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 🙂
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 27 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.
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.
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.
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