The development of class field theory has provided detailed information about abelian extensions of number fields, function fields of algebraic curves over finite fields, and local fields.
In general extensions formed by adjoining any roots of unity are abelian. If a field K already contains a primitive n-th root of unity and the n-th root of an element of K is adjoined, the resulting so-called Kummer extension is an abelian extension (if K has characteristic p we should say that p doesn't divide n, since otherwise this can fail even to be a separable extension). In general, however, the Galois groups of n-th roots of elements operate both on the n-th roots and on the roots of unity, giving a non-abelian Galois group as semi-direct product. The Kummer theory gives a complete description of the abelian extension case.
There is an important analogy with the fundamental group in topology, which classifies all covering spaces of a space: abelian covers are classified by its abelianisation which relates directly to the first homology group.