Manchu/Lesson 12 - The Manchu Script
History and origin of the Manchu script
The current Manchu script is a Semitic script from the Aramaic group of Semitic scripts and is written vertically from left to right (although it was originally written horizontally from right to left). The script was spread east via Nestorian Christians and was adopted by the Sogdians, then the Uyghurs and the Mongols, before finally being adopted by the Manchus. Prior to Nurhaci's adoption of the current Manchu script, the Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus) used the Jurchen script to write the Jurchen language (which is in effect the precursor to modern Manchu). The early Jurchen script was invented in 1120 by Wanyan Xiyin, acting on the orders of Wanyan Aguda. It was based on the Khitan script, that was inspired in turn by Chinese characters. However, because Chinese is an isolating language and the Jurchen and Khitan languages are agglutinative, the script proved to be cumbersome. The written Jurchen language died out soon after the fall of the Jin Dynasty, though its spoken form survived until the end of the sixteenth century, when Manchu became the new literary language.
According to the Veritable Records (manju-i yargiyan kooli); (滿洲實錄 Mǎnzhōu Shílù), in 1599 the Manchu leader Nurhaci decided to convert the Mongolian alphabet to make it suitable for the Manchu people. He decried the fact that while illiterate Chinese and Mongolians could understand their respective languages when read aloud, that was not the case for the Manchus, whose documents were recorded by Mongolian scribes. Overriding the objections of two advisors named Erdeni and G'ag'ai, he is credited with adapting the Mongolian script to Manchu. The resulting script was known as 'tongki fuka akū hergen' (script without dots and circles).
In 1632, Dahai added diacritical marks to clear up a lot of the ambiguity present in the original Mongolian script; for instance, a leading 'k', 'g', and 'h' are distinguished by the placement of no diacritical mark, a dot, and a circle respectively. This revision created the Standard script, known as 'tongki fuka sindaha hergen' (script with dots and circles). As a result, the Manchu alphabet contains little ambiguity. Recently discovered manuscripts from the 1620s make clear, however, that the addition of dots and circles to Manchu script began before their supposed introduction by Dahai.
How to learn the Manchu script
There are basically two different ways one can learn the Manchu script:
- Learn it as if it was an alphabet (as is done outside of China)
- Learn each of the syllables separately (there are a lot of them) via the "12 characters". Most Chinese students of the language learn Manchu this way.
This book will introduce both methods. It is suggested that students first learn the 24 letters for sounds native to Manchu (the 10 letters to transliterate Chinese sounds should be excluded at first) as an alphabet and once they are familiar with these 24 letters they can then work through the '12 character tables' (which are just tables of all the different syllables that can be formed by adding a final to one of the letters) so as to gain greater exposure to the script, and also understand the different rules for writing different syllables. By learning the Manchu script this way, students have the advantage of not being burdened with learning hundreds of syllables when they start learning Manchu, and by just learning the 24 letters they can therefore get a basic grasp of the script very quickly. Students can then move on to the 12 character tables and gain a deep understanding of how the script works without having to spend hours memorising each syllable (the syllables are easy to recognise once you know the 24 letters). Once students are familiar with the 24 letters native to Manchu they can then learn the 10 letters used to write Chinese sounds.
As mentioned in the introduction to this book, the Manchu script is only taught in lesson 12, as opposed to at the beginning of the book like in most other textbooks. The reason for this is the fact that it is much easier to decipher the script when the student has a basic grasp of the phonetic features of Manchu and a reasonable vocab.
The 24 letters of the Manchu script
If we analyse the Manchu script as if it was an alphabet (as opposed to a syllabic script) then the Manchu script has 6 letters to represent the six Manchu vowels, and 18 letters to represent Manchu consonants. As with most other Semetic scripts, each letter of the Manchu script has an independent, an initial, medial and final form.
If we start first with the 6 vowels (See letters 1-6 in the above chart). The characters are 1='a', 2='e', 3='i', 4='o', 5='u', 6='v'.
Most students of Manchu in China learn the Manchu script through the "12 characters", shown below.
- Daniels, P.T., (1996). “Aramaic Scripts for Aramaic Languages”. In Daniels & Bright (eds.) The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.499-513.
- Kara, G., (1996). “Aramaic Scripts for Altaic Languages”. In Daniels & Bright (Ed.), The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.536-558.
- Niu Ruji., (1997). Weiwuerzu gu wenzi yu gu wenxian daolun, [An Introduction to Uighur Scripts & Documents]. Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, [Xinjiang People’s Publishing House].