Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan: And the making of the Modern World. by Jack Weatherford.

Granted that the subtitle is both a cliché and an overstatement, this is still a great book to expand one's knowledge of history and culture from a western and renaissance perspective to a wider outlook. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it helped to provide the background for other books I have read recently, My Name is Red and The Kite Runner.

"The Mongol court maintained scribes not only for the Mongol language but also for Arabic, Persian, Uighur, Tangut, Jurched, Tibetan, Chinese, and lesser-known languages; still, they experienced perplexing difficulties with the variety of languages. With only their Mongol-Uighur alphabet, the Mongols found it difficult to record all the administrative information they needed from their vast empire. In everyday administration, clerks had to be able to spell names as diverse as those of Chinese towns, Russian princes, Persian mountains, Hindu sages, Vietnamese generals, Mulsim clerics, and Hungarian rivers. Because the subjects of the Mongol Empire used so many different languages, Khubilai Khan attempted one of the most innovative experiments in intellectual and administrative history. He sought to create a single alphabet that could be used to write all the languages of the world. He assigned this task to the Tibetan Buddhist lama Phagspa, who in 1269 presented the khan with a set of forty-one letters derived from the Tibetan alphabet. Khubilai Khan made Phagspa's script the empire's official script, but rather than force the system on anyone, he allowed the Chinese and all other subjects to continue using their own writing system as well in the hope that the new script would eventually replace the old by showing its superiority. Chinese scholars felt too attached to their own ancient language to allow themselves to be cut off from it by a new, and obviously barbarian, system of writing, and most subject people eventually abandoned the mongol writing system as soon as Mongol power waned." p. 205

"He sought to create a single alphabet that could be used to write all the languages of the world."

I distinctly remember that last week I read that Bell's Visible Speech was "the first system for notating the sounds of speech independent of any particular language or dialect." But was it really? Neither Phagspa nor Bell's Visible Speech became a permanent writing system. However, the idea of a universal phonetic writing system was common to both of them. And they were both invented at a strategic point in the history of an Empire, either the Mongol Empire or the British Empire. So rather than trust the Eurocentric assessment of Bell's Visible Speech and its place in history, I prefer to remember that in the 13th century the court of Khubilai Khan was coming up with similar solutions to similar problems.


For further information on Genghis Khan visit Genghis Khan on the Web by Tim Spalding.

Addendum: Thanks for this reality check from Andrew West of Babelstone

"A little misleading; more realistically the Phags-pa script was intended to be a national script for the Mongolian empire that could be used for writing both Mongolian and the other major languages spoken throughout the Mongolian empire. However, unlike Visible Speech or IPA, Phags-pa is not a generic writing system that can be applied to any language regardless of its phonetic makeup. It had a fixed set of 41 letters specifically intended for writing languages such as Mongolian, Chinese, Uighur and Persian, but it has no inbuilt mechanism for representing sounds not found in these languages. Thus, when Phags-pa was later used to write Sanskrit, a number of new letters had to be devised to represent the Sanskrit series of retroflex letters. So although the script was designed for writing multiple languages, it is not a language-independent script, and cannot be considered a "universal phonetic writing system".

In the edict promulgating the "new Mongolian script", as the Phags-pa script was known, Khubilai Khan explicitly notes that nations such as the Jurchen (Jin dynasty), Khitan (Liao dynasty) and Tanggut (Xi Xia dynasty) all had their own unique scripts reflecting their national identity, whereas the Mongolians, under Genghis Khan, had borrowed the ill-fitting Uighur script. This Uighur-derived script, which we now see as being quintessentially Mongolian, was seen by Khubilai Khan as a second-hand borrowing, and it was considered a matter of national shame that the Mongolians did not have their own unique script as other nations did. I believe that this was the real motivation behind the creation of the new script, not the desire to create a universal script that could be used for all languages."

5 Comments:

Anonymous Andrew West said...

"Because the subjects of the Mongol Empire used so many different languages, Khubilai Khan attempted one of the most innovative experiments in intellectual and administrative history. He sought to create a single alphabet that could be used to write all the languages of the world."

A little misleading; more realistically the Phags-pa script was intended to be a national script for the Mongolian empire that could be used for writing both Mongolian and the other major languages spoken throughout the Mongolian empire. However, unlike Visible Speech or IPA, Phags-pa is not a generic writing system that can be applied to any language regardless of its phonetic makeup. It had a fixed set of 41 letters specifically intended for writing languages such as Mongolian, Chinese, Uighur and Persian, but it has no inbuilt mechanism for representing sounds not found in these languages. Thus, when Phags-pa was later used to write Sanskrit, a number of new letters had to be devised to represent the Sanskrit series of retroflex letters. So although the script was designed for writing multiple languages, it is not a language-independent script, and cannot be considered a "universal phonetic writing system".

In the edict promulgating the "new Mongolian script", as the Phags-pa script was known, Khubilai Khan explicitly notes that nations such as the Jurchen (Jin dynasty), Khitan (Liao dynasty) and Tanggut (Xi Xia dynasty) all had their own unique scripts reflecting their national identity, whereas the Mongolians, under Genghis Khan, had borrowed the ill-fitting Uighur script. This Uighur-derived script, which we now see as being quintessentially Mongolian, was seen by Khubilai Khan as a second-hand borrowing, and it was considered a matter of national shame that the Mongolians did not have their own unique script as other nations did. I believe that this was the real motivation behind the creation of the new script, not the desire to create a universal script that could be used for all languages.

3:24 AM  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

Thanks for your comment. I would like to add a link to Babelstsone in my sidebar on my next edit.

Do you think that the 'universal script' epithet for Pagspa is a recent interpretation? a value that has been attributed to the script in retrospect?

Suz

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Andrew West said...

I think it is. The Phags-pa script does not seem to have been known to the early European missionaries (16th through 19th centuries), and it is only from the late 19th century that European scholars started to study the script.

I guess it is tempting to jump from a "unified script" devised for use as "a kind of orthographic Esperanto" (Robert Ramsey, "The Languages of China" p.211) to "a single alphabet that could be used to write all the languages of the world".

Phags-pa seems to attract a lot of myths -- that it was abandoned because it was ugly and difficult to write (so not true), that it is the model for Hangul (I just don't believe this). And if you look at oriental coin sites on the web, you'll notice a tendency to label any undeciphered script as Phags-pa.

2:36 AM  
Blogger B. said...

"that it is the model for Hangul (I just don't believe this)."

This seems to be pretty common, as if people who repeat it are implying that the Korean people just couldn't have come up with something on their own. It's like when people attribute the Mayan pyramids to Egyptian, or worse, Alien help.

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9:04 PM  

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