In this blog Wednesdays are about words. What are words in a blog without the characters that make up an alphabet? Which set me one day to thinking about the different alphabets in the world for various languages. I started doing some research and learned that there seems to be a sweet spot for the number of characters in a written language. Yet given that there is a great variation from 50,000 character alphabet to a 12 character one. What’s the outliers and what’s the sweet spot?
It seems the sweet spot to capture the sounds of human language in representative characters is in the mid twenties. Most languages are in this area but there are exceptions. The extremely large exceptions are Chinese and Japanese. Which is kind of unfair as their written language has an alphabet and ideographic symbols. Chinese has 50,000 total including both. Japanese has 18,000.
Which led me to ask – what’s the language with the largest true alphabet made up of characters? That took a bit of digging I kept topping numbers but finally hidden in a linguist book I found the answer. Kherm/Cambodian with 74 characters. Then the next highest I found was Sanscrit at 48, Cyrillic at 33, and Persian at 32.
Now we are approaching the sweet spot of mid-20s. Here the characters of some of the languages that hold to that area:
Turkish – 29
Spanish – 29
Arabic – 28
German – 27
English – 26
French – 26
Greek – 24
Hebrew – 22
Latin – 21
You know what my next simple question was, right? What is smallest alphabet? That went to the Hawi’ians with 12 characters.
I do feel it is unfair to lump Chinese and Japanese in there without explaining why theirs is so inflated. I do not know those languages but did study Middle Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics some (they wrote on everything I wanted to know about that) which has a proto-alphabet that was fully formed in the Late Kingdom’s Coptic but it was there along with ideographic symbols. One thing you have to understand about a written language with ideographs is that it grows by nature as time goes on and new things are created.
I find it interesting how humans came up with answers to the need to write down language. Each is unique but universal in concept.