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What are multi-scripts languages?

There are many languages which have more than one active writing script. We call them multiscript languages. Writing systems or scripts are groups of symbols used to represent the language.

Different types of writing systems

Linguists divide writing systems into specific groups by the type of symbols the speakers use.

  1. Pictographic/ideographic writing systems

Pictographic writing systems use graphic solutions that represent words or abstract ideas, such as hieroglyphs or emojis. Pictographic writing systems are often deeply tied to the culture they come from and require a high understanding of the culture in order to be properly translated.

  1. Syllabary

Syllabary writing systems use symbols that represent a syllable. Most languages that use syllabary or ideographic writing systems usually have more than one writing script and provide a huge opportunity for misinterpretation and wrong translations.

  1. Alphabets

Alphabets are writing systems in which a single symbol represents an individual sound. Different alphabets can be grouped based on its similarities - for example, some alphabets have only consonants or vowels, others have both, etc.

Some languages have dual alphabets - this means that the language users can use two different writing scripts or alphabets. This is called digraphia. We can differentiate two general types of digraphic languages:

  • Languages that use two different writing scripts at the same time
  • Languages where one writing script over time took precedence over another.

Examples of Multiscript languages

The International Organization for Standardization created the official international standard for language codes (ISO 639-1, ISO 639-2, ISO 639-3), but also an international set of codes for defining writing scripts - the ISO 15924 system. This allows to: narrow down the language which is used in the text and specific script.

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Why can multiscript languages be tricky for localization?

Choosing the right script for your product can prove to be tricky. Not all multiscript languages see different scripts as interchangeable. What does that mean? Some scripts can be used for one type of content (for example, formal address or documents), while other scripts might be used as “common script”.

Think about your target audience as well - which script allows you to reach more people? Is it more valuable for your customers to use one script over another?

Related Glossary resources

Further resources

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