ʼPhags-pa script

The ʼPhags-pa script[1] is an alphabet designed by the Tibetan monk and State Preceptor (later Imperial Preceptor) Drogön Chögyal Phagpa for Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty, as a unified script for the written languages within the Yuan. The actual use of this script was limited to about a hundred years during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and it fell out of use with the advent of the Ming dynasty. The documentation of its use provides clues about the changes in the varieties of Chinese, the Tibetic languages, Mongolian and other neighboring languages during the Yuan era.

ꡖꡍꡂꡛ ꡌ
Yang Wengshe 1314
Christian tombstone from Quanzhou dated 1314, with inscription in the ʼPhags-pa script ꞏung shė yang shi mu taw 'tomb memorial of Yang Wengshe'
CreatorDrogön Chögyal Phagpa
Time period
1269 – c. 1360
Parent systems
Child systems
Possibly Hangul
Sister systems
ISO 15924Phag, 331
Unicode alias
[a] The Semitic origin of the Brahmic scripts is not universally agreed upon.


The Uyghur-based Mongolian alphabet is not a perfect fit for the Middle Mongol language, and it would be impractical to extend it to a language with a very different phonology like Chinese. Therefore, during the Yuan dynasty (circa 1269), Kublai Khan asked ʼPhags-pa to design a new alphabet for use by the whole empire. ʼPhags-pa extended his native Tibetan alphabet, one of the Brahmic scripts, to encompass Mongol and Chinese, evidently Central Plains Mandarin.[2] The resulting 38 letters have been known by several descriptive names, such as "square script" based on their shape, but today are primarily known as the ʼPhags-pa alphabet.

Despite its origin, the script was written vertically (top to bottom) like the previous Mongolian scripts. It did not receive wide acceptance and was not a popular script even among the elite Mongols themselves, although it was used as an official script of the Yuan dynasty until the early 1350s[3] when the Red Turban Rebellion started. After this it was mainly used as a phonetic gloss for Mongolians learning Chinese characters. It was also used as one of the scripts on Tibetan currency in the twentieth century, as script for Tibetan seal inscriptions from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century and for inscriptions on the entrance doors of Tibetan monasteries.


Phagspa imperial edict dragon year
An imperial edict in ʼPhags-pa
Phagspa styles
The ʼPhags-pa script, with consonants arranged according to Chinese phonology. At the far left are vowels and medial consonants.

Top: Approximate values in Middle Chinese. (Values in parentheses were not used for Chinese.)
Second: Standard letter forms.
Third: Seal script forms. (A few letters, marked by hyphens, are not distinct from the preceding letter.)

Bottom: The "Tibetan" forms. (Several letters have alternate forms, separated here by a • bullet.)

Unlike the ancestral Tibetan script, all ʼPhags-pa letters are written in temporal order (that is, /CV/ is written in the order C–V for all vowels) and in-line (that is, the vowels are not diacritics). However, vowel letters retain distinct initial forms, and short /a/ is not written except initially, making ʼPhags-pa transitional between an abugida and a full alphabet. The letters of a ʼPhags-pa syllable are linked together so that they form syllabic blocks.

ʼPhags-pa was written in a variety of graphic forms. The standard form (top, at right) was blocky, but a "Tibetan" form (bottom) was even more so, consisting almost entirely of straight orthogonal lines and right angles. A "seal script" form (Chinese 蒙古篆字 měnggǔ zhuànzì "Mongolian Seal Script"), used for imperial seals and the like, was more elaborate, with squared sinusoidal lines and spirals.

Korean records state that hangul was based on an "Old Seal Script" (古篆字), which Gary Ledyard believes to be ʼPhags-pa and a reference to its Chinese name "蒙古篆字" (měnggǔ zhuànzì). (See origin of hangul.) However, it is the simpler standard form of ʼPhags-pa that is the closer graphic match to hangul.


Following are the initials of the ʼPhags-pa script as presented in the Menggu Ziyun. They are ordered according to the Chinese philological tradition of the 36 initials.

36 initials in Menggu Ziyun
No. Name Phonetic
1 jiàn *[k] g-
2 *[kʰ] kh-
3 qún *[ɡ] k-
4 *[ŋ] ng-
5 duān *[t] d-
6 tòu *[tʰ] th-
7 dìng *[d] t-
8 *[n] n-
9 zhī *[ʈ] j-
10 chè *[ʈʰ] ch-
11 chéng *[ɖ] c-
12 niáng *[ɳ] ny-
13 bāng *[p] b-
14 pāng *[pʰ] ph-
15 bìng *[b] p-
16 míng *[m] m-
17 fēi *[p̪] f- Normal form of the letter fa
18 *[p̪ʰ] f¹- Variant form of the letter fa
19 fèng *[b̪] f- Normal form of the letter fa
20 wēi *[ɱ] w- Letter wa represents [v]
21 jīng *[ts] dz-
22 qīng *[tsʰ] tsh-
23 cóng *[dz] ts-
24 xīn *[s] s-
25 xié *[z] z-
26 zhào *[tɕ] j-
27 穿 chuān *[tɕʰ] ch-
28 chuáng *[dʑ] c-
29 shěn *[ɕ] sh¹- Variant form of the letter sha
30 chán *[ʑ] sh- Normal form of the letter sha
31 xiǎo *[x] h- Normal form of the letter ha
32 xiá *[ɣ] x-
h¹- Variant form of the letter ha
33 yǐng *[ʔ] ʼ- glottal stop
y- Normal form of the letter ya
34 *[j] - null initial
y¹- Variant form of the letter ya
35 lái *[l] l-
36 *[ɲ] zh-


ʼPhags-pa script was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0.

The Unicode block for ʼPhags-pa is U+A840–U+A877:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 12.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

U+A856 PHAGS-PA LETTER SMALL A is transliterated using U+A78F LATIN LETTER SINOLOGICAL DOT from the Latin Extended-D Unicode block.[4]

See also


  1. ^ ʼPhags-pa script: ꡏꡡꡃ ꡣꡡꡙ ꡐꡜꡞ mongxol tshi, "Mongolian script"; Mongolian: дөрвөлжин үсэг dörvöljin üseg, "square script"; Tibetan: ཧོར་ཡིག་གསར་པ་, Wylie: hor yig gsar ba "new Mongolian script"; Chinese: 蒙古新字; pinyin: měnggǔ xīnzì "new Mongolian script" (Yuan dynasty usage) or Chinese: 八思巴文; pinyin: bāsībā wén "ʼPhags-pa writing" (modern usage)
  2. ^ Coblin, W. South (2002). "Reflections on the Study of Post-Medieval Chinese Historical Phonology". In 何大安 (ed.). 第三屆國際漢學會議論文集: 語言組. 南北是非 : 漢語方言的差異與變化 [Papers from the Third International Conference on Sinology, Linguistics Section. Dialect Variations in Chinese]. Taibei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica. pp. 23–50. ISBN 978-957-671-936-3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-05-16. Retrieved 21 October 2011. p. 31.
  3. ^ Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Responses to Matteo Ricci's "Shangti" in Late Ming China, 1583-1644, by Sangkeun Kim, p139
  4. ^ West, Andrew (2009-04-04). "L2/09-031R: Proposal to encode a Middle Dot letter for Phags-pa transliteration" (PDF).
  • Coblin, W. South (2006). A Handbook of ʼPhags-pa Chinese. ABC Dictionary Series. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3000-7.
  • Everding, Karl-Heinz (2006). Herrscherurkunden aus der Zeit des mongolischen Großreiches für tibetische Adelshäuser, Geistliche und Klöster. Teil 1: Diplomata Mongolica. Mittelmongolische Urkunden in ʼPhags-pa-Schrift. Eidtion, Übersetzung, Analyse. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. ISBN 978-3-88280-074-6.
  • Poppe, Nicholas (1957). The Mongolian Monuments in hP´ags-pa Script (Second ed.). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Schuh, Dieter (1981). Grundlagen tibetischer Siegelkunde. Eine Untersuchung über tibetische Siegelaufschriften in ʼPhags-pa-Schrift. Sankt Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag. ISBN 978-3-88280-011-1.
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1985). Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Great Britain: Anchor Brenton Ltd. ISBN 978-0-09-156980-8.

Further reading

External links

Alphabets of Asia Minor

Various alphabetic writing systems were in use in Iron Age Anatolia to record Anatolian languages and Phrygian. Several of these languages had previously been written with logographic and syllabic scripts.

The alphabets of Asia Minor proper share characteristics that distinguish them from the earliest attested forms of the Greek alphabet. Many letters in these alphabets resemble Greek letters but have unrelated readings, most extensively in the case of Carian. The Phrygian and Lemnian alphabets by contrast were early adaptations of regional variants of the Greek alphabet; the earliest Phrygian inscriptions are contemporary with early Greek inscriptions, but contain Greek innovations such as the letters Φ and Ψ which did not exist in the earliest forms of the Greek alphabet.

The Anatolian alphabets fell out of use around the 4th century BCE with the onset of the Hellenistic period.

Ancient South Arabian script

The Ancient South Arabian script (Old South Arabian 𐩣𐩯𐩬𐩵 ms3nd; modern Arabic: الْمُسْنَد‎ musnad) branched from the Proto-Sinaitic script in about the 9th century BC. It was used for writing the Old South Arabian languages of the Sabaic, Qatabanic, Hadramautic, Minaean, Hasaitic, and Ge'ez in Dʿmt. The earliest inscriptions in the script date to the 9th century BC in the Northern Red Sea Region, Eritrea. There are no letters for vowels, which are marked by matres lectionis.

Its mature form was reached around 500 BC, and its use continued until the 6th century AD, including Ancient North Arabian inscriptions in variants of the alphabet, when it was displaced by the Arabic alphabet. In Ethiopia and Eritrea it evolved later into the Ge'ez script, which, with added symbols throughout the centuries, has been used to write Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, as well as other languages (including various Semitic, Cushitic, and Nilo-Saharan languages).

Aramaic alphabet

The ancient Aramaic alphabet is adapted from the Phoenician alphabet and became distinct from it by the 8th century BC. It was used to write the Aramaic language and had displaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, itself a derivative of the Phoenician alphabet, for the writing of Hebrew. The letters all represent consonants, some of which are also used as matres lectionis to indicate long vowels.

The Aramaic alphabet is historically significant since virtually all modern Middle Eastern writing systems can be traced back to it as well as numerous non-Chinese writing systems of Central and East Asia. That is primarily from the widespread usage of the Aramaic language as both a lingua franca and the official language of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, and their successor, the Achaemenid Empire. Among the scripts in modern use, the Hebrew alphabet bears the closest relation to the Imperial Aramaic script of the 5th century BC, with an identical letter inventory and, for the most part, nearly identical letter shapes. The Aramaic alphabet was an ancestor to the Nabataean alphabet and the later Arabic alphabet.

Writing systems (like the Aramaic one) that indicate consonants but do not indicate most vowels other than by means of matres lectionis or added diacritical signs, have been called abjads by Peter T. Daniels to distinguish them from alphabets, such as the Greek alphabet, which represent vowels more systematically. The term was coined to avoid the notion that a writing system that represents sounds must be either a syllabary or an alphabet, which would imply that a system like Aramaic must be either a syllabary (as argued by Ignace Gelb) or an incomplete or deficient alphabet (as most other writers have said). Rather, it is a different type.

Avestan alphabet

The Avestan alphabet is a writing system developed during Iran's Sassanid era (226–651 CE) to render the Avestan language.

As a side effect of its development, the script was also used for Pazend, a method of writing Middle Persian that was used primarily for the Zend commentaries on the texts of the Avesta. In the texts of Zoroastrian tradition, the alphabet is referred to as din dabireh or din dabiri, Middle Persian for "the religion's script".

Coptic alphabet

The Coptic alphabet is the script used for writing the Coptic language. The repertoire of glyphs is based on the Greek alphabet augmented by letters borrowed from the Egyptian Demotic and is the first alphabetic script used for the Egyptian language. There are several Coptic alphabets, as the Coptic writing system may vary greatly among the various dialects and subdialects of the Coptic language.

Drogön Chögyal Phagpa

Drogön Chogyal Phagpa (Tibetan: འགྲོ་མགོན་ཆོས་རྒྱལ་འཕགས་པ་, Wylie: ʼgro mgon chos rgyal ʼphags pa, 1235 – 15 December 1280), was the fifth leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was also the first Imperial Preceptor of Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty, division of the Mongol Empire, and was concurrently named the director of the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. Historical tradition remembers him as the first vice-ruler of Tibet under the Mongol Khagan as well as one of the Five Sakya patriarchs (Tibetan: ས་སྐྱ་གོང་མ་རྣམ་ལྔ་, Wylie: sa skya gong ma rnam lnga). Although this is historically disputed, he played a very important political role.

Gothic alphabet

The Gothic alphabet is an alphabet for writing the Gothic language, created in the 4th century by Ulfilas (or Wulfila) for the purpose of translating the Bible.The alphabet is essentially an uncial form of the Greek alphabet, with a few additional letters to account for Gothic phonology: Latin F and G, a questionably Runic letter to distinguish the /w/ glide from vocalic /u/, and the letter ƕair to express the Gothic labiovelar.

Latin alphabet

The Latin or Roman alphabet is the writing system originally used by the ancient Romans to write the Latin language.

Nabataean alphabet

The Nabataean alphabet is an abjad (consonantal alphabet) that was used by the Nabataeans in the second century BC. Important inscriptions are found in Petra (now in Jordan), the Sinai Peninsula (now part of Egypt), and other archaeological sites including Avdat (now in Israel).

Nyiakeng Puachue Hmong

Nyiakeng Puachue Hmong (Hmong: 𞄀𞄩𞄰𞄁𞄦𞄱𞄂𞄤𞄳𞄬𞄃𞄥𞄳) is an alphabet script devised for White Hmong and Green Hmong in the 1980s by Reverend Chervang Kong for use within his United Christians Liberty Evangelical Church. The church, which moved around California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Colorado, and many other states, has used the script in printed material and videos. It is reported to have some use in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, France, and Australia.The script bears strong resemblance to the Lao alphabet in structure and form and characters inspired from the Hebrew alphabets, although the characters themselves are different. It contains 36 consonant characters, 9 vowel characters, and 7 combining tone characters. There are also 5 characters for determinatives used to

indicate that the preceding noun is the name of a person, place, thing, vertebrate or invertebrate animal, or a pet name for the animal. Determinatives are not pronounced, but help distinguish homophones. They appear as the last character in a word, and are not separated by a space.

The script is also called Hmong Kong Hmong, Pa Dao Hmong (also the name of a different Hmong script), and 'the Chervang script', after its inventor.

Old Italic scripts

The Old Italic scripts are a set of similar ancient writing systems used in the Italian Peninsula between about 700 and 100 BC, for various languages spoken in that time and place. The most notable member is the Etruscan alphabet, which was the immediate ancestor of the Latin alphabet currently used by English and many other languages of the world. The runic alphabet used in northern Europe is believed to have been derived from one of these alphabets by the 2nd century AD.

The Old Italic alphabets clearly derive from the Phoenician one, apparently through the Cumaean alphabet used in the Euboean Greek colonies of Ischia and Cumae in the Bay of Naples in the eighth century BC. The Etruscans were the leading civilization of Italy in that period, and it is assumed that the other Old Italic scripts were derived from it -- although some of them, including the Latin one, retained certain Greek letters that the Etruscans themselves dropped at a rather early date.

The Old Italic alphabets were used for various different languages, which included some Indo-European ones (predominantly from the Italic branch, but also Celtic or Germanic) and some non-Indo-European ones (such as Etruscan itself).

Paleo-Hebrew alphabet

The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (Hebrew: הכתב העברי הקדום), also spelt Palaeo-Hebrew alphabet (P-H), was the script used in the historic kingdoms of Israel and Judah by Israelites. It is a variant of the Phoenician alphabet (abjad) of 22 (consonantal) letters. P-H was coined by Solomon Birnbaum in 1954; writing, "To apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable".Archeology dates usage of P-H for writing the Hebrew language to the 10th century BCE. By the 5th century BCE (with the Hebrew Jews exiled in the diaspora) P-H was subsumed by the Imperial Aramaic abjad with little remnant -- the Aramaic sharing a common protolanguage with a simpler font. The present Jewish "square-script" Hebrew aleph beit abjad evolved from the Aramaic. Samaritans (population fewer than 1000) use a P-H abjad derivative, known as the Samaritan alphabet. Usage of P-H is negligible nowadays but it survives in nostalgia (see the ₪1 coin and the logo of the Israeli town Nahariyah).

Palmyrene alphabet

Palmyrene was a historical Semitic alphabet used to write the local Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic.

It was used between 100 BCE and 300 CE in Palmyra in the Syrian desert.

The oldest surviving Palmyrene inscription dates to 44 BCE.

The last surviving inscription dates to 274 CE, two years after Palmyra was sacked by Roman Emperor Aurelian, ending the Palmyrene Empire. Use of the Palmyrene language and script declined, being replaced with Greek and Latin.

Palmyrene was derived from cursive versions of the Aramaic alphabet and shares many of its characteristics:

Twenty-two letters with only consonants represented

Written horizontally from right-to-left

Numbers written right-to-left using a non-decimal systemPalmyrene was normally written without spaces or punctuation between words and sentences (scriptio continua style).

Two forms of Palmyrene were developed: The rounded, cursive form derived from the Aramaic alphabet and later a decorative, monumental form developed from the cursive Palmyrene.

Both the cursive and monumental forms commonly used typographic ligatures.

Proto-Canaanite alphabet

Proto-Canaanite is the name given to

(a) the Proto-Sinaitic script when found in Canaan.

(b) a hypothetical ancestor of the Phoenician script before some cut-off date, typically 1050 BCE, with an undefined affinity to Proto-Sinaitic. No extant ″Phoenician″ inscription is older than 1000 BCE. The Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before that time.

Samaritan alphabet

The Samaritan alphabet is used by the Samaritans for religious writings, including the Samaritan Pentateuch, writings in Samaritan Hebrew, and for commentaries and translations in Samaritan Aramaic and occasionally Arabic.

Samaritan is a direct descendant of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which was a variety of the Phoenician alphabet in which large parts of the Hebrew Bible were originally penned. All these scripts are believed to be descendants of the Proto-Sinaitic script. That script was used by the ancient Israelites, both Jews and Samaritans. The better-known "square script" Hebrew alphabet traditionally used by Jews is a stylized version of the Aramaic alphabet called "Assyrian writing" (כתב אשורי) which they adopted from the Persian Empire (which in turn adopted it from the Arameans). After the fall of the Persian Empire, Judaism used both scripts before settling on the Aramaic form. For a limited time thereafter, the use of paleo-Hebrew (proto-Samaritan) among Jews was retained only to write the Tetragrammaton, but soon that custom was also abandoned.

The Samaritan alphabet first became known to the Western world with the publication of a manuscript of the Samaritan Pentateuch in 1631 by Jean Morin. In 1616 the traveler Pietro della Valle had purchased a copy of the text in Damascus, and this manuscript, now known as Codex B, was deposited in a Parisian library.

Tibetan script

The Tibetan script is an abugida used to write the Tibetic languages such as Tibetan, as well as Dzongkha, Sikkimese, Ladakhi, and sometimes Balti. The printed form is called uchen script while the hand-written cursive form used in everyday writing is called umê script.

The script is closely linked to a broad ethnic Tibetan identity, spanning across areas in Tibet, Bhutan, India, Nepal. The Tibetan script is of Indic origin and it is ancestral to the Limbu script, the Lepcha script, and the multilingual 'Phags-pa script.

Ugaritic alphabet

The Ugaritic script is a cuneiform abjad used from around either the fifteenth century BCE or 1300 BCE for Ugaritic, an extinct Northwest Semitic language, and discovered in Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), Syria, in 1928. It has 30 letters. Other languages (particularly Hurrian) were occasionally written in the Ugaritic script in the area around Ugarit, although not elsewhere.

Clay tablets written in Ugaritic provide the earliest evidence of both the North Semitic and South Semitic orders of the alphabet, which gave rise to the alphabetic orders of the reduced Phoenician alphabet and its descendants (including Greek and Latin) on the one hand, and of the Ge'ez alphabet on the other. Arabic and Old South Arabian are the only other Semitic alphabets which have letters for all or almost all of the 29 commonly reconstructed proto-Semitic consonant phonemes. (But note that several of these distinctions were only secondarily added to the Arabic alphabet by means of diacritic dots.) According to Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies (eds. Wilfred G.E. Watson and Nicholas Wyatt, 1999): "The language they [the 30 signs] represented could be described as an idiom which in terms of content seemed to be comparable to Canaanite texts, but from a phonological perspective, however, was more like Arabic" (82, 89, 614).

The script was written from left to right. Although cuneiform and pressed into clay, its symbols were unrelated to those of Akkadian cuneiform.

Wancho script

Wancho script is an alphabet created between 2001 and 2012 by middle school teacher Banwang Losu in Longding district, Arunachal Pradesh for writing the Wancho language. Letters represent consonants and vowels.

Conjunct consonants are not used.

Tone is indicated with diacritical marks on vowel letters.While Wancho script is taught in some schools, the Wancho language is generally written in either Devanagari script or the Latin alphabet.

Yang Naisi

Yang Naisi (Chinese: 杨耐思; Wade–Giles: Yang Nai-ssu; 20 October 1927 – 5 March 2019), also known by his pen name Yang Daojing (杨道经), was a Chinese linguist and a research professor at the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was noted for his research on modern Chinese phonology, the ʼPhags-pa script, and Xiang Chinese.

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