Mongolian

Mongolian

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The Mongolian script is one of the great imperial scripts — the script of an empire that once stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, the largest contiguous land empire in history. By the end of World War II, though, it was no longer used officially even in Mongolia.

It had its roots, aptly enough, in a military victory (or, to look at it another way, a military defeat), in 1208 when Chinggis Khan defeated the Naimans, a group of Turkic tribes living in Central Asia, and captured their scribe, Tatar-Tonga. Tatar-Tonga was induced to create a script for the great Khan, and to do so he adapted a script with a fascinating, even geometrical history: the Old Uyghur alphabet.

Follow me still farther back into history — to biblical times, in fact. The lingua franca of what we now call the Middle East was Aramaic. At the eastern borders of Aramaic, the script evolved in Sogdian, a script that first appeared around the fourth century and was initially used to write letters and inscriptions. A cursive form of Sogdian was used in secular documents, royal proclamations, and Buddhist and Manichaen manuscripts.

Over time and still farther east, Sogdian morphed into the Old Uyghur alphabet, but something fascinating happened in the process, something that fundamentally defines the Mongolian script: it turned through ninety degrees.

Sogdian was written from right to left in horizontal lines, but its offspring, the Old Uyghur alphabet, was written from left to right in vertical columns. We don’t know why this happened, any more than we know why the Phoenician alphabet turned through ninety degrees when adopted by the ancient Greeks. It may have been to imitate Chinese writing; it may have had something to do with an aspect of convenience that no longer occurs to us, accustomed as we are to writing on flat, level surfaces or geometrical screens. But the result of this twist, and the Mongol victory over the Naimans, was that soon the whole of Asia would see a vertical script, the Classical Mongol script, known in Mongolian as Mongol bichig.

One of the many fascinating features of bichig is that it has what might be thought of as a built-in calligraphic quality. Each letter has three forms: initial (used when it comes at the beginning of a word), medial (used when it comes in the middle of the word) and final (we’ll leave you to guess what that means). In almost every case, both the initial and final forms have a certain flourish, while the medial tends to be simpler and more contained. The effect is to allow the writer to start each word with a kind of fanfare, and to sign off with a swoosh. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Over the centuries, of course, the Mongol empire was eroded by civil war and division. By 1400 both China and the territories in the west had largely been lost, and the Mongols retreated to Mongolia. In the seventeenth century the country was overtaken by the Manchu-founded Qing dynasty, which ruled Mongolia until the collapse of that dynasty in the early twentieth century. No sooner had Mongolia achieved independence, however, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, which imposed the Cyrillic script on all its domains. By the time a peaceful revolution took place in 1990, the traditional bichig script had been all but forgotten, though it had survived to some extent in what had become the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China.

It is a testimony to the striking graphic qualities of the Mongolian script that its revival is being led by artists, designers, calligraphers and poets. Mongolian calligraphy in particular is gaining respect and visibility in the global landscape of calligraphy, especially since 2013, when the art form was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

The Mongolian script is still used to some extent in outposts of Mongol culture, such as two of the Russian republics: Buryatia, on the shores of Lake Baikal and sharing a border with Mongolia, and Kalmykia, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The Kalmyks suffered dreadfully in World War II: the killing of a large fraction of the Kalmyk population and the destruction of their society as consequences of deportations, along with the subsequent imposition of Russian as the sole official language, have meant that only the elderly have a fluent command of Kalmyk, and still fewer use the traditional Mongolian bichig script.

In one respect, though, the Mongol legacy has survived: Kalmykia is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the most practiced religion.

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“The great nomadic heritage is freedom coupled with close family ties, bonds created while stewarding the land — the space of which acts as a background enabling deep connections made possible only by much movement… together.”
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