Human civilization has developed independently in many regions across the globe. With different and unique cultural backgrounds, thousands of languages have developed and died, many of which we’ll never hear again.
Many hundreds of languages, however, developed written systems to accompany the spoken word and were able to record these languages, leaving a linguistic legacy that has allowed us to track the evolution of languages through the millennia.
From alphabetic to logographic to syllabic, the construction of these writing systems required immense creativity, effort, and refinement. Here are 7 of the most unusual and beautiful systems invented.
1. Ge’ez Script
The Ge’ez script is an alphasyllabic writing system (also known as an abugida) used by several Afro-Asiatic languages located mostly around the horn of Africa. It evolved from the Ancient South Arabian script that was used in what is now Yemen. The Ancient South Arabian script evolved from Proto-Sinaitic, which, in turn, evolved from Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Around the 7th and 5th centuries BCE, the Ge’ez script emerged as a different entity but a clear evolution of the Ancient South Arabian Script.
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According to traditional beliefs, the Ge’ez script was revealed to Enos (a grandson of Adam and Eve) and was intended as a method for codifying laws.
Originally written right to left, it is now used from left to right, a change that was made as Ge’ez speakers came under the influence of Christianity.
The syllabary today is evolved from 26 consonantal letters with several forms as vowel sounds were added to the letters in the form of diacritic marks fused to the letter. Thus, every letter has several forms, with some having as many as nine.
While the Ge’ez language is now generally only used as a liturgical language, much like Latin, the script was adopted by many languages still spoken today, such as Amharic, Tigrinya, Bilen, and many others.
While the Ge’ez script has its unique characteristics, the most remarkable aspect of this script is its undeniable beauty.
Perhaps the most unusual system of writing comes in the form of quipus. Originating in the areas covered by the Inca Empire, quipus were recording devices made from string. They were used to record mainly numerical data, such as taxes, census numbers, and calendrical information. These data were recorded onto the string in a series of knots of different types, each denoting different numbers.
In 1994, the village of Tupicocha in Peru was still using quipus for administrative reasons, but it is unknown if this is still the case.
Quipus represent a unique way of recording information. It was originally assumed that quipus did not communicate any phonetic element, such as an actual language. Recently, the ethnohistorian and anthropologist Sabine Hyland was granted access to quipus used in a rebellion against the Spanish in the 18th century. After examining the quipus, she identified different colors, knots, ply direction, and fibers that were used to replicate a logosyllabic writing system (such as cuneiform) and were thus able to communicate phonetic information.
Sadly, because of their material structure, very few of the original Inca quipus still exist today.
Constructed languages (conlangs) represent a huge undertaking for anybody who puts the effort into creating them. Usually created for stories in books and film, some even have completely functioning writing systems developed to accompany the language.
Of particular note are the writing systems created by J.R.R Tolkien, an avid linguist who added his expertise in the field to his creative works of fiction.
Although he created several writing systems for the languages used in Middle Earth, the most famously recognizable of these is Tengwar, a script used in conjunction with the Elven languages and the script which appears on the One Ring.
One of the most interesting things about the letters in Tengwar is that they are designed to reflect the phonetic features they represent. A linguist would be able to deduce the sound each letter represents via the letter’s construction rather than through other information imparted by the language.
Despite being created to accompany the Elven languages in J.R.R Tolkien’s works, most of his writing in Tengwar is actually English, as the writing system is well-equipped to represent all the sounds in the English language.
Found on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the 19th century, Rongorongo is a writing system left behind by the civilization that lived on the island – the same civilization that created the mysterious Moai.
Rongorongo is a series of glyphs about which we know virtually nothing. Experts cannot even agree on what kind of writing system it is, whether alphabetic, syllabic logographic, or perhaps something else. Predictably, they also have no idea what the language sounded like or how any of these symbols were pronounced.
5. Sinhala Script
Used by the Sri Lankans to write the Sinhalese language, as well as the holy languages of Pali and Sanskrit, the Sinhala script is easily one of the most beautiful scripts in the world.
Developed from the Brahmi script, which evolved in South Asia, the Sinhala script began a journey of separate evolution around 300 BCE. The modern form of the script emerged around the 13th century CE, and in 1736, it entered the world of print when the Dutch created a typeface for it, with the design being based on how the letters were carved on palm leaves.
During the colonial period, the common typeface underwent a design shift to make it more legible and has remained largely unchanged since then.
The Sinhala script is a syllabary and is written from left to right. It is used by the 16 million Sinhala speakers of Sri Lanka.
6. Classical Mongolian Script
In the early 13th century, an Uyghur scribe by the name of Tata-Tongo was captured by Genghis Khan and tasked with creating a script for the Mongolian language. This he did, and the Mongolian script, or the Hudum Mongol bichig as it is known locally, was born. Based on the Old Uyghur script, this new writing system enjoyed prominence throughout Mongolia for over 700 years until it was supplanted by the Cyrillic script, a result of being within the Soviet sphere of influence.
Since then, Mongolian script has been used as a co-script with Cyrillic, but it has diminished in use. The Mongolian government has since announced plans to replace Cyrillic with Mongolian script by 2025.
Mongolian script is an alphabet with separate letters representing consonants and vowels. One of the most unusual things about this alphabet is that it is one of the few systems to be written vertically and left to right. The vast majority of vertical writing systems are written from right to left.
It is unknown exactly when Nüshu was invented, but it came from Jiangyong County in Hunan Province in Southern China. Until 1949, this part of China was agrarian and traditional, operating by strict laws of patriarchal Confucianism that forbade women from doing many things. Through foot-binding, women were housebound and expected to engage in feminine activities such as needlework and singing.
As a result of their confinement and with plenty of free time, women invented a writing system that they could claim as their own and as a way of rebelling against the patriarchal system that caused their suffering. Nüshu was born and was used for writing personal diaries and letters between close female friends.
Unlike many other Chinese writing systems, Nüshu was not logographic but syllabic, and each of the 600 to 700 symbols represent a phonetic syllable. One of the most interesting features of the symbols is that they are designed to fit embroidery patterns, and as such, the characters display their history very clearly.
Nüshu was suppressed under the Japanese occupation, as it was feared that the script could be used to send secret messages.
With the Chinese Civil War of 1949, the subsequent Cultural Revolution, and the communist ideals of women’s emancipation, the need disappeared for a secret script only known by women, and Nüshu stopped being used.
The last person proficient in reading the script, Yang Huanyi, died on September 20, 2004, at the age of 98. With her, hundreds of years of history disappeared.
In current times, there has been a renewed interest in the script from a cultural perspective, and the government of the People’s Republic of China has made efforts to regenerate the script and reinvigorate interest in learning it. Nüshu looks set to be reborn.
According to Ethnologue, there are 7,168 living languages in the world today. This number is getting smaller every month as moribund languages go completely extinct. There are fewer than 300 writing systems used to convey these languages. Each writing system is, however, unique and a testament to the creativity of the human mind that created it. The different approaches to recording languages are also a reflection of the immense diversity of the human species.