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Semanto-phonetic writing systems

The symbols used in these semanto-phonetic writing systems often represent both sound and meaning. As a result, these scripts generally include a large number of symbols: anything from several hundred to tens of thousands. In fact there is no theoretical upper limit to the number of symbols in some scripts, such as Chinese. These scripts could also be called logophonetic, morphophonemic, logographic or logosyllabic.

Semanto-phonetic writing systems may include the following types of symbol:

Examples of pictographic glyphs from the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Chinese scripts

Pictograms and logograms

Pictograms or pictographs resemble the things they represent. Logograms are symbols that represent parts of words or whole words. The image on the right shows some examples of pictograms from the Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Chinese scripts. The Chinese characters used to look like the things they stand for, but have become increasingly stylized over the years.


Ideograms or ideographs are symbols which graphically represent abstract ideas. The image below shows a number of ideographic Chinese characters.

Some ideographic Chinese characters

Compound characters

The majority of characters in the Chinese script are semanto-phonetic compounds: they include a semantic element, which represents or hints at their meaning, and a phonetic element, which shows or hints at their pronunciation. Below are a few such compound characters which all share a semantic element meaning 'horse'.

Some examples of Chinese semanto-phonetic compound characters

Sometimes symbols are used for their phonetic value alone, without regard for their meaning, for example when transliterating foreign names and loan words.

Semanto-phonetic writing systems currently in use

Chinese (Zhōngwén)
Japanese (Nihongo)

Semanto-phonetic writing systems used mainly for decorative, ceremonial or religious purposes

Naxi script (sər33 tɕə21 lʏ33 tɕə21)

Semanto-phonetic writing systems that are no longer used

Akkadian (Cuneiform)
Ancient Egyptian Demotic script
Ancient Egyptian Demotic
Ancient Egyptian Hieratic script
Ancient Egyptian Hieratic
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglypic script
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglypic
Chu nom
Linear B
Linear B
Luwian (luwili)
Mayan script
Sumerian Cuneiform
Sumerian (Cuneiform)
Tangut (Xīxìa/Hsihsia)
Tangut (Xīxìa/Hsi-hsia)

Please note

transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) are used extensively throughout this website. The IPA transcriptions are the letters and other symbols which appear in square bracketts, like this [b], [p]. etc.

You can learn about the IPA and phonetics at

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