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A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables, which make up words. A symbol in a syllabary typically represents an optional consonant sound followed by a vowel sound.


Languages using syllabaries

Languages that use syllabic writing include Mycenaean Greek (Linear B), the American Indian languages Cherokee and Cree, the African language Vai, the English-based creole language Ndyuka (the Afaka script), and Yi language in China. In addition, the undecoded Cretan language of Linear A is also believed by some to be a syllabic script, though this cannot be proven. Also, Nü Shu is a syllabary that was used to write the language of the Yao people in China. The Chinese, Cuneiform, and Maya scripts are largely syllabic in nature, although based on logograms. They are therefore sometimes referred to as logosyllabic.

The Japanese language uses two syllabaries together called kana, namely hiragana and katakana (developed around AD 700). They are mainly used to write some native words and grammatical elements, as well as foreign words, e.g. hotel is written with three kana, ホテル (ho-te-ru), in Japanese. Because Japanese uses many CV (consonant + vowel) syllables, a syllabary is well suited to write the language. As in many syllabaries, however, vowel sequences and final consonants are written with separate glyphs, so that both atta and kaita are written with three kana: あった (a-t-ta) and かいた (ka-i-ta). It is therefore sometimes called a moraic writing system.

Languages that use syllabaries today tend to have simple phonotactics, with a predominance of monomoraic (CV) syllables. For example, the modern Yi script is used to write a language that has no diphthongs or syllable codas; unusually among syllabaries, there is a separate glyph for every consonant-vowel-tone combination in the language (apart from one tone which is indicated with a diacritic). Few 'syllabaries' have glyphs for syllables that aren't monomoraic, and those that once did have simplified over time to eliminate that complexity. For example, the Vai syllabary originally had separate glyphs for syllables ending in a coda (doŋ), a long vowel (soo), or a diphthong (bai), though not enough glyphs to distinguish all CV combinations (some distinctions were ignored). The modern script has been expanded to cover all moras, but at the same time reduced to exclude all other syllables. Bimoraic syllables are now written with two letters, as in Japanese: diphthongs are written with the help of V or hV glyphs, and the nasal coda is written with the glyph for ŋ, which can form a syllable of its own in Vai. In Linear B, which transcribed Greek, a language with complex syllables, complex consonant onsets were either written with two glyphs or simplified to one, while codas were generally ignored: "ko-no-so" for Knōsos, "pe-ma" for sperma. The Cherokee syllabary generally uses dummy vowels for coda consonants, but also has a glyph for /s/, which can be used both as a coda and in an initial /sC/ consonant cluster.

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