character-based languages

What languages, other than chinese and not counting dead 'uns, currently use characters/figures rather than an alphabet? (ie, no phonetic connection)
And before someone says it, Korean and Japanese do not.
I am currently researching a project on the socio-cultural implications of different types of written languages. Any specialist help or reference appreciated.

How about the icon-based language they’re using to try to teach gorillas how to communicate?

furt sez:

It’s a common misconception that Chinese characters have “no phonetic connection.” Actually, many chinese words have both an ideographic or pictographic component AND a phonetic component. The idea is thus, working with English as an example.

  1. Suppose English used symbols similar to Chinese characters.

  2. Suppose (.) is the character for “sun”.

  3. Note that in English we also have the homophonous word “son”.

  4. We could symbolize the “sun” in the sky as: (.)* (that is, the “sun” that is a star)

  5. And we could symbolize the “son” that is a descendant as: (.):slight_smile: (the “sun” that is a person)

In these two symbols, the (.) is a phonetic component, indicating what the pronunciation should be, and the second part of the symbol is the ideographic component, indicating what the meaning should be.

So although the Chinese system is not alphabetic or syllabic, it DOES have a phonetic component. For a more complete explanation, see For a more detailed English example, see

Now, as to what I think you may actually MEAN…any language that does not have either an alphabet or a syllabary would presumably meet your requirements. Since you said this was for a research project, I will let you conduct your own web search for the answers…


The writing of the Moso (or Nasi) tribe in southwestern Yunnan Province, China, is entirely made of pictograms.

Source: Writing Systems of the World by Akira Nakanishi.


I know what you’re talking about; yes, there is a general, historical connection, but there is no direct correlation with specific strokes and specific phonemes as you have with an alphabet-based language.

To wit: If I know the sounds represented by the letters “C”, “A” and “T”, I can then look at the word “CAT” and guess at its pronunciation even if I had never seen that specific combination of letters before.

But in chinese, one horizontal line is pronounced “yi” (forgive my romanizing) two horizontal lines is “er”… but three horizontal lines is not yi-er or er-yi or anything like that. I might be able to deduce the meaning of “san,” and once I did that I might figure out what it was, but I’d never jump straight from = to the sound “san.”

The test is that I can write the word “Frangipard,” and while no one knows what it means, you can easily pronounce it. In some cases in Chinese, you may have the equivalent ability in regards to meaning (fire radical next to…) but not usually.

Could be wrong here, but I heard Japanese has three alphabets, two of which are non-phonetic. The phonetic one is useful for transliterating words from other languages.

And what about our own Arabic numerals? Totally non-phonetic! The numeral “2” doesn’t scream out either “two” or “zwei”. You’re expected to know.

Japanese has 3 alphabets, two of them are phonetic (one for transliterating words from other languages) and the other uses Chinese characters.

I’m not sure about Chinese, but the Chinese characters in Japanese have at most two or three pronounciations, so, while you have to learn or guess which is which, it might count as a phonetic language. (with meaning added, like m pointed out)

Not really. Japanese has 3 writing systems, 2 of which are wholly phonetic (the Kana) and one is meaning-based (Kanji). None of them can accurately be called alphabets.

One of the 2 Kana sets (Katakana) is used for, among other things, transliterating recent (And non-Chinese) loanwords. The other (Hiragana) is used for pretty much everything else.

Kanji are used for a handful of words (A big hand… There’s over 1000 ‘official’ Kanji, most of which serve multiple purposes.), and often have multiple pronunciations depending upon where they’re being used (Either the native Japanese pronunciation (The Kun reading), or the Chinese pronunciation (On reading)).

Which reading is used is often (Particularly if it’s a relatively obscure Kanji, or the material’s aimed at children) indicated by furigana - small katakana put alongside the kanji, to indicate the pronunciation.

Names are usually (though not exclusively, especially given a current vogue of giving children Western names) written with Kanji.

I just wanted to add to the Japanese thing.

In addition to what Tengu said, there’s also a convention called Romanji (not even vaguely a part of the language proper) for using the Western/Roman alphabet to transliterate certain Western words into a form that can be pronounced by someone whose primary language is Japanese. It’s not a formal system at all, but it’s definitely phonetic.

As a separate point, one of the occurences for Kanji that Tengu hasn’t mentioned is in family names. The Kanji system predates Kana by a long time (obviously), so many Japanese family names are spelled with Kanji- and a few are spelled with Kanji that are no longer used anywhere but in that family’s name. Definitely non-phonetic.

In other words, for the purposes of the OP, Japanese is basically off in a little box by itself. [sub][sup]as far as I know[/sup][/sub]

Bass-ackwards, I’m afraid. Romaji is what our alphabet is called in Japanese. You can write Japanese words or names in “romaji” for the benefit of non-Japanese speaking westerners. The purpose you describe is served by katakana.

Just to thoroughly hijack the thread:

The Japanese use a different system to transliterate words into Romanji than non-Japanese do. Westerners use a system based on aproximately how the characters sound. The Japanese system is based on a consistancy within the rows of the Kana. It really only differs with the Western system, of course, on the Kana that are pronounced differently than the rest of their row. For instance ‘chi’ in the Western system would be ‘ti’ in the Japanese, or ‘tsu’ would be ‘tu’.

So the name transliterated as ‘Fujishima’ in the Western system would be ‘Huzisima’ in the Japanese system.