In Russian
Contents Türkic languages
Codex of Inscriptions - Index
Ogur and Oguz
A.Toth Agglutinative languages
Hunnic Writing
Turanian Writing
Paleography of 8 Türkic Alphabets
Russian Version needs a translation
Alan Dateline
Avar Dateline
Besenyo Dateline
Bulgar Dateline
Huns Dateline
Karluk Dateline
Khazar Dateline
Kimak Dateline
Kipchak Dateline
Kyrgyz Dateline
Sabir Dateline
Seyanto Dateline
Isaac Taylor, M.A., LL.D.
Origin and Development of Letters

London, Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1883
Vol. 1       Vol. 2
Semitic Alphabets   Arpan Alphabets
Chapter 1. The Inventors of Writing      Chapter 3. The Primitive Letters      Chapter 5. The Aramean Alphabets      Vol. 2 Chapter 7 9 The Asianic Scripts




It would not hurt to retrace our steps once in a while, and revisit our fundamentals. The following citation from the founding monograph lays the base for our knowledge, and may alleviate some misconceptions. One of them is that our - Roman, Greek, Arabic, etc - alphabet was invented by Phoenicians. Isaac Taylor traced the development of alphabet and established criteria and stages that can be summarized as follows:

1. Writing, like language, evolves.
2. Evolution occurs -
- gradually and slowly within the same language or language family
- abruptly when one settled system of writing is adopted by people with emphatically incompatible language
3. New species of writing develop when writing jumps across linguistic barrier separating linguistic families
4. The transition stages in the development of various alphabets were -
- Afro-Asiatic Berbero-Semitic (flexive) Egyptian Hieroglyphs
- Turanian (agglutinative) Sumerian and Akkadian Cuneiform. Akkadians started using primitive ideograms as syllabic phonograms
- Semitic (flexive) Assyrians and Babylonians - adopted syllabic phonograms
---- Semitic (flexive) Phoenician alphabet - reduced syllables to phonetic letters
-------- Hellenic (flexive) alphabets - adopted phonetic letters
-------- Semitic (flexive) Aramean alphabet - adopted phonetic letters
---- Turanian (agglutinative) Proto-Medic syllabary - adopted syllabic phonograms
-------- Turanian (agglutinative) A.Mukhamadiev deciphered Turanian/Horezm writing, S.Amanjolov traces early origin of Türkic script
---- Aryan (flexive) Persian Cuneiform syllabary - adopted syllabic phonograms, interrupted by Arab conquest

Isaac Taylor observed that one of the early stages in the development of alphabet is a jump caused by adaptation of written symbology, associated with the specifics of one linguistic environment, to another linguistic environment where these associations lose their meaning. It is the transition that did the trick.

Post-Phoenician development illustrated for letter M (Fig. page 11)
Scheme prior to V.Thomsen deciphering of Türkic alphabet

The graphical depictions in the text are dropped in this posting, unless they are illuminative for Türkic history. The graphics can be viewed at the above http://books.google.com link. For more detailed explications on the transitive process and results related to the Türkic alphabet, see Amanjolov "Genesis of Türkic Runic Alphabet". For a review of the differences between IE flexive and Turanian agglutinative languages see A.Toth "Agglutinative languages". A body of decipherings, readings, emendations and substitutions came about in the 130 years since the initial publication of the book. Some terminology, like "Turanian", was completely dropped, for extended period, from the western scientific lingo, replaced by a slew of PC euphemisms and adages. Except for few outstanding characters, nobody calls Türks "Mongols" any more. Unbeknown to Isaac Taylor, the Scythians were re-christened from the Türks to Iranians by blessings of Vs.Miller and V.I.Abaev, they lost their agglutinative language and gained a flexive Indo-Iranian, thus bestowing it on all those genetically Türkic departed Scythians to speak at home a foreign language. Behistun second language was found to be agglutinative Dravidian Elamite instead of agglutinative Proto-Medic. Anyway, these emendations do not impact or diminish Isaac Taylor's scientific contribution. Posting notes are highlighted in blue. Page numbers are shown at the beginning of the page.

Chapter 1. The Inventors of Writing



In the creation of the Japanese and Annamese syllabaries out of the Chinese ideograms we have instances of a very general law which governs the development of graphic systems. During a period of four thousand years the Chinese, left to themselves, were unable to advance beyond ideographic writing. But this important step was, as we have seen, readily accomplished when the Chinese writing had to be adapted to a language of another type. As a rule it is found that the advance from one stage in the development of writing to the next is only attained by the transmission of a graphic system from one nation to another. The transmission of the Aztec Hieroglyphs to the Mayas of Yucatan, of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs to the Semites, and the thrice repeated transmission of the Semitic alphabet to Aryan nations  - to the Greeks, to the Persians, and to the Indians -  are instances in point. Each of these transmissions was accompanied by important developments in the art of writing. But the action of this general law is perhaps best exhibited in the case of the repeated transmissions of the cuneiform writing. It was invented by the Accadians, a Turanian people; from them it was transmitted to the Semitic Assyrians and Babylonians; while out of the Semitic cuneiform arose on the one hand the Turanian Proto-Medic syllabary, and on the other the cuneiform alphabet of the Aryan Persians. The history of the cuneiform writing also illustrates with great completeness the successive stages through which writing tends to pass; the primitive picture ideograms developing themselves, through verbal phonograms, into syllabic signs, until finally the alphabetic stage is reached.

The most primitive monuments of the cuneiform writing consist of inscribed bricks from the ruins of the cities of Mugheir, Warka, and Senkereh, in Lower Babylonia. This writing, which goes by the name of the "Linear Babylonian," consists of picture ideograms in which it is not difficult to detect the outlines of the objects which are meant to be represented. The material used being tablets of the soft clay which was abundant in Babylonia, at a very early period these outline pictures came to be replaced, as a matter of graphic convenience, by groups of wedge-shaped strokes, which are the forms most easily imprinted by a style upon unbaked clay. In these conventional ideograms, which go by the name of the "Archaic Babylonian Cuneiform," the pictorial significance, though not so entirely lost as in the later Assyrian and Babylonian forms, is more difficult to recognize than is the case with other kinds of ideographic writing, such as the Mexican or the Egyptian, where a different material was used. But by aid of the primitive outline pictures of the linear Babylonian the original significance of many of the cuneiform groups can be detected with a fair approach to certainty.

A few instances may be given of the way in which the cuneiform characters may be thus traced back, by means of the older forms, to the original picture ideograms. 1

We may begin with the Assyrian character alpu, which means an "ox." The Assyrian form was derived from the Hieratic Babylonian, which in the linear Babylonian is ... If this picture be partly turned round it is at once recognized as the profile of the head and horns of an ox, looked at from the front, .... It may be noted that this primitive picture does not differ very materially from the character in which the Phoenicians recognized the likeness of the head of the "ox," aleph (the same word as alpu), which has given us the name of our alpha-bet.

The ideogram of the "fish " is as easy to trace as that of the "ox." In the Assyrian cuneiform we find the character, a "fish." The resemblance to the object has almost entirely disappeared, but it can be recognized when we go back to the archaic Babylonian, in which the form of the character is... A still older form is ..., while in the linear Babylonian we have the form ... a figure in which the head, body, tail, and fins of the fish are unmistakeably portrayed.

1 These instances are chiefly taken from Mr. Houghton's paper in the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archeology, vol. vi., pp. 454 - 483.


It is often possible to detect the mode in which compound, or, as we may call them, agglutinated characters, arose from the combination of simpler forms. The ideogram used to denote the city of Nineveh was.... The archaic form of this character is ... which proves that it was compounded of the ideographic picture of a "house," enclosing the ideogram of the "fish." We have here a curious fragment of primaeval history, showing us that imperial Nineveh was at first, as its name implies,1 merely a collection of huts of fishermen.

The graphic system which was thus invented by the primitive Turanian inhabitants of Babylonia (in this case, Akkadians) was adopted by their Semitic conquerors, who took it with them to Assyria, where it underwent considerable modifications. Even among the Accadians the primitive ideograms had come to be used as phonograms, a device which was greatly extended by the Semites, who created a huge syllabary out of the Accadian characters.

1 The first syllable is identical with nun, "fish," the name of the fourteenth letter of the Semitic alphabet.


In the cuneiform the transition from ideograms to phonograms had to be effected in a way somewhat different from that which was possible in China. The Chinese being a monosyllabic language, the primitive phonograms were necessarily syllabic signs, and the limited number of possible monosyllabic articulations could be expressed by about 1200 phonetic symbols. But the languages spoken by the inventors of the cuneiform writing being polysyllabic, a new device became necessary, as otherwise the number of separate phonograms must have been nearly equal to the actual number of words, so that many thousands of distinct characters would have had to be invented and remembered. The obvious remedy for this difficulty was Syllabism. But a polysyllabic language did not lend itself so readily as the Chinese to this solution. According to Halevy the difficulty was overcome by the adoption of the powerful principle of Aerology. He contends that a primitive ideographic picture having been taken as a phonogram to denote the name of an object, the symbol was used "acrologically," to express simply the initial syllable of the word.

It is generally supposed, however, that certain dissyllabic Accadian words were simply worn down by phonetic decay into monosyllables, which became the phonetic values of the characters. Thus the common character , which denotes " the sky," is a simplified form of , which was the ideographic picture of a "star." The foundation of the Proto-Babylonian religion being planetary worship, the character was employed as a symbolic ideogram to denote "God". The primitive Accadian word was ana, which was afterwards contracted into an. Hence the character was used as an ideogram to signify the sky, also as the determinative prefix to denote deity, and was ultimately employed as a phonogram to express simply the articulation an.

The invention of the syllabic method, however it may have been brought about, was an almost necessary-step in the progress towards alphabetic writing. It solved the problem of expressing the words of a polysyllabic language by means of phonetic signs, and thus, as we shall presently see, it served in Egypt, as well as in Babylonia, as the means by which the most formidable difficulties of phonetic writing were overcome.

A syllabary having been thus constructed out of the primitive phonograms, the next step was to combine the syllabic characters, as in Mexico and Japan, so as to express polysyllabic words. Thus the syllabic sign nap, "light," was combined with the sign for sat, "mountain," to give the compound phonogram, nap-sat, "soul."

In the Assyrian cuneiform the Proto-Babylonian characters were not only employed phonographically to denote the sound of the original Accadian word, but also ideographically, to express any of the Semitic words by which the Accadian word might be translated. It is evident that a very high degree of complexity would be thus produced.

As an illustration, we may take the cuneiform character, which was originally an ideographic picture of an "ear," as is seen when it is traced back to the primitive form. An "ear" in Accadian is pi. But the sound pi denoted in Accadian a "drop of water" as well as an "ear," and hence the cuneiform symbol was used both as a phonogram to signify a "drop," and as an ideogram to denote an "ear." When the Accadian (agglutinative) syllabary was taken over by the (flexive) Semites, the character retained its phonetic value of pi, and was also used as the equivalent of the two Semitic words uznu an "ear," and giltanu, a "drop of water." In like manner the Accadian character ... su, "foot," was originally the picture of a leg, as is indicated by the older forms ... and ... . The character was then used as a phonogram to express the sound su, which in Accadian meant "overthrow" as well as "foot." In the Semitic cuneiform the character not only possesses the old syllabic value su, but is also used as the equivalent of the Semitic words sepu, a "foot," and sakhpu, "overthrow." In some instances the confusion is far greater. Thus the character ... , which was originally an ideographic picture of the "sun," has nine phonetic values, and may also represent ideographically fourteen separate Semitic words. When therefore the character occurs in an Assyrian inscription there are no less than twenty-three different ways in which it may be rendered.

From these instances it will be seen how great an element of ambiguity was introduced by the polyphony which arose from the adaptation of a Turanian (agglutinative) syllabary to a Semitic (flexive) language. Hence, as in China, the employment of determinative ideograms side by side with the syllabic phonograms became indispensable, in order to aid the reader in ascertaining the particular value to be assigned to each of the polyphonic characters.

A further complication arose when the (flexive) Assyrian characters were adapted to a third language of an entirely different (agglutinative) structure. About the ninth century B.C. the Assyrian cuneiform became known to the Alarodian tribes who dwelt in the neighborhood of Lake Van. This Vannic or Armenian cuneiform has hitherto been only imperfectly deciphered. A certain number of characters seem to have been taken over from the Assyrian syllabary, some of which were used as syllabics and others as the symbols of Alarodian (agglutinative) words of similar signification, but of totally different sound. The device must have been much the same as that which we employ when we use alphabetic symbols derived from foreign languages as the graphic equivalents of English words, reading such signs as lbs., e.g., s.v.p., as if they stood for such English expressions as "pounds," "for instance," "if you please."

The transmissions of the cuneiform writing which have been hitherto considered, resulted only in increased complexity. The primitive Accadian writing was comparatively easy and simple, the obscurity of the Assyrian cuneiform, with its cumbrous apparatus of variants, homophones, polyphones, ideograms, and determinatives, being mainly attributable to the polyphony arising from the clumsy adaption of (agglutinative) Turanian writing to the needs of (flexive) Semitic speech. The Alarodian adaptation still further increased the difficulty.

Other transmissions of the cuneiform writing exhibit a directly opposite result. When in the 8th century B.C. the Proto-Medic tribes, who spoke an agglutinative language of the Ural-Altaic class, borrowed from their Semitic neighbors the elements of a graphic system, they were able to effect a simplification somewhat of the same nature as that which took place when the Japanese syllabary was constructed out of the Chinese ideograms. By discarding numerous phonograms and ideograms, and by assigning a single syllabic value to the characters which were retained, the (agglutinative)Scythic tribes of Media were able to dispense with more than 400 of the symbols used in the Assyrian cuneiform, so as to reduce it to a comparatively simple and certain syllabary of 96 characters. In this manner the ambiguities of the Assyrian writing were so far removed that it became possible to do away with the whole apparatus of determinative ideograms, with the exception of about half a dozen signs, which were employed, not altogether without advantage, to distinguish generically certain classes of words which frequently recur, such as king, god, month, man, road, water, animal. This amounts to little more than the device which we ourselves find convenient, when we use initial capitals to distinguish proper names, when we print words from foreign languages in italics, or mark quotations by means of inverted commas.

The relative simplicity of the (agglutinative) Proto-Medic syllabary, as compared with the (flexive) Assyrian cuneiform from which it was derived, may be exhibited by means of one or two examples. Thus the Proto-Babylonian ideographic picture of an ear , which has already been cited, had acquired in the Assyrian cuneiform no less than seven phonetic and ideographic values. But in the Proto-Medic syllabary it appears in a simplified form, retaining the single primitive syllabic value of pi. In like manner the ancient ideographic picture of the sun ..., which in Assyrian could be rendered in no less than twenty-three different ways, retains in the (agglutinative) Proto-Medic syllabary one only of its values, ut, with the form (Turanian/Horezmian runiform , Asiatic Orkhon , Hellenic u/v, "u", also see Amanjolov Ch 9, Ch. 10, and Conclusion). So also the (agglutinative) Accadian character ... pa, which signified the "royal sceptre," and was originally the picture of the branch of a tree, became in (Turanian) Proto-Medic (Turanian/Horezmian runiform , Asiatic Orkhon "p"), with the single value pa instead of the eight values which it might have in the Assyrian cuneiform.

At a still earlier period the Elamites, who, like the Proto-Medes, spoke an agglutinative language, compiled for themselves a simple syllabary out of existing materials. We possess very scanty remains of the Elamite cuneiform, but it would seem that a limited number of syllabic signs were selected from the Babylonian cuneiform, ideograms and determinatives being almost entirely rejected.

Whether the Cypriote syllabary was derived, according to the hypothesis of Dr. Deecke, from the Assyrian cuneiform, or, as Professor Sayce supposes, from the Hittite Hieroglyphics, must still be regarded as an unsettled question. The account of the Cypriote syllabary, from which several letters in the Lycian alphabet were derived, must be reserved till the time comes for describing the alphabets of Asia Minor. But the Cypriote syllabary is of great interest, inasmuch as it shows that if the Greeks had not obtained their alphabet from the Phoenicians they would before long have succeeded in developing from a wholly different source an alphabet of nearly equal excellence, which would in all probability have ultimately become the parent of the modern alphabets of Western Europe.

The radical nature of the vowel sounds, together with the delicate inflexional machinery of the (flexive) Aryan languages, must be reckoned among the chief reasons why the final stages of alphabetic development should in so many cases have been effected by Aryan nations. So it was that while the (flexive) Ionian Greeks were bringing to perfection the Phoenician alphabet, the (flexive) Dorians of Cyprus were in process of creating an alphabet out of the ancient syllabary of Asia Minor. At a later time the Zend alphabet, with its fifteen vowel signs, was evolved by the Persians (flexive Farsi-speaking) out of the vowelless (flexive) North Semitic alphabet, while the (flexive) South Semitic, passing into the possession of the (flexive) Aryan races of Northern India, became the parent of the most perfect scientific alphabet which has ever been invented.

Hence it can be no matter of surprise to find that the nearest approach to a real alphabet which was attained by the cuneiform writing was effected when, in the time of Darius, it passed from the Semitic and Turanian nations of Western Asia into the hands of the Aryan Persians.

It must, however, be acknowledged that the idea of alphabetism may not improbably have been suggested to the Persians by their acquaintance with the Phoenician alphabet, which, as early as the 8th century B.C., was used in the valley of the Euphrates concurrently with the cuneiform writing. The somewhat artificial plan on which the Persian cuneiform alphabet was constructed favors this belief. According to the very probable explanation given by Oppert, a certain number of cuneiform characters were taken from the (agglutinative Turanian) Proto-Medic syllabary, their forms were regularized and simplified, and their ideographic meanings having been translated into Persian, the first letter of the Persian word thus obtained was assumed, on the acrologic principle, as the new alphabetic value to be assigned to the modified cuneiform character.

The Persian cuneiform, though essentially alphabetic in its principle, yet just stops short of being a pure alphabet. It retains vestiges - survivals we may. call them - of the syllabic writing out of which it sprang. Some of the symbols, such as those for p, b, or f, represent pure consonants, and can be employed indifferently in conjunction with any one of the three Persian vowel signs; but in the case of some of the consonantal sounds, such as k or m, the character appears to have possessed a sort of inherent vowel sound, since the symbol which is employed varies in accordance with the nature of the vowel which is to follow. These curious survivals from a prior syllabic stage needlessly multiply the Persian alphabetic symbols: eleven of them might have been discarded without disadvantage. If, after a brief existence of about a century, the Persian cuneiform had not been superseded by the Semitic alphabet, it is probable that the thirty-six symbols would have been ultimately reduced to a pure alphabet of twenty-five characters.

In addition to these vestiges of a prior syllabism, a few ideographic characters are retained, as in the (agglutinative Turanian) Proto-Medic syllabary, to designate certain frequently recurring words, such as king, country, son, name, and Persian.

An example or two will show better than any explanation the ingenious manner in which the Persian alphabet was constructed out of existing materials. The origin of the characters used for m {a) and m (i) will serve as convenient illustrations. In the archaic Babylonian we find the compound ideogram ...standing for the two words nun and zil, which mean "lord" or "master."

The character seems originally to have formed a representation of a sceptre, the first portion being the picture of the branch of a tree, and the second of a hand, the vertical wedge denoting the wrist, and the horizontal strokes the thumb and fingers. In the Assyrian cuneiform only the first part of the symbol is retained, and we have the character ... standing for the Semitic word rubu, "prince," or "master," allied to rabu, "great," which we recognize in the Assyrian name Rabshakeh and the Hebrew Rabbi. The Persian equivalent is mathista, an Indo-European word which is familiar to us under the forms μεγιστος, magister, and master. Hence we see the reason why the Persian character ... came to be selected acrologically for the initial sound of mathista, and stands in the alphabet for m when followed by a.

When, however, m is followed by i, the Persian character is ... This seems to have been obtained acrologically from the Persian mizda, an Aryan word cognate with the Greek μισθος and the English meed, and which is equivalent to the Proto-Babylonian ... di, a "reward" or "recompense." The primitive meaning of di seems to have been "ending" or "rest," and the symbol may be traced back to the linear Babylonian form ..., which is an ideographic picture of the setting sun. The first part of the Persian letter m (i) is therefore seen to be the outline of the sun, while the two horizontal wedges represent parallel bars of cloud near the horizon.

Two more instances may be added. In the linear Babylonian the ideogram ..., which forms a portion of the last symbol, is a picture intended to represent the "sun." In the archaic Babylonian, which was written with wedges instead of lines, the symbol becomes ..., and is used as a phonogram for the Turanian word ut, "sun." In the Assyrian Cuneiform, as we have already seen, the character is written ..., with the wedges rearranged for greater convenience in writing, and is used phonographically to denote the syllable ut, and also as an ideogram for the Semitic word samsu, the "sun," which appears in the name of Samson. In the Proto-Medic syllabary the symbol becomes with the sole syllabic value ut. The (Farsi) Persian word kuru (cognate of Türkic kün and gün) is the translation of the Turanian and Semitic words. Hence in the Persian alphabet the character stands for the letter k when followed by u (Türkic runic - N.Causasian, - Danube, "q", from S.Baichorov Alphabet Table; - Asiatic Enisei and Orkhon, "q (y)", from Amanjolov Alphabet Table).

Another curious instance is afforded by the Persian ... g(u), the initial sound of the word gusaka, which is the Persian equivalent of ..., which stands for the Assyrian sepu and the Accadian ner, a "foot." The Assyrian character may be connected by means of a series of intermediate forms with the linear Babylonian ideogram which shows that the Persian letter is the picture of a foot, the double wedge to the left standing for the ancle, the two small horizontal wedges being the sandals, while the two longer horizontal wedges represent respectively the instep and the sole.

These instances are given not only as examples of the curious remoteness of the primitive ideas out of which the characters of the Persian alphabet were acrologically evolved, but because they help to establish a general law of great importance. The chief lesson to be learned is the universal prevalence of the law of Evolution. In dealing with the history of writing we are met by the same phenomenon which is so conspicuous in the history of language, namely, the fact that there is no such thing as arbitrary invention. The written symbols of speech are subject to the laws of evolution as absolutely as plants or animals, or the spoken words of speech. Thus the processes by which the Persian alphabetic signs were evolved from existing characters, themselves the remote descendants of primitive pictures, may help us to understand the no less wonderful series of evolutions by which the letters of our own alphabet have descended from the primitive hieroglyphic pictures of the Egyptian monuments.

The great trilingual Behistun inscription exhibits in a very striking manner the three chief stages of the development of the cuneiform writing, in its gradual progress from ideograms and phonograms, through syllabism, to an alphabetic system.

The three columns of this inscription contain three versions of the famous historical edict of Darius; in one the language is (flexive) Aryan, in another (agglutinative) Turanian (now called Elamite), in the third it is (flexive) Semitic. The third column contains a version written in the cumbrous Semitic cuneiform, with its 500 symbols - ideograms, phonograms, and homophones. Side by side with this, there appears in the second column the (agglutinative) Proto-Medic translation, written in a syllabary of ninety-six pure syllabic signs, accompanied by seven surviving ideograms, while the (flexive) Persian version in the first column exhibits a graphic system limited to thirty-six alphabetic signs, four only of the primitive ideograms being retained.

Chapter 3. The Primitive Letters

3. PHONETIC POWERS OF THE LETTERS (Citations pertaining to the Altaic/Turanian, much is ommited)



There is no reason to suppose that Semitic speech has been unaffected by the processes of phonetic decay which have taken place in other languages. The sounds, as well as the forms of the ancient letters, have doubtless undergone considerable variation.

In the Semitic languages there are two whole classes of guttural sounds which are foreign to European speech. These are, first, the so-called linguals or gutturo-dentals ; and secondly, the guttural breaths or faucal sounds.

The 'faucal breaths' as well as the linguals, are characteristic of the Semitic languages. They are 'aleph, he, cheth, 'ayin. Of these faucal sounds aleph, which corresponds to the spiritus lenis of the Greeks, was the lightest. ...It is not a semi-vowel, nor even an aspiration, but a slightly explosive consonant, approaching the sound which may be heard in English after the words no! or bah! uttered abruptly, or between two vowels which are pronounced separately, as in aorta or go 'over.

The Semitic alphabet is characterized not only by symbols for these peculiar sounds, unknown in Aryan (i.e. IE) languages, but by the still more important fact of the absence of any true signs for vowels.

It seems probable that in the old Semitic there were only three distinct vowel sounds, a (in father) the Italian i (English e) and u. The way in which these vowel sounds could be expressed demands a few words of explanation.

The letters yod י and vau ו are semi-consonants, or rather consonantal vowels, and may usually be transliterated by y and v. But y passes readily into i and v into u. Hence, in the later stages of the Semitic alphabet, yod and vau come to be used with increasing frequency to denote the cognate vowel sounds y and u. The vowel a was regularly omitted, except at the end of a word, when it was denoted either by he or aleph.

Looking at these facts, it is perhaps not too much to assert that we may trace in the Semitic alphabet a faint survival of the Egyptian syllabism out of which it grew. ...each of the primitive Semitic consonants really contained a as an inherent vowel, which could, however, be replaced or eclipsed by the sounds of i or u, expressed by yod or vau. This view is supported by the fact that at the beginning of a syllable these letters have the semi-consonantal sounds of y and v, acquiring a vocalic power only when preceded by a consonant.

Hence the Semitic alphabet seems to occupy a position intermediate between the purely syllabic and the purely alphabetic stage. It is something more than a syllabary, but something less than a perfect alphabet. That this should have been originally the case can be readily explained by its Egyptian
 derivation, but that it should never have advanced beyond this stage is doubtless due to the nature of the Semitic languages, which differ in their structure from all other known idioms. The ultimate roots of Semitic words are tri-consonantal, and must originally have been tri-syllabic in pronunciation. From these tri-literal roots words were formed by means of pronominal roots either prefixed or suffixed. Hence arises the characteristic feature of the Semitic languages, the interior vowel changes within the stem. For instance, we have the root k-t-b with the meaning "write." As a tri-syllable, with the vowel a, we get kataba, "he has written," and with a change of vowel we have kutaba, "it has been written," kātabu, "writing," and katūbu "written."

k-t-b "write"
kataba "he has written"
kutaba "it has been written"
kātabu "writing"
katūbu "written"

  It is obvious that a language whose osseous skeleton, so to speak, is built up solely out of consonants, is suited to a form of writing which fixes only the consonants. Thus the Semites, owing to the nature of their language, were able, in their writing, to depict the words by an outline sketch which the intelligence of the reader could sufficiently fill in. It is equally plain that in an Aryan (i.e. IE) language, in which the vowels do not play that subsidiary part which they do in Semitic speech, such a mere framework of consonantal sounds would not suffice to make the writing fairly intelligible without a full representation of vowel sounds.

In English, for example, the three consonants g-r-n, instead of being constant to one radical meaning, as in a Semitic language, belong to words so wholly unconnected as green, grin, grown, groin, grain, and groan. It is manifest that in such a language as our own it would be impossible, without a full representation of the vowel sounds, to make written words fairly intelligible to the reader; and hence, in those Aryan or Turanian graphic systems which have arisen out of the Semitic alphabet, an appropriate vowel notation has necessarily been evolved.

On page 49 Isaac Taylor mentioned "delicate inflexional machinery of the Aryan languages", also in need of vowels, illustrated with English get and Russian glas "voice".

k-t-b "write" get "get [something]"
kataba "he has written" got "got [something]"
kutaba "it has been written" glas "voice"
kātabu "writing" golosit "scream"
katūbu "written" glasit "proclaim"

The vowel sounds being thus indefinite and variable in Semitic languages, instead of being fixed and radical as in our own, the result has been, that even in the latest Semitic alphabets the breaths and semi-consonants of the primitive Semitic alphabet have retained their original character, instead of having become transformed into true vowels or true consonants, as in the alphabets of non-Semitic languages.

An account of the elaborate system of vowel points, as developed in Syriac, Arabic, and mediaeval Hebrew, belongs rather to Semitic grammar than to the history of the Alphabet.

Chapter 5. The Aramean Alphabets

6. SYRIAC (As pertains to the Türks, Mongols, and Tungusic Manchus)


Attention has been already drawn to the fact that the later developments of the Aramean alphabet were determined mainly by religious causes. From the Aramean of the Seleucidan epoch sprang four great literary alphabets, which conserve the sacred books of the four great religions of Western Asia. The variety of the Aramean alphabet in which the Koran chanced to be composed goes by the name of Arabic; the Aramean of the Jewish dispersion is called Hebrew ; Parsi is the Aramean alphabet of the Zoroastrians; while Syriac is the name used to designate the Aramean of the Christian peoples of the East. But since the people who were called Syrians by the Greeks knew themselves by the name of Arameans, we may expect to find that the Syriac language and the Syriac script are the lineal representatives of the language and script of ancient Aram.

From the 6th century B.C., as we have already seen, (p. 246), the Aramaic speech began to extend itself beyond its original limits, and owing to political and commercial causes gradually became the lingua franca of the Seleucidan empire, supplanting one by one the contiguous Semitic languages - Assyrian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and Phoenician. The Aramean alphabet attained an even wider extension than the Aramaic speech, and at length extirpated all the independent North Semitic scripts.

In the early Christian centuries the Mesopotamian city of Edessa rose to great importance, becoming the head-quarters of Aramean culture, as Antioch was of Grecian learning. From the second to the seventh century, which was the flourishing period of Syriac literature, Edessa was the seat of a great theologic school. Here, soon after the close of the second century, was made the Syriac translation of the Scriptures which goes by the name of the Peshito version, and this helped to give a wide diffusion among all Aramean peoples to the local dialect and alphabet of Edessa.

The conquests of the Arabs, and the consequent spread of the faith of Islam, brought the Arabic speech and the Meccan type of the Aramean alphabet into competition with the language of Aram and the alphabet of Edessa, which had prevailed so widely for many centuries. In the 8th century Syriac rapidly declined, and soon nearly disappeared as a living language. It now survives mainly as the liturgical language of the Jacobite Christians of Aleppo and of the Maronites of the Lebanon, while as a spoken tongue it is represented only by a few Neo-Syrian dialects which linger on the shores of Lake Urumiah in North - Western Persia, and in the mountains of Kurdistan.

The Syriac alphabet has shared the fortunes of the Syriac language. Like its near congener the Palmyrene, it is descended from the Aramean alphabet of the second epoch. Several of the peculiarities which distinguish the Syriac alphabet from the Palmyrene are exhibited on certain coins struck at Edessa during the 1st century A.D., and also in a bilingual inscription on a tomb at Jerusalem, which must be earlier than the siege by Titus, and which seems to relate to some person connected with Helena, Queen of Adiabene. Hence we learn that the development of the Syriac alphabet as a distinct script commenced as early as the 1 st century ; and also that the Syriac was not, as has been supposed, derived from the Palmyrene, but was an independent development from a common source.

The form of the Syriac alphabet which prevailed during the flourishing period of Syrian culture is called the ESTRANGELO. Of this name the usual explanation, first propounded by Michaelis, and adopted by Adler, Land, and Lenormant, derives it from two Arabic words which signify 'the writing of the Gospels.' In support of this etymology it is alleged that the older uncial characters were retained for copies of the Scriptures, after they had been replaced for ordinary purposes by more cursive scripts.

Noldeke, however, the latest and best authority, prefers, and apparently with good reason, an older derivation, first suggested by Assemani, from the Greek στρογγυλη, 'rounded,' a term which would appropriately distinguish the bold uncial forms of the Estrangelo letters from the later cursive script which the Syrians call SERTA, or 'linear.' This is the correct name for the modern Western minuscule which often goes by the name of PESHITO, a Syriac word meaning 'simple/'usual,' 'common,' applied to distinguish the ordinary script from the more archaic and elaborate writing employed for liturgical purposes. (Skipped) The Serta, or 'linear' script, which is the correct designation of modern Syriac, was probably so called, as Hoffmann has suggested, because of the characteristic horizontal line or ligature which unites the lower portions of the letters, and thus distinguishes it from the Estrangelo, or 'rounded' character.

The most ancient dated Syriac MS .that has comedown to us was written in the year 411 A.D.,1 and exhibits the Estrangelo character in its full perfection. Down to the end of this (18th) century the Estrangelo continued to be the sole Syriac script. At the beginning of the 6th century it began to develop the more cursive forms which gradually replaced it; but till the 8th century, when it fell altogether into disuse, the Estrangelo continued to be employed for uncial manuscripts and ornate codices.

The Estrangelo differs from the Palmyrene in being a literary rather than a lapidary script. Hence, as in all cursive alphabets, the tendency is to increase the breadth and to diminish the height of the letters, and more especially so to modify their forms as to make it easy to unite them by ligatures. In the Aramean of Egypt, where ligatures first appear, they are used only for three or four letters ; in the Palmyrene the number is increased to twelve characters, whose forms chanced to be such as make it easy to unite them with either the preceding or the following letter. But when we come to the Estrangelo we find that ligatures are employed in the case of every letter of the alphabet, a fact which sufficiently accounts for the great apparent changes in the alphabetic forms.

1 This beautiful Codex is among the treasures of the British Museum (Add. MSS. no. 12,150). It contains the Clementine Recognitions and two treatises by Eusebius. A facsimile has been published by the Palaeographical Society, Oriental Series, vol. i, plate II ; Wright, Catalogue of Syriac MSS., plate 1; also by Land, Anecdota Syriaea, vol. i., plates 2 and 4, and p. 65. See Cureton, Festal Letters of Athanasius, pp. xv. to xxvi.


That the universal use of ligatures must necessarily modify the outlines of the letters is easily seen. The case of the Roman minuscules, and the cursive forms derived from them, explains the mode in which such influences operate. It is easy to see, for instance, that the forms of the letters b f g h p r have been transmuted into b f g h p r, , because the script formation offers greater facilities for obtaining speed by joining letters. Now, if the reader will compare the Palmyrene and the Syriac forms given in the Table on the opposite page (see simplified Syriac table below), he will see that the changes in the letters which have undergone the greatest amount of alteration, such as olaf, he, heth, teth, shin, and tau, can thus be readily explained. To the same cause is due the startling difference which is sometimes found between the initial and final forms of the same letter, as in the following cases (ommited):

Up to the close of the 5th century there is only one Syriac script, the Estrangelo. The style in fashion at Edessa prevailed over the whole Syrian region, both in the Roman and the Persian provinces. This unity of type was brought to an end by the great heresies, and the consequent schisms, of the 5th and following centuries. The replacement of the Estrangelo by a variety of cursive scripts was influenced in a most curious manner by theological disputes which turned on the most subtle metaphysical distinctions.

Some of the secondary Syriac alphabets - Nestorian, Jacobite (and, as can be seen from the Syriac table below, the  Türkic, Mongol, and Tungusic Manchus) and  Maronite - derive their very names from Syrian heresiarchs. The History of the Alphabet at this period is therefore inextricably involved with the history of minute theological distinctions, and of the great councils which were summoned to pronounce upon them.

The earliest of these schisms, that which takes its name from Nestorius, had a greater influence on the development and diffusion of the alphabet than any single event that can be named, save the rise of Islam, and actually resulted in transporting a form of the 5th century alphabet of Edessa as far as the southern extremity of India, and the remote shores of China.

Nestorius, a Syrian who was Bishop of Constantinople, doubted whether the Virgin Mary should be styled Θεοτοκοσ, the 'mother of God.' (in today's lingo Nestorians are Monophysites, a three-partite Christian euphemism for Monotheists, see M.Adji Tengrianizm and Christianity) The Council of Ephesus, usually called the Third General Council, was summoned by (Eastern Roman emperor, 408-450) Theodosius (II) the Younger, and met in 431 to decide the question. By the violence of Cyril of Alexandria, who presided at the council, Nestorius was condemned unheard, deposed, and banished. Our involuntary sympathy with the victim makes it easy to understand how warmly the Oriental provinces espoused his cause. Barsumus, a doctor of Edessa, who was a zealous partisan of Nestorius, having been ejected from his chair, took refuge in Persia, and in 435 became Bishop of Nisibis, where he founded a school of theology in rivalry of that of Edessa.


The reigning Sassanian monarch, Firoz, who espoused the cause of the Nestorians, made over to them the patriarchal See of Ctesiphon (Seleucia), and expelled their opponents from Persia, just as the Nestorians themselves had been driven from those parts of Syria which were subject to Constantinople. From the school of Nisibis proceeded those bands of adventurous missionaries who during the 6th and the succeeding centuries spread the Nestorian tenets over Egypt, Arabia, India, Tartary (18th c. term for Türkic lands) and China.

The more vehement opponents of Nestorius naturally transgressed, in an opposite direction, the strict line of orthodoxy. This reaction from Nestorianism took shape in the heresy of the Monophysites, who were led by Eutychus. The Council of Chalcedon, called the Fourth General Council, which was summoned by (Eastern Roman emperor, 450-457) Marcian in 451, condemned the Eutychian doctrines. As the Eastern Syrians were mainly Nestorians, so the Syrians of the West sided for the most part with the Eutychians; but those Syrian Christians who, though not Greeks, followed the doctrines of the Greek Church as declared at the Council of Chalcedon, were called by their opponents, by way of reproach, MELCHITES, 'royalists' or 'imperialists,' because they submitted to the edict of Marcian in favor of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon.

The JACOBITES were the followers of Jacob Baradaeus, a monk who revived in the next century the languishing Monophysite heresy, and died Bishop of Edessa in 578. By his untiring energy he converted to the Eutychian creed the Syrian, Armenian (and thus, the Uigur script is largely identical  to Armenian, both being in the I.Taylor's terminology Jacobite scripts, see simplified Syriac table below), Coptic, and Abyssinian Churches; so that to this day the Patriarch of Antioch is a Jacobite, as well as the Patriarch of Alexandria, whose jurisdiction is still acknowledged by the remote Primate of Abyssinia.

The Monothelites (a three-partite Christian euphemism for basically Monotheists), a sect who adopted in a modified form the views of the Monophysites, were condemned by the Sixth General Council in 680. Their opinions took root among the Mardaites, a people of Lebanon, who about the end of the 7th century received the name of MARONITES, from Maro their first Bishop. They afterwards abjured the Monothelite heresy, (renamed their views Miaphysitism), and were admitted into communion with Rome in 1182.

We can now trace the effects of these successive schisms on the fortunes of the Syriac alphabet. The Christians of Persia were exclusively Nestorian, so that the line which divided the Sassanian kingdom from the Roman empire severed also the Churches of the East from the culture of the ancient school of Edessa. Henceforward the Syriac alphabet is parted into two branches, the Eastern and the Western, which pursued their independent developments. The Nestorian, or, as it is sometimes called, the Syro-Chaldaic alphabet, is merely the Syriac alphabet as it was used in the Sassanian realm.

The Nestorians took with them that form of the Estrangelo which prevailed at the time of the schism. We possess Nestorian MSS. dated in the years 600 and 768 A.D., but the forms vary little from the Estrangelo of the 6th century. The distinctive Nestorian peculiarities make their earliest appearance in a MS. written at Haran in 899 A.D. The modern Nestorian, as now used by the Syro-Chaldee Churches (Assyrian Churches) in the Persian province of Azerbijan, exhibits somewhat more cursive forms, but is nevertheless the most archaic of existing Syriac scripts.

It was probably about the 9th century that the Nestorian alphabet was carried by Nestorian missionaries to India, where it is still used by their converts, the so-called "Christians of St. Thomas," on the Malabar coast. Nine additional characters have been borrowed from the Malayalim, a local Indian alphabet, in order to express certain peculiar Dravidian sounds. The original twenty-two Syriac letters have however remained almost absolutely true to the Nestorian forms of the 9th century. This curious composite alphabet is called KARSHUNI, a term whose meaning is unknown, though it is probably of Syrian origin, being also applied by the Maronites to the Syriac characters in which Arabic is sometimes written.

It is not only on the Indian Ocean that we find traces of the successful labors of the Nestorian missionaries. Soon after the schism they penetrated among the Turkic hordes of Central Asia, and even crossed the great Wall of China. The Mongolian, the Kalmuk, and the Manchu alphabets, to whose singular history the next section will be devoted, are found to resolve themselves into slightly disguised forms of the Estrangelo alphabet as it was at the time of the Nestorian schism.

Within the Roman frontier the fortunes of the Syriac alphabet were less eventful. In the 6th century the Jacobite revival of the Eutychian heresy divided the Western Syriac alphabet into two branches, a northern and a southern. The Syrians of Palestine, who remained in communion with the Orthodox Church, are known by the name of Melchites, while the northern Syrians followed Jacob Baradseus, who became Bishop of Edessa. The modern Jacobites, who may be said to continue the Syrian Church and alphabet in the line of direct descent, are now under the Patriarch of Antioch. Their alphabet differs little from that of the Maronites of the Lebanon, and goes by the names of Modern Syriac, Peshito, or Serta. The types in column iv. of the Table on p. 288 (see simplified Syriac table below) were cut under the direction of the present Patriarch of Antioch, and represent the Jacobite alphabet of the 12th or 13th century.1 The modern Jacobite, or Serta, will be found in column v. of the same Table.

1 Cf. Land, Anec. Syr., vol. i., plate xxi.


Of the alphabet used by the Melchites of Palestine, whose separation from the other Syrians dates from the Council of Chalcedon, two widely different forms are known, - an early uncial form which is found in three very ancient MSS, which probably belong to the 7 th or possibly to the 6th century, and a later cursive form employed in numerous MSS from Nitria and elsewhere, dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries. These two forms are so distinct that they may conveniently be distinguished by separate names. The uncial Melchite, called Hierosolymitan by Adler and Hoffmann, goes generally by the name of the Syro-Palestinian.1 This remarkable alphabet preserves and exaggerates many of the most archaic features of the Estrangelo, but, as Land has suggested, it has doubtless been affected by an intentional imitation of the style of Byzantine manuscripts. The Melchites being the only Syrians who remained in communion with the orthodox Greek Church, this Byzantine influence can be easily accounted for. The later cursive Melchite is wholly unlike the Syro-Palestinian, and is the most deformed of all Syriac scripts.

1 See col. ii. of the Table on p. 288. Cf. land, Anec. 6yr., vol. i., p. 89; Wright, Catalogue of Syriac MSS., plate 18; Noldeke, Syr. Gram., col. 5 of the Schrifttafel.


The evidence of Greek influence is not confined to the Syro-Palestinian alphabet, but is curiously exhibited by the Jacobite adoption of superscribed Greek vowels in place of the primitive Syriac system of points. The five vowel sounds a, e, o, i, u, which in the older notation were indicated by the points ..., are conveniently expressed by the symbols ... , which are merely the Greek vowels A E O H Y turned upon their sides.1

It is doubtful whether the singular Mendaite character 2 should be classed among the Syriac alphabets. It is used by the people who are variously called Sabeans, Nazarenes, Galileans, or Christians of St. John, but who call themselves Mendai. They inhabit a region on the lower Euphrates, near Bassora. They retain vestiges of the Magian planetary worship, combined with a rudimentary Christian teaching, and they practice certain rites which have been supposed to be of Jewish origin. Their language is Aramaic, approaching to the Talmudic Chaldee, and they possess a very ancient literature, written partly in the Nabathean dialect, and partly in the Sabean, of which the "Book of Adam" is the most important relic. Their alphabet is of a character as composite as their religious beliefs, exhibiting affinities with alphabets of varied types. It is probably based on the ancient local Aramean of Chaldea which is exhibited in the legends on the coins of the Kings of Characene, assigned to the 2nd century A.D., and in an inscription at Abushadr.3 Some of the letters, such as aleph, seem to be Nabathean.

1 The reason why this prone position was adopted will be presently explained. See p. 306 infra.
2 Given in column viii. of the Table on p. 288.
3 The alphabet of this inscription, which is conjecturally assigned to the 5th century A.D., is given in column iii. of the Table on p. 326. It belongs to the Nabathean type.


The long supremacy of the Sassanian kings may possibly account for certain Pehlevi forms, while the Syriac mould into which the alphabet has been cast seems to bear witness to Nestorian influence.4 The vowel notation is unique, degraded forms of aleph, vau, and yod being suffixed to the consonants so as to form a sort of syllabary, which finds its nearest analogue in the methods by which the vowels are denoted in the Ethiopic and the old Indian writing.

4 The forms of several Mendaite letters, such as h, r, s, find their nearest analogues in the Mongolian (Uigur) alphabet.

Chapter 5. The Aramean Alphabets

7. MONGOLIAN (Actually, pertains to the Türks, Mongols, and Tungusic Manchus)

(This section talks about Uigur alphabet, not to be confused with Sogdian alphabet and Türkic runiform alphabet. After dismembering the Second Türkic Kaganate in 740 AD, and reorganizing it as Uigur Kaganate, at first the new Kaganate continued to use Türkic runiform alphabet, evidenced by tombstone epitaphs of its first Kagans. Later, after gaining dominance over Jeti-su, Uigur Kaganate switched to Jacobite Manichean script, mistaken by early Russian Christian explorers of the 18th c. for Nestorian script, see Manichean History, Ancient Türks, and Hun strongest tribe Esgil (Esegil) )


Turning from the scripts of the cultured Semitic nations, we have now to examine the alphabets used by the Ural-Altaic races of Central Asia.

These tribes have possessed three alphabets of distinct origin. The first is the Syriac alphabet introduced by the Nestorian missionaries, the diffusion of which forms one of the most curious episodes in the whole History of the Alphabet; the second is an Indian alphabet obtained from the Buddhists of Tibet; the third is the Arabic alphabet which came in with the Mohammedan (Islamic) conquest.

The introduction of each of these three alphabets was due to religious causes. It is because Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam have been the great aggressive missionary religions, that the alphabets of their sacred books have spread so widely that they may be said to share the world between them. Religious proselytism has proved to be more potent in effecting the dissemination of alphabets than even political or commercial influences.

Certainly no cause could seem to be more inadequate than a decree of an obscure council at Ephesus dealing with an abstruse point of theosophic speculation, yet it sufficed to cause the local alphabet of a remote Syrian city to become the parent of a family of alphabets which stretch more or less continuously across Central Asia, from the Volga in the West to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in the furthest East.

Simplified illustrations showing origin of Uigur and Ottoman Turkic alphabets.
Uigur branch is assocoated with Manichean, and not Nestorian branch
from page 288 from page 92

The researches of Klaproth and of Abel-Remusat,1 at the beginning of the present (18th) century, finally set at rest the question as to the nature and affinities of the Tartar (Türkic)ic and Mongolian alphabets. When once the Nestorian clue had been discovered all serious difficulty ceased. The ancient forms of the letters have suffered so little change, that Vambery found that a Nestorian from Urumiah (Urumchi) was able without assistance to decipher parts of an ancient Tartar (Türkic) manuscript which had been written at Herat.

1 Klaproth, Abhandlung iiber die Sprache und Schrift der Uiguren, 1812 ; Abel-Remusat, Recherches sur les langues tartans, 1820.


The Nestorian schism dates from the 5th century. Within a hundred years the Nestorian missionaries who were sent forth from Nisibis passed the eastern limits of the Sassanian kingdom, and went out into the regions beyond. About the beginning of the 7th century they reached Kashgar, which seems to have become the chief centre of their mission work, and from hence they spread themselves among the surrounding Tartar (Türkic) tribes. So successful were their missionary enterprises that, by the beginning of the 8th century, Nestorian archbishoprics had been established at Herat, at Samarkand, and even in China itself.1

Any skepticism which might be entertained as to the extent of the Nestorian enterprise must disappear in face of an inscription which was accidentally dug up in the year 1625 at Sin-gan-fu in China. It is engraved on a stone slab, about six feet by three, with a cross carved at the top. It bears a date corresponding to 781 A.D., and contains an abstract of Christian doctrine in Chinese characters. The names of the Nestorian patriarch, of the bishop, and of several priests are appended, written in an alphabet which proves to be excellent Estrangelo. The genuineness of this inscription, which at one time was doubted, has been established by Pauthier, and has been fully accepted by Klaproth, Abel-Remusat, and Renan.2

1 The scattered notices which refer to the establishment of the Nestorian missions in Central Asia and China have been collected by Col. Yule, Cathay and the Way thither, Preliminary Essay, pp. 88 to 101.
2 See Renan, Langues Semitiques, third edition, p. 290.


Naturally the art of writing took its chief hold among those of the Tartar (Türkic) tribes who were most advanced in civilization. These were the Uigurs -  the Ogres of old romance - who were the ruling race in the regions now known as the Khanates of Khiva and Bokhara. They were the earliest of the tribes of Central Asia to adopt the Nestorian writing, which for a considerable time remained chiefly in their possession. In the 12th and 13th centuries Uigurs were employed almost exclusively by Genghis Khan and his three immediate successors as secretaries, chancellors, and physicians. The Uigur alphabet was thus established as the usual medium of written intercourse throughout the vast region over which the Mongol Empire extended, and it became the parent of the existing alphabets of the more barbarous tribes - the Mongols, the Kalmuks, and the Manchus (for a better informed background on tribes and peoples that adopted Manichaeism and Nestorianism in the Late Antique period, see Yu.A.Zuev Early Türks and Barthold Central Asia.)

In the 13th century Marco Polo found many Christians among the Turkic and Mongolic tribes, and even in China itself, but with the progress of Islam Christianity disappeared and Buddhism retreated. Among the Uigurs themselves the Nestorian writing gave place to Arabic, which is now used exclusively in the Khanates (18th century Central Asia before Russian conquest), so that the alphabets derived from the Nestorian missionaries are now employed only among the hordes of Mongol blood who are still beyond the pale of Islam.

A most important and curious relic of the ancient Uigur literature and alphabet has recently been brought to light. This MS., which is now at Vienna, is a copy made in the fifteenth century of a Tartar (Türkic) poem composed in the eleventh century.1 It is of unique interest, literary, palaeographical, and linguistic The MS. is entitled the Kudatku Bilik, which may be translated "the blessed knowledge." It is a somewhat lengthy poem treating of the duties, virtues, vices, and characters of persons in every position of life - princes and subjects, parents and children, husbands and wives, physicians, generals, merchants, peasants, and servants. The Kudatku Bilik, though it took its present form after the conversion of the Turkic tribes to Islam, yet reflects the Pre-Islamite state of thought and morals, giving a most curious insight into the primitive beliefs and civilizations of the tribes of central Asia, and is of interest inasmuch as it is the earliest specimen of literary effort among any of the Turkic races.

1 From a colophon at the end of the Vienna MS., we learn that it was written at Herat in the year 843 A.H. Thirty-six years later it was taken from Herat to Tokat, and from thence to Sta'mbul, where it was ultimately acquired by the Baron Hammer-Purgstall, from whose possession it passed to the Imperial Library at Vienna. The MS. professes to be a copy of another which was written in 463 A.H , nineteen years after the death of Bogra Khan, in whose reign it purports to have been composed. It has been excellently edited by Vdmbery, Uigurische Sprachmonumente und das Kudatku Bilik. (Innsbruck, 1870.)


From a philological point of view it is important, insomuch as it constitutes the oldest existing monument of Tartaric (Türkic) speech (not counting the Chinese, Greek, and Türkic runiform sources), occupying in relation to the Turkic group of languages the same position that the translation of the Gospels by Ulphilas bears to the Teutonic dialects. Palaeographically it supplies the earliest existing specimen of the Nestorian alphabet as adapted to the use of the Ugro-Altaic tribes, thus furnishing the connecting link between the Nestorian writing and the various Mongolian alphabets.

The most important of these alphabets is the Mongolian Proper, which is used by the Khalkas and other Mongolian Buddhists who are found north of the desert of Gobi. It has diverged less from the Nestorian than any other of the Mongolian alphabets, except the Uigur.

During the reign of Kublai Khan (1259 to 1294) and his successors, the Uigur alphabet, under the influence of Buddhist teachers, was developed and adapted to the needs of Mongolic speech by the adoption of five additional letters from the alphabet of Tibet. The enlarged alphabet thus formed is called the Mongol Galik, from the Sanskrit Ka-lekah,1 the name given to the Indian alphabet.

1 The formation of this word is analogous to that of alphabetum, abecedarium, futhorc, bobeloth, and other names of alphabets. It is compounded oika, the first letter of the Nagari alphabet, and the Sanskrit lekah, l writing.'

At the beginning of the 17th century the Kalmuks, a branch of the Eleut Mongols (Altai Türks), brought a simplified form of the Mongol Galik alphabet with them when they settled on the lower Volga, where it is employed for the preservation of some fragmentary remains of Buddhist literature.

At the other extremity of Asia the Mongol alphabet was adopted at some unknown period by the Manchus, a Tungusic tribe, who overran the Chinese empire at the beginning of the 17th century, and who supply (as of 18th century) the ruling dynasty of China. The Manchu alphabet, which has developed a large number of additional symbols, is also used by the Buriat Mongols, who are settled to the north of the Baikal (18th century before Russian conquest).

These various Mongolian  (and Türkic) scripts are much alike, but seem to present little external resemblance to the Syriac, from which they were derived. The difference is, however, merely superficial, being due principally to the altered direction of the writing.

The Mongolian (Uigur) is written in vertical columns from the top to the bottom of the page, as in the accompanying specimen, which contains the first four clauses of the Lord's Prayer. Syriac is written in horizontal lines from right to left; and it is only necessary to turn the Mongolian writing through an angle of 90, and its resemblance to Syriac becomes at once conspicuous.

Customary Turned 90

Abel-Remusat suggested that the vertical writing of the Mongols (Uigurs) was an imitation of the Chinese practice. This explanation, however, can easily be shown to be insufficient, as in that case the lines would begin, as in Chinese, at the right hand margin of the paper instead of from the left, as is the case. The arrangement of the lines proves that the Mongolian (Uigur) writing is the Syriac turned round, the lines in the three scripts being arranged as follows:



The true explanation was first pointed out by Bayer. At the time when the Nestorian writing was introduced into Central Asia, the Syrian scribes, as the grammarians inform us, were themselves accustomed to write from the top to the bottom of the page, the writing being turned round into the usual position in order to be read (that's a fascinating Semitic way, written vertically and read horizontally). That the Nestorian missionaries also wrote thus is shown by the inscription at Sin-gan-fu, in which the Estrangelo characters are disposed in vertical lines.

This habitude of writing explains some curious phenomena which are exhibited by ancient Syriac MSS. Thus in some Syriac codices we find Greek marginal notes written at right angles to the lines of the text, proving that the scribes who were accustomed to write Syriac vertically, wrote Greek in horizontal lines, as we do ourselves. Land cites an instance from a MS., now in the British Museum,1 which was written in the 6th century, soon after the Nestorian schism. The scribe, in order to fill up a vacant space, scribbled, in Greek letters, the word Abraam, and then transliterated it in Estrangelo characters. If he had been in the habit of writing in horizontal lines, this experiment in Greek calligraphy would have been written with the Estrangelo characters correspondingly arranged below the Greek characters. Instead of this, the Syriac letters are at right angles to the Greek, whence it appears that the lines of the parchment on which he was writing must have been held in a vertical position. Hence we obtain a simple explanation of the prone position of the superscribed Greek letters which were used to denote the vowels in Jacobite manuscripts (see p. 295). The Greek letters were naturally written as they would appear in Greek, and hence when the writing is turned round they appear to be lying on their sides.

1 British Museum Add. MSS., No. 14,558, folio 171; Land, Ana. Syr., vol. i. p. 60, and plate vii. No. 27.


The practice of writing in vertical lines was probably a mere matter of convenience. As the pen moves from right to left across the paper the fingers which support the hand are apt to blot the word that has last been written, an inconvenience which is obviated by the adoption of vertical lines. At the same time the thick connecting ligature which is so characteristic of Syriac and Mongolian scripts, and from which the Serta (Peshito) writing derives its name, can be produced more easily by a downward stroke than by a lateral movement of the pen, as will easily be discovered by an attempt to copy the Mongolian Paternoster given above.

The practice of writing in vertical lines, which was discontinued by the Syrians in the 13th century, was permanently retained by the Mongols, possibly because the practice facilitated the interlinear translation of Chinese documents.

In comparing the Mongolian (Uigur) letters with their Syriac prototypes it is necessary to replace them in the original position in order to recognize the resemblance. This has been done in the Table on the following page (ommited).1 Column iv. exhibits the Mongolian letters in their customary position. Column iii. contains the same letters turned round, so as to correspond with the Uigur letters from the Kudatku Bilik which are given in column ii., and also with the probable 2 Syriac prototypes in column i. Column v. shows the greatly developed alphabet employed by the Buriat Mongols and the Manchus.

1 This table gives only a summary of results. The evidence for the various identifications would occupy a space greater than would be warranted by its interest or importance. As regards the Mongolian letters, the sources of information are indicated in Vambery's Uigurische Sprachmonumente and in chapter viii. of Lenormant's Alphabet Ph'cnicien. For the Syriac forms, see Euting's Schrifttafd in Noldeke's Syrische Grammatik, and Land's Anecdota Syriaca..
2 The letters of dubious attribution are placed in a separate Table (ommited) on p. 309. It is not always possible to refer the Mongolian letters to a single Syriac prototype. Thus with regard to the two Uigur palatals the medial forms of both ... and ... seem to be from the Syriac heth ..., while one of the final forms ... seems to be from qof ..., and the other ... from kof ... . The same seems to have taken place with the dentals, ... resembling teth ..., while ... is more like tau ..., and ... like dolath. This explanation is rendered more probable by the fact that similar processes have also taken place in Arabic, as will be shown in the ensuing section, p. 332.


The adaptation of the Syriac script for the requirements of Altaic speech is of considerable interest. It affords a conspicuous illustration of the modifications needed when a Semitic alphabet comes to be used for the expression of a non-Semitic language.

As in the case of the Greek, Indian, and Pehlevi adaptations, characters to denote the vowels were necessarily developed. Seven vowels were obtained from three of the Semitic breaths and semivowels. Two vowel-signs, for a and e, were obtained from aleph ; one, for i, from yod; and four, for ö, ü, ō, ū, from vau.

It is also instructive to note the manner in which the Mongols (Uigurs) obtained the large number of additional consonants which they required. As in the Armenian, Indian, Parsi, Greek, and other alphabets, this was in no case effected by the invention of new symbols, but by the differentiation of the old. Thus the Syriac letter tsodhe ... is plainly to be identified with the Uigur letter ... which has the double value ts and tz. From this were derived three Mongolian (Uigur) letters, ... ch, ... chh, and ... zh. Again, the Syriac yudh ..., which appears in Uigur as ... with the two values i and y, was the source of the four Mongolian characters ... i, ... j, ... y, and ... jh. In this way, from the seventeen or eighteen Syriac characters which were taken over,1 between thirty and forty Mongolian characters were developed, in addition to those which were derived from Buddhist sources.

1 Of the original twenty-two Syriac letters several seem at first to have fallen into disuse, the nicer phonetic distinctions being apparently ignored. A more exact notation of sounds being afterwards required, the surviving characters were nearly doubled in number by differentiation. Thus of the four Syriac sibilants two, or perhaps three, were retained in Uigur, and these were differentiated into nine Mongolian letters. The seven Syriac dentals and gutturals are reduced to three in Uigur, which were developed into ten in Mongol. The Syriac / yielded signs for /, b, and v; while w and / were obtained from the Syriac b. A similar operation was effected in Parsi, forty-five characters having been evolved out of the seventeen Aramean letters which were taken over.


It will be noticed that it is not always from the so-called Nestorian letters that the Uigur and Mongolian forms can be most readily derived. This can easily be accounted for. Since the distinctive peculiarities of the Nestorian writing were not developed before the 9th century A.D. it is plain that the Mongolian alphabets must have been derived from some earlier type. Hence the Estrangelo and Syro-Palestinian alphabets of the 6th and 7th centuries frequently supply better prototypes for the Mongolian (Uigur) forms than the more recent Nestorian characters.1 In some cases 2 the nearest analogues are found in the alphabet of the Mendaites. Klaproth even went so far as to refer the origin of the Mongolian (Uigur) alphabet to the Mendaite rather than to the Nestorian script. It is more probable that the analogies between the two alphabets are due to the Manicheans (this is an amazing foresight on the part of Isaac Taylor, who could not have known the tremendous impact that Maniheaism had on Türks, and which until present is frequently confused with Christianity, and in particular with Nestorianism, because of Manihean use of a cross symbol) who, like the Nestorians, had fled from persecution into Persia. To their teaching some of the peculiar dogmas of the Mendaites may perhaps be traced, while, as Reinaud has shown, they also exercised considerable influence in the regions beyond the Oxus (Cheyhun, Amudarya).3

It appears possible also to detect the traces of Arabic influence in the Uigur,4 if not in the Mongol alphabet. For instance, the diacritical point which distinguishes ... n, from ... a, may have been suggested by the similar point which marks the Arabic ... n. Thus it would appear that the formation of the Mongolian (Uigur) alphabet may have been affected by elements derived from four distinct religious sources -  Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Mohammedanism (Islam).

1 See columns ii. iii. and vi. of the Table on p. 288.
2 Such as r, t, and k. In Mongol as in Mendaite the derivative of shin is differentiated by two subscribed dots. A coincidence so precise can hardly be due to accident.
3 See Renan, Langues Skmitiques, p. 289.
4 The external appearance of the writing in the Kudatku Bilik is much assimilated to the Arabic style, and this is still more the case with the later Uigur alphabet given by Kasem-Beg, Gram. d. Tiirkisch-Tatarhchen Sprache, plate v.


In Russian
Contents Türkic languages
Codex of Inscriptions - Index
Ogur and Oguz
A.Toth Agglutinative languages
Hunnic Writing
Turanian Writing
Paleography of 8 Türkic Alphabets
  Alan Dateline
Avar Dateline
Besenyo Dateline
Bulgar Dateline
Huns Dateline
Karluk Dateline
Khazar Dateline
Kimak Dateline
Kipchak Dateline
Kyrgyz Dateline
Sabir Dateline
Seyanto Dateline