The city’s name, though, also comes from Nahuátl and means “fasting coyote”, or “coyote abstaining from food”.



The city of Chihuahua is the capital of the northern Mexican state of the same name, which borders the US states of Texas and New Mexico. Apart from giving a name to the world’s most famous tiny dog, made famous by Paris Hilton and others, the origins of the name Chihuahua is an interesting and contested story. Some toponymists the dialect of Indian Conchos, about whose language little is known, but the most commonly accepted version is that it is Náhuatl. It comes from the words ‘xi’ and ‘cauhua’, which mean “dry or dusty place”.



The beautiful city of Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast has long been a favourite for tourists from the US and elsewhere, looking for a place to spend their vacations. It was also made famous in Frank Sinatra’s 1958 hit “Come Fly With Me“, and then the 1988 hit by Four Tops: “Loco in Acapulco“. Its name, however, is Náhuatl and means “Place where the river reeds were destroyed”.



Nowadays Cancún is synonymous with package holidays and year-round sunshine. Located in the south-east of Mexico, on the country’s Caribbean coast, the area around Cancún was actually in Mayan territory, and as such its name comes from Mayan. There are two possible translations. According to one version, Cancún means “nest of snakes”. According to the other version, Cancún means “place of the gold snake”.



Veracruz, on Mexico’s western Caribbean coast, was the first place that Spanish conquistadors landed. Its name means “true cross”, coming from Latin. Its full name was ‘Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave’, named after Ignacio de la Llave y Segura Zevallos (1818–1863), who was the governor of the Veracruz from 1861 to 1862.


Los Angeles


The state of California was formally ceded to the United States of America in 1848. However, by that point, many of its cities had already been given Spanish names, the vast majority of which still have not been changed. California’s largest city, Los Angeles, is an example of this, and means “the angels”. Its original, full Spanish name was ‘El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula’, which translates as “town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula’.

Las Vegas


The state of Nevada was also ceded to the US in 1848, along with its largest and most notorious city Las Vegas. Nowadays, Las Vegas is synonymous with gambling, partying and is colloquially known as the ‘City of Sin’. Its original Spanish name, though, is much more innocent. ‘Las Vegas’ means “the meadows”, and must refer to the fact that in the midst of the arid Nevada desert, it was the one place with water flowing through it. The name ‘Nevada’ also comes from Spanish, and means “snow-capped”, named after the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain.



Connecticut is a quiet, suburban state just next to New York, which gives US school children nightmares trying to learn how to spell. The reason for this, is that despite misleadingly having the words “connect” and “cut” in it, its name is not English at all. The state of Connecticut is named after the Connecticut river which runs through it. The Connecticut river is named after the indigenous Algonquian word for a “long, tidal river”.



Another infamous spelling bee challenge, Mississippi is a state in the south-east of the US, bordered to the west by the Mississippi river which gives it its name. This part of the US was once colonised by the French. The name ‘Mississippi’, therefore, is actually a French rendition of the indigenous American Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) name for the river, “Misi-ziibi,” which means “Great River.”



In the northern US state of Illinois, on the south-western banks of Lake Michigan, is the United States’ third most populated city: Chicago. Famous for its unforgiving winter climate, Chicago is fondly known as the “windy city”. Its name, though, has indigenous American origins. It is also actually a French rendering of the Myaami word ‘shikaakwa’, which is the name for a garlic plant (known to botanists as Allium tricoccum) that grows in abundance in the forests of the region.



The doubly landlocked state of Utah is located in the west of the United States. It’s famous nowadays for the fact that more than 60% of its population of 3 million classify themselves as Mormons. The name ‘Utah’ is derived from the name of the indigenous ‘Ute’ tribe, whose descendants still live in the area, and means “people of the mountains”. According to some accounts, it comes from the Apache word ‘Yudah’, which means “tall”.



The state of Wyoming, to Utah’s northeast, is the least populous state in the US with just over half a million inhabitants. The state received the name Wyoming when a bill was passed in the US Congress in 1865, to provide a “temporary government for the territory of Wyoming”. The word ‘Wyoming’ itself derives from the Munsee word ‘xwé:wamənk‘, and means “at the big flat river”. The Munsee language was spoken by indigenous peoples on the East Coast, far from the state of Wyoming, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Alex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.


Start speaking a new language, with Memrise!

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Guest Post

10 Reasons Why You Should Learn German

Even Mark Twain said that German is a ‘slippery and elusive language’, so why do people keep advising you to learn it? You may have heard of its endless verb conjugations and four noun cases, and let’s not even talk about how it sounds! German might not be an obvious choice for people deciding to study a foreign language, but ignore the nay-sayers. Here’s why you should:

1. German and English are Closely Related Languages

German is easy to learn if you speak English. Both languages share a Germanic root and have many similar words i.e. cognates.

What’s more, the writing system is actually quite simple and logical. There are just a few extra letters to learn, and everything is written how it sounds.

2. German is Highly Valued in Academia

German is very important in academia, with a large number of awarded scientists coming from Germany. Did you know German is actually one of the top two scientific languages in the world?

Germany has the third largest book market in the world, which is yet another reason for its high rank in academic terms. It is that simple – knowing German opens more opportunities to read and learn.

3. German is the Language of Philosophers and Poets

No wonder people say Germany is the land of thinkers and poets – it is the country with some of the most impressive achievements in human history. German experts in medicine, literature, physics and chemistry have won over a hundred Nobel Prizes, not to mention all those experts who had their training at the universities in Germany.

4. German Has a Great Reputation in Higher Education

A huge reason why German is so popular in the scientific community is the success German universities have worldwide. Only a few years back, in 2011, Germany was listed among the four most popular destinations for higher-education students. And many universities in Germany are free!

5. German Companies are Highly Successful

Many German companies are global market leaders, which means that if you speak German, many doors are opened. With Volkswagen, Siemens, Lufthansa, and Adidas all being German companies, Germany is the home of some of the most widely recognized brands in the world.

6. Germany is One of the World’s Largest Economies

Not only is Germany the largest economy in the EU, but it is actually the fourth largest economy in the world! Chances are you will need German to build stronger professional relationships, work with some of the most biggest corporations, and understand the latest technology.

7. Its Online Presence is Huge

Next to English, German has an enormous presence on the internet. To access that huge resource, you will need to know some German!

On the worldwide web, ‘.de’ websites are the second most commonly registered domains. That makes German websites some of the most popular domains in the world, without even taking into account German sites that end in .info, .com or .org!

8. German is the Second Most Widely Spoken Language in Europe

Did you know German is the second most commonly spoken language in Europe, after Russian? It also has the largest number of native speakers in the EU! German is also still commonly used as a lingua franca in parts of Eastern Europe, where older generations might not have learnt English. German is still the third most taught foreign language in European schools.

9. German Speakers are Everywhere

The best thing about learning German is that you don’t have to visit the country to practise speaking it. There are so many people who speak German, that you will never have trouble finding someone to hone your speaking skills with. Germans are also quite voracious travellers, famously possessing one of the world’s most powerful passports, so you will find them everywhere!

10. German Culture is a World Heritage

Germany has created some of the world’s greatest music, literature and art, as well as gifting the world with the fiercest philosophers in human history. It has one of the richest cultures in the entire world, which is why you should immerse yourself and start learning German!

20882981_110523402985575_9128418106109204220_nJustin is a teacher from Leicester, England, UK. When not teaching his little students and rooting for Leicester FC, he loves to share his thoughts and opinions about education, writing and blogging with other people on different blogs and forums. Currently, he is working as an editor at Essayontime. Follow Justin on Facebook and Twitter.

Why not learn some German now?

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Memrise Travel Tips

Plan The Perfect Weekend in Istanbul

1. Try Turkish Breakfast

Turkish breakfast should be your favourite meal! If it isn’t, it will be soon. Here are some of my favourite places to get it in Istanbul:

Van Kahvaltı in Cihangir, Beyoğlu

A huge breakfast with a dozen plates of vegetables, cheese, delicious cream and honey and various other delicacies. Do not forget to order some menemen (scrambled eggs) and fresh orange juice! For only 30 TL (less than 10 EUR).

Privato in Galata, Beyoğlu

A bit more pricey at 40 TL, but with unique Turkish ‘village’ dishes, including various types of pancakes. Plus, this little place looks very attractive, if you are an instagrammer!

Naga Putrika in Moda, Kadıköy

If you are visiting the European side of Istanbul then this is somewhat of an expedition (c. 1 hour) but it is worth it! Here you can choose between several regional breakfasts, including Anatolian and Kurdish.

Bonus: the entire Beşiktaş ‘breakfast street’ (head toward Sinanpaşa Mah. and have a wander)

2. Go to a hamam


For the hip backpacker, just ask a local friend which hamam would be the cheapest to visit, and any will do! However, if you owe yourself a birthday treat, try some of these historical places:

Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, right in the centre of Sultanahmet

The price-tag is astronomical (starting at 100 EUR), but you get what you pay for. These baths were built in the 16th century for Roxelane, the wife of Sultan Suleiman. For years it served as a carpet shop, but it was newly refurbished and reopened in 2011.

Çemberlitaş Hamamı, at Çemberlitaş, also in Sultanahmet

If you prefer to take it down a notch (more like 200 TL, 50 EUR), try this historic bath designed by the famous architect Sinan. Opening times here are pretty good and it is a lot more reasonably priced than Roxelane’s baths!

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, across from the Tophane tram stop

Last but not least, this is my favourite hamam: its rehabilitation won the Europa Nostra Award for cultural heritage last year. Pro tip: Book an early slot, so you can hang out and drink cool drinks for hours after your bath!

3. Visit the Prince’s Islands


This is really not as complicated as it looks! Either walk up to the ferry dock at Eminönü (left-hand side, if you are coming from the Grand Bazaar), or take a ferry to Kadıköy and look for signs that say ‘Adalar’. The journey takes around 1 to 1.5 hours.

Büyükada, the big island

This is the biggest and most popular island. Avoid it if you aren’t a fan of crowds; but go there for bigger attractions, such as hiking up a mountain and visiting the St. George monastery!

Heybeliada, saddlebag island

You can do this on any of the islands, but rent a bicycle or a horse buggy (make sure the horse looks happy and well-fed please!) to go around. This island also has excellent and slightly less busy private beaches, if you happen to visit on a beautiful day!

4. Go underground!


Did you already hear about kahvaltı, hamamı and the adalar? Did you know that other than all the things overground, Istanbul has also a whole lot going on below its streets.

The Basilica Cisterns in Sultanahmet

Okay, maybe you did hear of these before. These are 6th century water reservoirs commissioned by Emperor Justinian. It makes for a lovely cool break on a hot day. Please be sure to spot the head of Medusa!

Kadir Has University in Fatih

Now that you have gone underground, make a tour out of it! This university used to be the Cibali tobacco factory, and nowadays it is also a museum; but previously it was a hamam and home to the ‘dark fountain’ cistern. Even if you cannot go into the cistern (opening times are fuzzy)  you can admire it from the floor of the University cafe.

The Yenikapı Byzantine Shipwrecks (which you can currently learn more about at the Archaeological Museum in Sultanahmet)

Whilst digging for the new metroline, workers stumbled across what would become one of the largest excavations  in the world. Between 2004 and 2013 archaeologists uncovered layers ranging from Neolithic to Ottoman, including 8 remarkably well-preserved Byzantine merchant’s ships.

5. Go shopping


If you’ve had enough of the sightseeing, I can also recommend some places besides İstiklal Street and the Grand Bazaar for the Turkish shop-till-you-drop experience:


If you prefer brands like Louis Vuitton, trendy restaurants and quirky boutiques, then try this fashionable district just a couple of stops on the metro from Taksim square.

Fatih market

Or would you like a more typical Turkish experience? This is specifically a Wednesday (morning) market, so do not miss it! The streets will be filled with all varieties of affordable undergarments you ever wanted to buy. And stop by a Syrian bakery whilst you are there, please!

lisbon_107Zenobia Homan is a qualified archaeologist and inquisitive adventurer, currently a policy researcher. Also cartographer, game designer, Latin tutor and music teacher. Interested in affordable vegetarian street-food, friendly couch-surfing and anything ancient. Originally from Holland, but went to uni in the UK, and now living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Always learning a new language.

Check out her website, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube!

Want to learn Turkish? Check out Memrise!

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The joy of languages

TOP 7 Romanian Idioms

If idioms offer a unique insight into a language’s culture, wait until you read these Romanian ones!

Here are seven of our favourite Romanian idioms for you to read, so you don’t have to stare at someone “like a cat at a calendar” next time someone tells you one of these idioms!

1. „Ca baba şi mitraliera”

Literal translation: Like an old lady with a machine-gun.


You’d hear this when someone’s describing two things that have absolutely nothing in common.

2. „Se uită ca pisica-n calendar”

Literal translation: Stare like a cat at a calendar.

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You know those people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing? In Romanian, this is what you’d call them! What might a cat think it’ll learn from looking at a calendar?

3. „Plimbă ursul”

Literal translation: Go walk the bear!


Want to tell someone where to go? Tell them to go walk the bear!

4. „Ca măgarul în ceaţă”

Literal translation: Like a donkey in the mist.

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Know someone who always disappears when you need them the most? They’re like a donkey in the mist!

5. ,,A călca pe bec”

Literal translation: To step on a lightbulb.

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Everyone makes mistakes from time to time and that’s fine! This is what you say in Romanian when you make one.

6. „Ai casa în pantă?”

Literal translation: Was this house built on a slope?

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This is a roundabout way of telling someone to close the door on their way out. Our house was not built on a slope so the door won’t shut itself!

7. „Ai venit cu mâna in fund?”

Literal translation: Did you come with your palm between your butt-cheeks?

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It’s often considered a nice gesture to bring a little something with you when you go and visit someone. A nice bottle of wine, a pineapple, or some palincă maybe. However, if you’ve forgotten to take something, then in Romanian people might ask you if you’ve arrived with the palm of your hand between your butt-cheeks. Feeling inspired to learn a language?

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Memrise News & Events

New Official Course: Icelandic for English speakers

Good news for Nordic fans! Very soon, you’ll be able to learn Icelandic with Memrise using a specially created course from the team.

The language of Björk will be available on a 100 item short-course with full audio and “Meet The Natives” videos.

Memrise at the Polyglot Conference

The course has been designed especially for the Polyglot Conference. It teaches phrases and words that will be useful for Polyglot Conference attendees so that they can try and converse with each other in Icelandic. It teaches you how to ask which languages somebody speaks, to order some ram’s testicles, and to tell somebody that they have a lovely accent.

Memrise is the proud platinum sponsor of the Polyglot Conference, which takes place in Reykjavík on 27-29 October, and is flying the whole team out to Iceland to mingle with language lovers from around the world.

Making the Course

Making the course itself was quite a fun challenge for the in-house team. Memrise worked with Charles Gittins, a translator from the European Commission, and a group of Icelanders that we found living here in London.

Diana, Memrise’s in-house film and cinematography guru who oversaw the filming of Meet The Native videos on the pan-European Membus road trip, said that she really enjoyed working with the Icelanders here in London:

“It was really cool to film them. They were very beautiful and arrived wearing traditional Icelandic jumpers.”

“Icelandic people don’t have any facial expressions unless they’ve had a drink. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get them drunk.”

But she mentioned that from a cinematography point of view, trying to get video content from them brought its own unique challenges:

“When I asked them to be lively and make facial expressions, they explained that Icelandic people don’t have any facial expressions unless they’ve had a drink. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get them drunk before making the videos so we had to make do with them sober.”

For Product Manager Guillaume Jaskuła, getting recordings from the Icelanders was a highlight too:

“As I was going through the items I had my own ideas of what it would sound like. I remember trying to pronounce some of those long sentences and wondering whether anyone would actually be able to say it properly. But then the Icelanders came to record the audio and… some of the words sounded VERY different from what I was expecting. Let’s see how many people manage to say ‘Have you been to a Polyglot Conference?'”

“Some of the words sounded VERY different from what I was expecting. Let’s see how many people manage to say ‘Have you been to a Polyglot Conference?'”

The Polyglot Conference (which is “Ráðstefna fjöltyngdra einstaklinga” in Icelandic, in case you were wondering) moves to a new city every year. Attendees see learning new languages like Icelandic as a fun and exciting adventure. Memrise’s Chief Brand Storyteller Olivia Zavala told us she’s looking forward to seeing the new Icelandic course at the Polyglot Conference in action:

“Having the opportunity to create a course that will add a language to the list of all polyglots in attendance is super exciting. The thought of being part of enabling people to communicate with the locals in their own language is just so amazing.

“Having the opportunity to create a course that will add a language to the list of all polyglots in attendance is super exciting.”

“I now often find myself imagining our film-making crew chasing after the conference’s attendees, hoping to capture one of those magical moments when someone will make themselves understood in Icelandic.”

And just in case they don’t manage to make themselves understood to the locals, we’ve included a very important phrase for them: “ég er ennþá að læra íslensku” – ‘I’m still learning Icelandic’.

Icelandic for English speakers will be available from 6th October 2017.

Want to unlock your Icelandic superpowers? Check out Memrise!

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The joy of languages

Awesome Alphabets from Around Europe

Here at Memrise, we think alphabets are pretty awesome. So to celebrate the European Day of Languages, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the different writing systems that we use around Europe.

Special challenge: write us a message using one of these scripts in the comments below and we’ll try and decode it and write you one back 🙂


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The oldest writing system that’s still used in Europe is the Greek alphabet, which dates back to around 800 BCE. It was derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, which is the oldest verified alphabet in the world, dating back to 1050 BCE.

Nowadays, Greek is written from left to right and has 24 different letters. In Modern Greek, the distinction between the sounds some of these letters represent has disappeared, meaning that there are six different ways of writing the sound “ee”: η, ι, υ, οι, ει, υι.

Greek is one of the three scripts featured on Euro banknotes and is also used in algebra and mathematics.



Shortly after Greek came Latin, which has been around since about 700 BCE. Nowadays, the Latin alphabet is the most widely used in the world, and the only alphabet to be used on all six continents.

The Latin alphabet was first spread through the expansion of the Roman empire and Catholicism, but was soon adopted by Celts, Norse and Germanic peoples too, as they adopted Catholicism. It is also used in Catholic Slavic countries as well, such as for Polish, Czech, and Croatian.

In the 20th Century, it was adopted by Turkish, Vietnamese, Azeri, Uzbek and Turkmen. Kazakhstan has announced that their writing system will transition to Latin by 2025.

Like Greek, Latin is written from left to right in upper and lower case. The version of the Latin alphabet that is used in English contains 26 letters, but other languages use variations that contain more or fewer letters.



Armenia’s unique and beautiful script was created by the linguist and ecclesiast Mesrop Mashtots in 405 CE. Supposedly, it was based on the structure of the Greek alphabet, but with changes to accommodate sounds that Greek didn’t have.

Armenian has 39 letters, using both upper and lower case, and writes from left to right, as well as some distinctive and unique punctuation.

Apart from for Armenian, the Armenian script was used in part from around 1800 until the mid 20th Century for Turkish as well. Around 2000 books were published in Turkish using the Armenian script and were read by Armenians and Turks alike.



The Armenians claim that the Georgian script was also created by Mesrop Mashtots, although this is contested by their neighbours to the north of the border! The oldest inscription of Georgian’s curly and distinctive script dates back to 982 CE, when it appeared in an engraving in Ateni Sioni Church, although there are older variations of the Georgian alphabet that go back as far as the 5th Century CE.

Georgian has no capital letters and is written from left to right. It has a total of 33 letters, many of which representing sounds that will sound totally alien to English speakers!

Georgian was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.



Cyrillic was created in the mid 10th Century in the Balkans, in order to represent sounds in Old Church Slavonic that Greek couldn’t. It was spread through its use in the Eastern Orthodox Church and was adopted most notably by Russian, as well as Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian amongst others. With Soviet expansion into Central Asia, the Cyrillic script was also adopted by countries such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and others which have since switched to Latin.

The Russian variation of Cyrillic has 33 letters and was significantly adapted by Peter the Great, who added letters such as the ‘ya’ sound Я and removed others that were obsolete.

Cyrillic is written left to right and has capital and lower case letters. Serbia and Bosnia both use the Cyrillic alphabet alongside the Latin alphabet, making them the only countries in the world to officially use two alphabets for the same language. Cyrillic was the third alphabet to appear on Euro banknotes.

Old Hungarian


The one alphabet on this list which is arguably out of use is Old Hungarian. Standard Hungarian uses a modified version of the Latin script, which it adopted around the same time that it converted to Christianity.

But prior to this, Hungarian used its own writing system. You might think these letters look a bit like Norse Runes, but in fact, they bear no resemblance to them, and Old Hungarian is even written right to left! Some Hungarian shepherds of Transylvania continued to use this script after Latin was adopted, giving it the name székely rovásírás, after the rovás stick shepherds used to count their flocks.


In the early 20th Century, there was something of a revival of Old Hungarian, with scholars decoding ancient manuscripts and encouraging its use. Nowadays, it is common to see village names on road signs written in both Old Hungarian and Latin, but generally, the script is not in use.

bVdID8LUAlex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

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