What are some easy alphabets to learn?
December 5, 2010 10:23 PM   Subscribe

What are some alphabets or writing systems (besides Greek or Cyrillic) that are really easy for a native English speaker to learn?
posted by amfea to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The hebrew alphabet is pretty easy if you know greek. After that, you can dive into aramaic and phoenician and the rest of the semitic alphabets.
posted by wayland at 10:25 PM on December 5, 2010

posted by wackybrit at 10:30 PM on December 5, 2010

Korean might take you an hour to learn.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 10:30 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I taught a friend how to read Korean in one afternoon. Neither of us were language geniuses. You can pretty much start reading simple things in about an hour.

For instance:

ㄱ = g (consonant) ㅏ = ah (vowel)
가 = gah

There are of course trickier stuff (like double consonants and endings), but it's basically that.

On preview: CutaneousRabbit beat me to it.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 10:35 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had a professor who claimed Bengali script wouldn't take more than a week to read. The man is a linguistic genius, though, so YMMV.

I also vote for Hebrew.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 10:58 PM on December 5, 2010

Do they have to be real? What about Klingon?
posted by King Bee at 11:08 PM on December 5, 2010

There's a question of what it means to "know" an alphabet. To use Korean as an example:

The Korean letter ㄱ is often transliterated as "k" or "g", but the sound isn't equivalent to either. That's because instead of distinguishing between voiced and unvoiced stops*, as English does, Korean distinguishes between plain, aspirated, and tense. Have you really learned the Korean alphabet if you've learned that ㄱ is "g"? If you pronounce the English sound wherever you see ㄱ, sometimes you'll be pronouncing it differently than Koreans do.

That said, with a little knowledge of Korean phonology, even if you're being strict and say that won't do, you can learn the alphabet in a few days. The alphabet is reasonably phonetic, unlike English, so you just need to associate letters with phonemes and learn a few additional rules if you want to be able to read Korean words out loud.

Another question: If you learn Cyrillic, what does that mean? The Cyrillic alphabet is used for many different languages, and the letters will have (sometimes very) different values in some. There is no single "Cyrillic" alphabet to learn.

Another, entirely less useful alphabet you could learn in a day:


I love it because it looks like it was made by aliens.

If you're interested in learning writing systems, you should hunt around Omniglot's sections on alphabets, alphasyllabaries, etc - basically everything that's not under "semanto-phonetic" scripts. I think that anything that's phonemic is easy to learn given a week or so of actual effort, as long as the spelling is predictable (unlike English). Your handwriting will of course be atrocious in all of them.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:15 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

* There was a footnote there to acknowledge (but avoid) how voicing and aspiration interact in English.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:17 PM on December 5, 2010

If you pronounce the English sound wherever you see ㄱ, sometimes you'll be pronouncing it differently than Koreans do.

I think, Kutsuwamushi, that's a foregone conclusion. OP wasn't asking for alphabets or writing systems that he or she can learn to read like a native speaker. The question, actually, is fairly straightforward, and doesn't really need deconstruction.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 11:41 PM on December 5, 2010

Hiragana and katakana are indeed easy to learn. So are most other alphabets.

The problem is that you will forget them just as quickly if you don't use them.
posted by twblalock at 12:39 AM on December 6, 2010

Nthing Korean Hangeul. I learned the system more or less accurately in an hour on the plane eight years ago. There are a couple wrinkles (Wangshimni instead of Wangshipli, for example), but they are few and far between.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:51 AM on December 6, 2010

Of the cuneiform scripts, Old Persian is very easy to learn. This is not just in comparison to other cuneiform scripts which are, as a rule, extremely difficult.
posted by tavegyl at 1:12 AM on December 6, 2010

posted by Ted Maul at 4:06 AM on December 6, 2010

Japanese katakana/hiragana aren't too tough to learn, but you'll run into the problem of being very very sad every time you come across something that includes unreadable-by-you kanji. It'll serve you well when watching movies set in the future, though.

The best thing about Korean is that it looks incredibly foreign and complex, despite being very easy to learn. I found this site really useful when I was starting off. It just drops you in without any explanation, but you very quickly pick it up.
posted by soma lkzx at 5:43 AM on December 6, 2010

posted by 256 at 6:38 AM on December 6, 2010

Sütterlin is great for "encoding" your handwritten notes, but easy to learn and easy to read. I had some Amharic or Tigrinya writing in the Ge'ez script that I had to categorize for work, and it wasn't too hard to decipher with a key.
posted by Nomyte at 6:48 AM on December 6, 2010

Canadian Syllabics.
posted by nangar at 7:10 AM on December 6, 2010

The Arabic alphabet is actually fairly easy to learn. People are always so impressed/bemused--"It goes from right to left!"--but what's a good deal more confusing is simply that many of the letters resemble each other quite closely. (I'm not counting the difficulty of reading stylized calligraphy, which is obviously different.) You need to learn how each letter is written at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word; on the other hand, these differences are no bigger (and usually smaller) than the difference in Latin-script languages between lower case and upper case, which you don't need to worry about in Arabic.

It's not learning the alphabet that is tricky with Arabic, in other words.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 7:32 AM on December 6, 2010

The International Phonetic Alphabet or Americanist Phonetic Notation. They're incredibly useful to know even as a mere English speaker and widely useful in learning others, especially the great many that lack traditional alphabets of their own, such as the Salishan languages.
posted by lordcorvid at 8:36 AM on December 6, 2010

When I was in graduate school I worked on a project that forced me to learn a new alphabet every few weeks in order to grammatically analyze a special translation corpus. Between that and my other language studies, I have almost a dozen alphabets that I've learned to read and write at one point or another.

One thing to keep in mind is that alphabets are challenging in two different ways: how they are read, and how they are written. Some languages have characters with single pronunciations, but a complex calligraphic script, and others look easy to jot down, but will have missing vowels, or abstruse diacritics that change the sound of a character in unexpected ways.

Anyway, here are my rough impressions of some of the alphabets that I've learned (minus the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets), ranked from easiest to hardest:

Hangul: This script used to have the derisive name "morning script" because the idea was that it could be learned in a morning, but that is precisely what makes Hangul awesome. The simple symbols and system for combining them are elegant. The phonemes might throw you for a loop, but that's the fun.

Katakana/Hiragana: Yes, these aren't too hard to learn in a weekend. Kanji, however, are terrible (multiple readings for each character) and the reason that Japanese is overall the hardest language to read. But hiragana and katakana by themselves won't get you far outside of children's books. Also, note that there are no spaces in Japanese script between words. This can make it quite hard to tell where one word ends and the next begins, especially when you're used to seeing Kanji to break it up.

Bengali: I love this script; it's gorgeous, but the vowel marking system is complicated and confusing. Typing in this script isn't so bad, but writing it by hand takes lots of practice. Bengali is an Indo-European language and quite accessible.

Ge'ez: This script is used mostly for Amharic, but I learned a version adapted for Tigrinya. Vowels are added to consonant characters in a way that is sort of similar to Bengali, although Ge'ez is more consistent about placement. The only reason I ranked it below Bengali is that it has a *lot* of characters; they are all pretty simple, but there are quite a few that are easy to mix up.

Arabic/Urdu: I'm putting these two together because they are quite similar; and really Urdu is Arabic script with extra characters. Arabic is a difficult one to learn without language context because of the lack of vowels, but used in conjunction with vocabulary learning it's not so bad to pick up. However, I did have a really hard time with the fact that many characters look different depending on whether they are at the beginning, end, or middle of a word. Plus, some of the characters really look similar and it can be hard to tell at first where one ends and the next begins.

Thai: I had a really hard time with this one with so many vowels and tone marks. Still, it's the coolest, but not recommended without serious time dedication.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics: Hieroglyphics are very, very interesting, but with no vowels, a funky 2-D ordering system, and the occasional random pictogram, I found it to be really, really hard. Oh, and it belongs to a language that has not been spoken for over 1300 years. I never quite graduated to reading it without having a dictionary with me at all times. It also took lots of practice to be able to write the characters consistently and in-scale.

Also of note: The Burmese Script is my favorite aesthetically. The characters are round and simple to write without looking all the same. It makes up for having lots of diacritics but not having too many characters. I never learned enough about Burmese phonetically to give a good report on how easy it is to read, but this alphabet is almost certainly a gem.
posted by Alison at 9:25 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Devanagari. It's phonetic and left to right. Wonderful!
posted by shesdeadimalive at 2:47 PM on December 6, 2010

The Ge'ez script (Hameha) is very easy to use with a key, but very hard to learn, as you need to learn 275-ish characters, if you include numbers. While a lot of them are easy, as there's a certain pattern to the vowel-consonant arrangements (line at the bottom of the character, on the right, pointing right? the vowel is almost certainly "i" as in "Clarice"), some letters are notoriously irregular (Y and R, for instance).

Hebrew is pretty easy to learn if you do not care about encoding vowels. If you do care about encoding vowels, that will add some time, but not too too much. It takes 4 hours for a group of 10 adults to get down the basics of Hebrew, including "points" (vowel markers), in my experience.

Canadian Syllabic is pretty easy.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:32 PM on December 6, 2010

posted by Ellemeno at 10:55 PM on December 6, 2010

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