A genealogy of alphabets

By Razib Khan | April 18, 2011 12:50 am

The Xibo are one of populations in the Human Genome Diversity Project data set, so you’ve probably seen them here and there. They’re a Tungusic group affiliated with the Manchus, which explains why their script is a modified form of the nearly extinct Manchu script.

The Manchurian alphabet is itself a modification of the Mongolian alphabet. Though marginalized by Cyrillic, the old alphabet is making a comeback since the fall of Communism.

In its turn the Mongolian script derives from the old Uyghur alphabet. This has been extinct since the 18th century, having been replaced by and large by an Arabic derived script (there have been experiments with Cyrillic and Chinese, and now Latin, for Uyghur).

Old Uyghur was a descendant of the Sogdian alphabet. This was the alphabet of an ancient East Iranian people who are now extinct culturally (Yaghnobi is a linguistic descendant).

Finally, Sogdian itself derives from Syriac, which was the child of Aramaic, the “original alphabet,” though it itself may derive from Proto-Sinaitic.

The point of this post was to show how cultural connections can stretch long and far, often in strange unexpected directions.

MORE ABOUT: Alphabets
  • Justin Giancola

    rad…I used to get trapped in wikipedia pouring through this stuff..

    still do, just went on an another excursion through zoroastrianism. ver nice!

  • John Emerson

    A second factor in some Asian alphabets is Sanskrit phonetics. Students of the Vedas did quite a sophisticated phonetic analysis of the language of the Vedas, but in it the scientific content (as with alchemy) was intermixed with symbolic interpretation. For example, when people chant “Om”, that’s one of the phonemes of Vedic Sanskrit, which has been given layers of symbolic interpretation.

    Buddhism picked up phonetics and phonetics was a normal part of the education of Buddhist monks throughout Asia. When the time came to devise new scripts, monks would often be called in, and the writing system of Korean was actually a visual realization of the significant features of the phonemes. For example, p/b and t/d are differentiated by voicing, a single feature, so p : b = t : d, and in the Korean script these relationships were visually represented. (I’ve been told that pronunciation has changed and that this is no longer true. For the same reason, the pronunciation of Mongol script is no more phonetic than English, with lots of silent letters).

    I’m pretty sure that the writing systems of India also descend from Aramaic, so what I just mentioned is an additional level and not an alternative origin. (The script of the Indus Valley civilization did not, but it hasn’t been deciphered and is not ancestral to Sanskrit script, etc.)

    The climax was the ‘Phags-pa script, which was devised by a Tibetan monk to properly represent all of the distinctions in all of the important languages of the Mongol empire. (Mongol, Turkish, Persian, Chinese, presumably Tibetan, and maybe others).

    A third factor was Chinese “ideographic” script. Japanese, Korean, Jurchen, and Khitan combined Chinese and Buddhist principles. And the Tangut XiXia ca. 1000 AD devised a purely-ideographic script which remained in use for several centuries, even after the fall of the Xixia state to the Mongols ca. 1210.

  • Anthony

    While writing appeared independently several times, the alphabet was invented once.

    Every alphabet either evolved from the Aramaic/proto-Sinaitic, or was invented by people who knew of other alphabets. Korean Hangul was invented by scholars who knew the Mongolian alphabet, Cyrillic was invented by people literate in Greek. The Cherokee syllabary was invented by Sequoyah, who was illiterate, but who understood the concept of writing, and had a copy of an English-language bible.

  • lovecraft

    I’ve always thought that ethymology would be a great tool to follow ethnic ancestry and migration routes.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “I’m pretty sure that the writing systems of India also descend from Aramaic, so what I just mentioned is an additional level and not an alternative origin. (The script of the Indus Valley civilization did not, but it hasn’t been deciphered and is not ancestral to Sanskrit script, etc.)”

    While the Indus River Valley script hasn’t been deciphered and is not ancestral to Sanskrit, it does show strong general similarities to the early Sumerian writing system. This makes sense because the Indus River Valley civilization had regular maritime contact with the Sumerians over many centuries and there were Indus River Valley expatriate districts in some Sumerian cities. The early crops used in the Indus Rivery Valley also have a Fertile Crescent place of domestication.

    So, even if the Indus River Valley script is not an evolutionary descendant of Sumerian it is probably at least as related to early Sumerian writing as the Cherokee syllabary, for example, was to the script used to write the English language.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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