Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet/Volume 1/The Mongol Alphabet


P. 67.

So far as we know the earliest character employed by the Mongols for writing their own language was that which they borrowed from the Uighur Turks of the Kashgar country. This was the character commonly used in the chancery of Chinghiz-Khan and his immediate successors. This Uighur character had been borrowed from the old Syriac; and as we find names in Syriac upon the famous Christian monument of Singanfu (A.D. 781), there can be little doubt that it had been introduced into Eastern Turkestan by the Nestorian clergy.

A Lama, Sája Pandita by name, was employed at the court of Kublaï Khan (latter part of thirteenth century) in modifying this Syro-Uighur alphabet so as to fit it better to the Mongol language. He is said to have introduced the system of connecting the letters by continuous lines from top to bottom, 'like the marks cut on tally-sticks.' Some have alleged that even the old Syriac was written vertically; but in any case the language of William de Rubruk (1253), in speaking of the Uighur writing, most precisely describes the vertical direction of the modern Mongol script. Sája died before he had completed his alphabetic system.

His successor, Bashpa Lama, threw aside the Uighur model, and invented a square character founded on a Tibetan modification of the Devanagari. Kublaï himself persistently patronised this alphabet, and tried to force it into use, but it took no root.

Kublaï's successor, Temur or Oljaïtu Khan, commissioned a relation of Sája, called Tsorji Osir, to translate the Tibetan sacred books into Mongol, with the use of Bashpa's alphabet. Finding this unmanageable, he reverted to the Uighuresque characters of his kinsman Sája, with some additions, but even so found it necessary to write many whole words in Tibetan characters. Some years later, in the reign of Khaishan or Jenezek Khan, the successor of Temur (1307-1311), who was a man of education, the task was resumed; and under his direction Tsorji brought the Syro-Uighur alphabet to perfection. This is substantially the character still in use among the Mongols, though some additions have been since made to it. The Manchu alphabet, again, was modelled upon this Mongol one.[1]—[Y.]

  1. See Abel-Rémusat, Langues Tartares.—