Here’s your guide to clarify the jargon commonly used to discuss neography. For terms not covered here, check Wiktionary or your preferred online dictionary, as well as this list of more general linguistic terminology.


1. Types of writing systems
2. Graphical units of writing systems
3. Audible units of speech
4. Conversion between writing systems and languages
5. Miscellaneous terms

1. Types of writing systems

Quick descriptions and examples of each type of writing system. Most writing systems in the world are not pure as defined here. See the types of writing systems page for more detail.

Characters for sounds produced by varying constrictions of the vocal tract.

Characters for high-sonority sounds. Usually the core of a syllable.

Characters that represent at least one consonant and one vowel. Commonly one consonant then one vowel.

Characters that represent words or word segments. Writing is compact, but has more complex and numerous characters.

Symbols that represent ideas, concepts, or messages, but aren’t part of language. Includes icons, signage, and more.

  • Abjad
    Each character represents a consonant, and vowels must be inferred by the reader. Most natural abjad scripts are impure with one or more vowel characters.
    Arabic, Hebrew
  • Alphasyllabary
    Primary characters represent consonants, subsidiary symbols represent vowels. Vowels are not all in a linear order with relation to consonants or with their temporal order in speech; they’re often diacritics on preceding consonants.
  • Abugida
    Each character represents a syllable, which is at least one consonant and one vowel: usually CV. In contrast to syllabaries, there is graphical similarity between characters with the same consonant or vowel sound. In contrast to alphasyllabaries, a character without a vowel marker has an implicit default vowel.
    Devanagari, Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, Ge’ez, Tamil, Khmer, Javanese
  • Syllabary
    Each syllabogram represents a syllable, which is at least one consonant and one vowel: usually CV. In contrast to abugidas, there’s no graphical similarity between syllabograms with similar sounds.
  • Logosyllabary
    Partially-phonetic logographic scripts in which characters can be used for their phonetic values to represent syllables.
    Hanzi (Chinese)
  • Asemic
    Writing without meaning. It could be a writing-like form of abstract art that conveys meaning with expressive form instead of words or sounds, or design experiments for the appearance of a script.

Writing systems might also be broadly categorized by the following terms:

  • Writing system
    A visual or physical representation of verbal communication.
  • Script
    A set and system of graphical symbols that encode meaning. Generally synonymous with writing system.
  • Conscript
    Short for constructed script, a writing system that is suddenly and deliberated designed rather than originating gradually.
  • Natscript
    Short for natural script, in contrast to conscript. Real historical scripts that evolved gradually.

2. Graphical units of writing systems

Some terms are similar, have overlapping meaning, and are potentially confusing. Here they are clarified.

Characters are conventionally wrapped in ⟨angle brackets⟩ to refer to the graphical letterform regardless of the sound or meaning they represent. Characters in /slashes/ or [brackets] refer strictly to their phonetic value in IPA.

  • Glyph
    An elemental symbol within a set of symbols; a readable unit in a writing system.
  • Character
    A written or printed glyph. Often interchangeable with glyph or letter. Used in particular to refer to Chinese glyphs.
  • Symbol
    An identifiable graphic or image that represents an idea, object, or unit of speech. Generally interchangeable with glyph, but emphasizes the abstract relationship between graphic and meaning.
  • Letter
    A glyph of an alphabet or abjad, but in looser usage is interchangeable with glyph and character.
  • Grapheme
    A distinct graphical unit in a writing system, analogous to the phoneme as a distinct audible unit in speech. Conventionally written in angle brackets (⟨⟩).
  • Syllabogram
    A glyph of a syllabary.
  • Logogram
    A glyph of a logography. Represents a word or morpheme: the smallest meaningful unit of a word such as the suffix -s or the prefix anti-.
  • Ideogram
    A symbol that indicates an idea or concept, independent of language or words. Road signs and user interface icons are common examples.
  • Pictogram
    A pictorial ideogram that depicts of the physical object it represents.

3. Audible units of speech

Characters are conventionally wrapped in /slashes/ or [brackets] to refer strictly to their phonetic value in IPA. Characters in ⟨angle brackets⟩ refer to the graphical letterform regardless of the sound or meaning they represent.

  • Phone
    A distinct speech sound, which might or might not be critical to the meanings of words. Can also refer to distinct signs for sign language. Conventionally written in brackets ([]).
  • Phonetic
    Relating to phones, or more generally to the sounds of spoken language.
  • Phoneme
    A distinct meaningful unit of speech sound. Phonemes are broader than phones: usually multiple phones are perceived as the same phoneme within a language. Conventionally written in slashes (/).
  • Phonemic
    Relating to phonemes.
  • Allophone
    Different phones that are perceived as the same phoneme within a language.

For example, unaspirated plosives [p, t, k] and aspirated plosives [ph, th, kh] are allophones of /p, t, k/ in English. They are different phones, but realizations of the same phonemes. Substituting them will not change the meaning or hinder word recognition in English, but it would in some other languages.

Changing the voicing of /p, t, k/ to /b, d, g/ would change the meaning and recognizability of English words where these different phones, like [p] and [b] are not allophones, they’re different phonemes: /p/ and /b/. Some other languages might not distinguish voicing differences.

4. Conversion between writing systems and languages

In the table below, translation is any conversion across rows, but generally between native writing systems. Transcription is any conversion across columns, but within the same row.

  • Translation
    Conversion of the language of a text, including the writing system if it differs between input and output language. Interpretation—the conversion between spoken languages—is often incorrectly called translation.
    • 猫と犬 ↔ Cats and dogs
  • Transcription
    Conversion of text from one writing system to another, without translating the language.
    • 猫と犬 → Neko to inu
    • Cats and dogs → カツ アンド ドグズ
  • Transliteration
    Conversion of text from one writing system to another in a way that reflects the spelling of the input text rather than the pronunciation.
    • カツ アンド ドグズ → Katsu ando doguzu
  • Romanization
    Transcription or translation specifically to the Roman alphabet, often systematically. Romanization schemes are often used for convenience, intelligibility, or academic purposes.
    • 猫と犬 → Neko to inu

5. Miscellaneous terms

  • Boustrophedon
    A script direction that alternates between left-to-right and right-to-left in each row, or vice versa.
  • Calligraphy
    Various forms of artful or decorative text. Many calligraphic styles are cursive, but cursive writing is not necessarily calligraphy.
  • Cursive
    A flowing style of writing, often curvy with joined letters, typically optimized for writing speed.
  • Orthography
    A system of spelling conventions for the glyph-phoneme relationships in a language.
  • Diacritic
    A mark that is added to a character—usually above, below, or superimposed—to distinguish pronunciation or meaning.
  • Featuralism
    A property of writing systems where graphical features correlate with phonetic features of related sounds.
  • Ligature
    Two or more letters in a specific order that are replaced with a special combined glyph. For example, æ is a ligature of ae.
  • Typography
    The field of graphical text design. Often applied for purposes of legibility and aesthetics.
  • Dialect
    A variety of a language that is mutually intelligible with the standard language but has differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and sometimes grammar.
  • Accent
    A manner of pronunciation specific to a particular person, location, or nation.
  • Idiolect
    A specific person’s unique and distinctive use of language, including vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.