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Traditional Mongolian Script

Blog | published: 2020-04-27

The only vertical script in the world

In 1204, Chinggis (Genghis) khan declared Mongolian classical script as an official alphabet for newly established empire of Mongolian tribes. Mongolian script is the only alphabet in the world that is written vertically. At the end of the first millennium AD (VIII-IX centuries) ancient Uigars  and Mongols adopted their vertical scripts from the Sogdian alphabet, which ultimately came from Aramaic, almost at the same time.

From the time being, the oldest monument of the Mongolian classic script is called ‘Stone Book’, which is dated back to 1224 and known as Chinggis khan’s stone inscription. G. I. Spassky, a Russian scientist specialized in Siberian studies, published the first ever report about a stone stele with oriental inscriptions, dated back to the early 13th Century, in the newspaper "Sibirskii Vestnik" (Siberian Herald) in 1818. Spassky has found the stone stele from a factory of Nerchinsk in Eastern Siberia, but the stone was originally discovered in the River basin of Kharkhiraa in Mongolia.

The stele inscription is dedicated to Yesunge, the son of Chingis Khan's brother Khasar, even though it begins with the name of Chingis Khan. The inscription says that Yesunge has taken a part in an archers competition and, hit a target from a distance of 335 ald (Mongolian measure of length), which is approximately 536 meters.

In 1832, Chingis khan’s stone inscription was removed from Nerchinsk to St. Petersburg, and it still remains in the famous Museum of Hermitage.

Interestingly, historical evidence provide that Mongolian nomadic tribes had been using nine or ten scripts, originated by themselves, before adopting the vertical script. According to Chinese historical chronicles Wei Shu and Sui Shu, Mongolian Tabgach (Toba) state had developed a new script in the sixth century, proven by the actual list of books written in this script. During the era of Kidan empire of Mongolia, scholars had invented two kinds of scripts (AD 920 and 925), yet both of them are not fully deciphered.

Even after adopting the vertical script, there were several attempts to create new alphabets. For instance: the square script was created at the order of Khubilai Khan on the basis of Tibetan and Indian letters, and served as the official alphabet of the Mongolian Yuan Empire between the period of 1269 to 1368. B.Vladimirtsov, a Russian Mongolist scholar, has concluded that the square script was Mongolian international alphabet of the thirteenth century.

Also, Khubilai Khan commissioned Chogyal Phagpa, a leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, to design a new writing system to unify writings of multilanguages of Yuan Empire. He was also the first Imperial Preceptor of Khubilai khan's Empire, concurrently named as the director of the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. Chogyal Pagma  has modified the Tibetan alphabet for the formation of Mongolian square script, which was fully completed in 1268.

However, Khubilai has never achieved his original goal to disseminate this script, because of the major resistance and difficulties encountered while promoting usage of this script. As a result, only a small amount of texts were found in this script, and the majority of documents were still written in Mongolian vertical script or in Chinese ideograms. Mongolian square script had been disused after the collapse of Mongolian Yuan Empire in 1368.

Despite of above facts, Mongolian square script is believed to have a huge influence on origination and development of Korean Hanggil alphabet. This is not surprising, since Korea was under the rule of the Mongolian Yuan Empire for a long time.

Before the creation of Hangul, Koreans primarily used Chinese ideograms. But many lower-class Koreans were illiterate, due to fundamental differences between the Korean and Chinese languages, and larger number of characters. Therefore, Sejong the Great, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty of Korea, created and promulgated a new alphabet in 1444.

During the rise of the Manchu Kingdom, in 1599 king Nurhaci decided to convert the Mongolian alphabet into suitable form for the Manchu people. Because illiterate Han Chinese and Mongolians could understand their respective languages, when listening with loud tones. But it was not the case for the Manchus, whose documents were recorded by Mongolian scribes. Overriding the objections, he is credited for adapting the Mongolian vertical script to Manchu.

When Mongolian independence was threatened by Manchu Kingdom, the first leader of central Mongolian Buddhists, Bogd khan Zanabazar invented Soyombo script based on the ancient Indian script of Brahman origin in 1686. Letters or characters of this script were created to record words of the three holy written languages of that period including Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit. Each of them was served as a literary language for the scholars of Mongolia at the same time.

However, amongst all the Mongolian alphabets, vertical script is considered the most viable that it is still alive today.

Written vertically from top to bottom and from left to right, Mongolian script differs from all other vertical scripts (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) which are written from right to left. Mongolian phonemic script consists of 23 basic characters with 7 vowels and 16 consonants and the characters of on word are written inseparably. The shape of the characters changes depending on whether they are used at the beginning, middle or at the end of a word.

One of the advantages of Mongolian classical script is the possibility of writing very fast. An experienced writer can note more than 200 words in a minute. In other words, a writer can note or write down any speeches regardless of their speed.

Another thing is that Mongolian script is elegant and aesthetic. There are different kinds of calligraphy based on Mongolian script and developed for a long time.

During its usage of hundreds of years, a huge amount of priceless documents, chronicles and books were written in Mongolian script. Unfortunately, with the strong pressure from the Soviet Union, Mongolia had no choice, but to adopt the Latin alphabet in 1931 and the Cyrillic alphabet in 1937. Four years later in 1941, Mongolian pro-Soviet government passed a law to abolish its national script. Tons of books written in Mongolian script were exterminated at that time.

The renaissance of the unique script came into fruition after the peaceful democratic revolution of 1990's. Today, Mongolian vertical script is taught in all high schools of Mongolia.

Furthermore, alphabets based on Mongolian vertical script are still used in Inner Mongolia and other parts of China to write in Mongolian, Manchurian, Xibe and Evenki (both are Tungusic languages).

From such short digression of the history of Mongolian scripts, one would understand that the Mongols have influenced the course of human history, starting from ancient times. In other words, they were not actually illiterate barbarians. Instead, they have invented several unique alphabets and some of them were adopted by other nations such as Manchus and Koreans.

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