Since the birth of the alphabet in the Near East around 2000 BC, endless writing systems from different languages and cultures have thrived and perished. The classic example is Egyptian, a highly developed civilization whose legacy remains the form of a famous hieroglyphic writing system…which we’ve never been able to fully decipher.
Over the last 2,500 years, the Latin alphabet has become so popular it’s swept away writing systems of peoples once dominated by the Romans. However, more than two billion people still write in other formats, and a few of them display an impressive handmade beauty.
Below are five of the most aesthetically attractive alphabets in the world, and the reasons why you’re probably never going to read them.
1. Burmese (Myanmar)
The Burmese alphabet (from old Burma, now called Myanmar) is composed of circular shapes that must always be drawn clockwise. The mesmerizing script has a raison d’être more practical than aesthetic: The palm leaves in which the letters were traditionally carved were easily torn by straight cuts.
Even if it’s less threatened than other alphabets on this list, the Burmese script is more and more often being relegated to liturgies while, in daily usage, it’s being replaced by Hindi and even Latin writing systems. Myanmar, which until recently restricted foreign tourism, has just opened its borders to visitors, and left the exclusive group of nations where you couldn’t spot a Coca-Cola billboard (leaving only North Korea and, arguably, Cuba).
2. Sinhalese (Sri Lanka)
Considered one of the most expansive alphabets in the world, Sinhalese has more than 50 phonemes, though only 38 are frequently used in contemporary writing. Still taught in Buddhist monasteries and schools, the language is the mother tongue for more than half of Sri Lanka’s 21 million inhabitants.
Its low geographical relevance (confined to the island of Sri Lanka) is its greatest threat. Restricted to a piece of land surrounded by water, Sinhalese writing has will likely endure for a good while yet, even if its usage decreases over time.
3. Georgian (Georgia)
Squeezed between Turkey and Russia, Georgia has its own language and alphabet, both of which are threatened by Russian domination. In the last century, Russian imperialist policy resulted in the annexation of more than half of Georgia’s original area. Furthermore, continuing pressure for the small country to cede additional portions of its territory suggests that fewer and fewer Caucasians will be speaking and writing Georgian as time goes on, as Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet supplant the native systems. The Russian desire to control oil pipelines that run under Georgia also represents a menace to the sovereignty of the local culture.
It’s a pity: The Georgian alphabet shows an elegance that brings to mind Arabic, combined with a child-like simplicity expressed in rounded curves.
4. Tagalog (Philippines)
Originating from Indo-European scripts, Tagalog was the dominant writing system in Philippines until the arrival of the Spanish. Colonization first only modified certain aspects of the alphabet. Whereas it once was written from the bottom up, it began to flow from left to right and the characters were rotated 90 degrees. Later, Spanish was designated the official language of the Philippines in what probably will prove a deathblow for the old alphabet, if it hasn’t already.
Despite naming Filipino (a mixture of indigenous languages and Spanish) as the national language in 1973, its written component shifted to the Latin alphabet. Tagalog writing still survives, at least according to authorities. In practice, though, its fate will likely be similar to that of more than 120 local dialects that have gradually vanished from the country.
5. Hanacaraka (Indonesia)
Originally developed on the Indonesian island of Java to communicate the Javanese language, Hanacaraka writing then began spreading to neighboring islands and incorporating regional variations. With the popularization of printing presses, authorities repeatedly tried to standardize the alphabet in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, these efforts were interrupted by the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, when the usage of Hanacaraka was forbidden.
Since then, the alphabet has been supplanted by the Latin system, even though the local government has preserved the script in traffic signs and proclaimed public schools must teach it. To meet Hanacaraka personally, the most prudent recommendation is that you fly as soon as possible to Jakarta — before it’s too late.