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|Creator||Drogön Chögyal Phagpa|
|1269 – c. 1660|
|Horizontal square script, Hangul?|
|Lepcha, Meitei, Khema, Marchen|
|ISO 15924||Phag (331), Phags-pa|
|The Brahmic script and its descendants|
The ʼPhags-pa or ḥPʻags-pa script 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-led Yuan dynasty, and it fell out of use with the advent of the Ming dynasty.
It was used to write and transcribe varieties of Chinese, the Tibetic languages, Mongolian, the Uyghur language, Sanskrit, probably Persian, and other neighboring languages during the Yuan era. For historical linguists, the documentation of its use provides clues about the changes in these languages.
Its descendant systems include Horizontal square script, used to write Tibetan and Sanskrit. There is a theory that the Korean Hangul alphabet had a limited influence from ʼPhags-pa (see Origin of Hangul). During the Pax Mongolica the script has even made numerous appearances in western medieval art.
ʼPhags-pa script: ꡏꡡꡃ ꡣꡡꡙ ꡐꡜꡞ mongxol tshi, "Mongolian script";
Mongolian: дөрвөлжин үсэг dörvöljin üseg, "square script"; дөрвөлжин бичиг dörvöljin bichig, "square writing"
In English, it is also written as ḥPʻags-pa, Phaspa, Paspa, Baschpah, and Pa-sse-pa.
During the Mongol Empire, the Mongol rulers wanted a universal script to write down the languages of the people they subjugated. 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 (c. 1269), Kublai Khan asked the Tibetan monk ʼPhags-pa to design a new alphabet for use by the whole empire. ʼPhags-pa extended his native Tibetan alphabet to encompass Mongol and Chinese, evidently Central Plains Mandarin. 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.
Descending from Tibetan script it is part of the Brahmic family of scripts, which includes Devanagari and scripts used throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. It is unique among Brahmic scripts in that it is written top bottom, like how classical Chinese used to be written; and like the Manchu alphabet or later Mongolian 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 when the Red Turban Rebellion started. After this it was mainly used as a phonetic gloss for Mongols 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.
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, a syllabary, 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; pinyin: měnggǔ zhuànzì ; "Mongolian Seal Script"), used for imperial seals and the like, was more elaborate, with squared sinusoidal lines and spirals. This 'Phags-pa script is different from the 'Phags-pa script, or 八思巴字 in Chinese, that shares the same name but its earliest usage can be traced back to the late 16th century, the early reign of Wanli Emperor. According to Professor Junast 照那斯图 of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the later 'Phags-pa script is actually a seal script of Tibetan.
Korean records state that hangul was based on an "Old Seal Script" (古篆字), which may 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.
The following 41 are the basic ʼPhags-pa letters.
Letters 1-30 and 35-38 are base consonants. The order of Letters 1-30 is the same as the traditional order of the thirty basic letters of the Tibetan script, to which they correspond. Letters 35-38 represent sounds that do not occur in Tibetan, and are either derived from an existing Tibetan base consonant (e.g. Letters 2 and 35 are both derived from the simple Tibetan letter KHA, but are graphically distinct from each other) or from a combination of an existing Tibetan base consonant and the semi-vowel (subjoined) letter WA (e.g. Letter 36 is derived from the complex Tibetan letter KHWA).
As is the case with Tibetan, these letters have an inherent [a] vowel sound attached to them in non-final positions when no other vowel sign is present (e.g. the letter KA with no attached vowel represents the syllable ka, but with an appended vowel i represents the syllable ki).
Letters 31-34 and 39 are vowels. Letters 31-34 follow the traditional order of the corresponding Tibetan vowels. Letter 39 represents a vowel quality that does not occur in Tibetan, and may be derived from the Tibetan double-E vowel sign.
Unlike Tibetan, in which vowels signs may not occur in isolation but must always be attached to a base consonant to form a valid syllable, in the ʼPhags-pa script initial vowels other than a may occur without a base consonant when they are not the first element in a diphthong (e.g. ue) or a digraph (e.g. eeu and eeo). Thus in Chinese ʼPhags-pa texts the syllables u 吾 wú, on 刓 wán and o 訛 é occur, and in Mongolian ʼPhags-pa texts the words ong qo chas "boats", u su nu (gen.) "water", e du -ee "now" and i hee -een "protection" occur. These are all examples of where 'o, 'u, 'e, 'i etc. would be expected if the Tibetan model had been followed exactly. An exception to this rule is the Mongolian word 'er di nis "jewels", where a single vowel sign is attached to a null base consonant. Note that the letter EE is never found in an initial position in any language written in the ʼPhags-pa script (for example, in Tao Zongyi's description of the Old Uighur script, he glosses all instances of Uighur e with the ʼPhags-pa letter EE, except for when it is found in the initial position, when he glosses it with the ʼPhags-pa letter E instead).
However, initial semi-vowels, diphthongs and digraphs must be attached to the null base consonant 'A (Letter 30). So in Chinese ʼPhags-pa texts the syllables 'wen 元 yuán, 'ue 危 wēi and 'eeu 魚 yú occur; and in Mongolian ʼPhags-pa texts the words 'eeu lu "not" and 'eeog bee.e "gave" occur. As there is no sign for the vowel a, which is implicit in an initial base consonant with no attached vowel sign, then words that start with an a vowel must also use the null base consonant letter 'A (e.g. Mongolian 'a mi than "living beings"). In Chinese, and rarely Mongolian, another null base consonant -A (Letter 23) may be found before initial vowels (see "Letter 23" below).
|Derivation||Letter Name||Transcription||IPA||Mongolian Examples||Chinese Examples|
|1||ꡀ||TIBETAN LETTER KA ཀ [U+0F40]||KA||k||/ka/||Only used for words of foreign origin, such as kal bu dun (gen. pl.) from Sanskrit kalpa "aeon" [cf. Mongolian galab ᠭᠠᠯᠠᠪ], with the single exception of the common Mongolian word ye kee "large, great" [cf. Mongolian yeke ᠶᠡᠬᠡ]||kiw 裘 qiú
kue 夔 kuí
|2||ꡁ||TIBETAN LETTER KHA ཁ [U+0F41]||KHA||kh||/kʰa/||kheen "who" [cf. Mongolian ken ᠬᠡᠨ]||khang 康 kāng
kheeu 屈 qū
|3||ꡂ||TIBETAN LETTER GA ག [U+0F42]||GA||g||/ga/||bi chig "written document, book" [cf. Mongolian bičig ᠪᠢᠴᠢᠭ]||ging 荊 jīng
gu 古 gǔ
|4||ꡃ||TIBETAN LETTER NGA ང [U+0F44]||NGA||ng||/ŋa/||deng ri "heaven" [cf. Mongolian tengri ᠲᠡᠩᠷᠢ]||ngiw 牛 niú
ngem 嚴 yán ding 丁 dīng
|5||ꡄ||TIBETAN LETTER CA ཅ [U+0F45]||CA||c||/tʃa/||cay 柴 chái
ci 池 chí
|6||ꡅ||TIBETAN LETTER CHA ཆ [U+0F46]||CHA||ch||/tʃʰa/||cha q-an "white" [cf. Mongolian čaɣan ᠴᠠᠭᠠᠨ]||chang 昌 chāng
cheeu 褚 chǔ
|7||ꡆ||TIBETAN LETTER JA ཇ [U+0F47]||JA||j||/dʒa/||jil "year" [cf. Mongolian ǰil ᠵᠢᠯ]||jim 針 zhēn|
|8||ꡇ||TIBETAN LETTER NYA ཉ [U+0F49]||NYA||ny||/ɲa/||nyiw 鈕 niǔ|
|9||ꡈ||TIBETAN LETTER TA ཏ [U+0F4F]||TA||t||/ta/||Mostly used in words of foreign origin, such as 'er ti nis (also 'er di nis) "jewels" [cf. Mongolian erdenis ᠡᠷᠳᠡᠨᠢᠰ] and ta layi "sea, ocean" [cf. Mongolian dalai ᠳᠠᠯᠠᠢ]||ten 田 tián
tung 童 tóng
|10||ꡉ||TIBETAN LETTER THA ཐ [U+0F50]||THA||th||/tʰa/||thu thum "each, all" [cf. Mongolian tutum ᠲᠤᠲᠤᠮ]||thang 湯 tāng
thung 通 tōng
|11||ꡊ||TIBETAN LETTER DA ད [U+0F51]||DA||d||/da/||u ri da nu (gen.) "former, previous" [cf. Mongolian urida ᠤᠷᠢᠳᠠ]||dung 東 dōng
du 都 dū
|12||ꡋ||TIBETAN LETTER NA ན [U+0F53]||NA||n||/na/||ma nu "our" [cf. Mongolian manu ᠮᠠᠨᠤ]||nee 聶 niè
nung 農 nóng
gon 管 guǎn
|13||ꡌ||TIBETAN LETTER PA པ [U+0F54]||PA||p||/pa/||Only used in words of foreign origin, such as pur xan "Buddha" [cf. Mongolian burqan ᠪᠤᠷᠬᠠᠨ]||pang 龐 páng
pay 白 bái
|14||ꡍ||TIBETAN LETTER PHA ཕ [U+0F55]||PHA||ph||/pʰa/||phon 潘 pān
phu 浦 pǔ
|15||ꡎ||TIBETAN LETTER BA བ [U+0F56]||BA||b||/ba/||ba sa "then, still, also" [cf. Mongolian basa ᠪᠠᠰᠠ]||ban 班 bān
been 邊 biān
|16||ꡏ||TIBETAN LETTER MA མ [U+0F58]||MA||m||/ma/||'a mi than "living beings" [cf. Mongolian amitan ᠠᠮᠢᠲᠠᠨ]||min 閔 mǐn
mew 苗 miáo
gim 金 jīn
|17||ꡐ||TIBETAN LETTER TSA ཙ [U+0F59]||TSA||ts||/tsa/||tsaw 曹 cáo
tsin 秦 qín
|18||ꡑ||TIBETAN LETTER TSHA ཚ [U+0F5A]||TSHA||tsh||/tsʰa/||Only used in words of foreign origin, such as sha tshin "religion"||tshay 蔡 cài
tshiw 秋 qiū
|19||ꡒ||TIBETAN LETTER DZA ཛ [U+0F5B]||DZA||dz||/dza/||dzam 昝 zǎn
dzew 焦 jiāo
|20||ꡓ||TIBETAN LETTER WA ཝ [U+0F5D]||WA||w||/wa/||Only used in words of foreign origin, such as wa chi ra ba ni "Vajrapāṇi"||wan 萬 wàn
wu 武 wǔ
xiw 侯 hóu
gaw 高 gāo
|21||ꡔ||TIBETAN LETTER ZHA ཞ [U+0F5E]||ZHA||zh||/ʒa/||zheeu 茹 rú
zhew 饒 ráo
|22||ꡕ||TIBETAN LETTER ZA ཟ [U+0F5F]||ZA||z||/za/||Only found in the single word za ra "month" [cf. Mongolian sara ᠰᠠᠷᠠ]||zin 陳 chén
zeeu 徐 xú
zi 席 xí
|23||ꡖ||TIBETAN LETTER -A འ [U+0F60]||-A||-||/'a/||This letter is found rarely initially, e.g. -ir gee nee (dat./loc.) "people" [cf. Mongolian irgen ᠢᠷᠭᠡᠨ], but frequently medially between vowels where it serves to separate a syllable that starts with a vowel from a preceding syllable that ends in a vowel, e.g. er khee -ud "Christians" and q-an "emperor, khan" [cf. Mongolian qaɣan ᠬᠠᠭᠠᠨ] (where q-an is a contraction for the hypothetical qa -an)||-an 安 ān
-ing 應 yīng
-eeu 郁 yù
|24||ꡗ||TIBETAN LETTER YA ཡ [U+0F61]||YA||y||/ja/||na yan "eighty" [cf. Mongolian nayan ᠨᠠᠶᠠᠨ]||yi 伊 yī
yang 羊 yáng
day 戴 dài
hyay 解 xiè
|25||ꡘ||TIBETAN LETTER RA ར [U+0F62]||RA||r||/ra/||chee rig "army" [cf. Mongolian čerig ᠴᠡᠷᠢᠭ]|
|26||ꡙ||TIBETAN LETTER LA ལ [U+0F63]||LA||l||/la/||al ba "tax, tribute" [cf. Mongolian alba ᠠᠯᠪᠠ]||leeu 呂 lǚ
lim 林 lín
|27||ꡚ||TIBETAN LETTER SHA ཤ [U+0F64]||SHA||sh||/ʃa/||shi nee "new" [cf. Mongolian šine ᠱᠢᠨᠡ]||shi 石 shí
shwang 雙 shuāng
|28||ꡛ||TIBETAN LETTER SA ས [U+0F66]||SA||s||/sa/||hee chus "end, goal" [cf. Mongolian ečüs ᠡᠴᠦᠰ]||su 蘇 sū
syang 相 xiàng
|29||ꡜ||TIBETAN LETTER HA ཧ [U+0F67]||HA||h||/ha/||Initially in words that now have null initials, such as har ban "ten" [cf. Mongolian arban ᠠᠷᠪᠠᠨ], and medially only in the single word -i hee -een (or -i h-een) "protector, guardian"||hwa 花 huā
sh.hi 史 shǐ
l.hing 冷 lěng
j.hang 莊 zhuāng
|30||ꡝ||TIBETAN LETTER A ཨ [U+0F68]||'A||'||/a/||'eeu lu "not" [cf. Mongolian ülü ᠦᠯᠦ]||'wang 王 wáng
'eeu 虞 yú
|31||ꡞ||TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN I ི [U+0F72]||I||i||-i hee -een (or -i h-een) "protection"||li 李 lǐ
n.hing 能 néng
heei 奚 xī
|32||ꡟ||TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN U ུ [U+0F74]||U||u||u su nu (gen.) "water" [cf. Mongolian usun ᠤᠰᠤᠨ]||u 吳 wú
mue 梅 méi
|33||ꡠ||TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN E ེ [U+0F7A]||E||e||e du -ee "now" [cf. Mongolian edüge ᠡᠳᠦᠭᠡ]||ze 謝 xiè
jem 詹 zhān
gue 國 guó
|34||ꡡ||TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN O ོ [U+0F7C]||O||o||ong qo chas "boats" [cf. Mongolian ongɣočas ᠣᠩᠭᠣᠴᠠᠰ]||no 那 nā
mon 滿 mǎn
|35||ꡢ||TIBETAN LETTER KHA ཁ [U+0F41]||QA||q||qa muq "all" [cf. Mongolian qamuɣ ᠬᠠᠮᠤᠭ]|
|36||ꡣ||TIBETAN LETTER KHA [U+0F41] plus TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER WA [U+0FAD] ཁྭ||XA||x||Only used in words of foreign origin, such as pur xan "Buddha" [cf. Mongolian burqan ᠪᠤᠷᠬᠠᠨ]||xu 胡 hú
xong 黃 huáng
|37||ꡤ||TIBETAN LETTER HA [U+0F67] plus TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER WA [U+0FAD] ཧྭ||FA||f||/fa/||fang 方 fāng
fi 費 fèi
|38||ꡥ||TIBETAN LETTER GA ག [U+0F42]||GGA|
|39||ꡦ||TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN EE ཻ [U+0F7B]||EE||ee||el deeb "various" [cf. Mongolian eldeb ᠡᠯᠳᠡᠪ] (Poppe reads this word as eel deeb, as the only example of an initial letter EE, but I think that it is clear from the rubbing of the inscription that the initial letter is a slightly deformeed letter E)||chee 車 chē
seeu 胥 xū
geeing 經 jīng
|40||ꡧ||TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER WA ྭ [U+0FAD]||SUBJOINED WA||w||/w/||xway 懷 huái
jwaw 卓 zhuō
gwang 廣 guǎng
|41||ꡨ||TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER YA ྱ [U+0FB1]||SUBJOINED YA||y||hya 夏 xià
gya 家 jiā
dzyang 蔣 jiǎng
|Derivation||Letter Name||Transcription||Sanskrit or Tibetan Examples|
|42||ꡩ||TIBETAN LETTER TTA ཊ [U+0F4A]||TTA||tt||sha tt-a pa ... i ta (Sanskrit ṣaṭ pāramitā) [Ill.3 Line 6]|
|43||ꡪ||TIBETAN LETTER TTHA ཋ [U+0F4B]||TTHA||tth||pra tish tthi te (Sanskrit pratiṣṭhite) [Ill.3 Line 8] (TTHA plus unreversed I)
dhish tthi te (Sanskrit dhiṣṭhite) [Tathāgatahṛdaya-dhāraṇī Line 16] (TTHA plus reversed I) nish tthe (Sanskrit niṣṭhe) [Tathāgatahṛdaya-dhāraṇī Line 10] (TTHA plus reversed E)
|44||ꡫ||TIBETAN LETTER DDA ཌ [U+0F4C]||DDA||dd||dann dde (Sanskrit daṇḍaya) [Tathāgatahṛdaya-dhāraṇī Line 14]
'-a kad ddha ya (Sanskrit ākaḍḍhaya) [Ill.4 Line 7] (DDA plus reversed HA)
|45||ꡬ||TIBETAN LETTER NNA ཎ [U+0F4E]||NNA||nn||sb-a ra nna (Sanskrit spharaṇa) [Ill.3 Line 3]
ush nni ... (Sanskrit uṣṇīṣa) [Ill.3 Line 6] (NNA plus reversed I) kshu nnu (Sanskrit kṣuṇu) [Tathāgatahṛdaya-dhāraṇī Line 2] (NNA plus reversed U)
ha ra nne (Sanskrit haraṇe) [Ill.4 Line 5] (NNA plus reversed E) pu nn.ya (Sanskrit puṇya) [Tathāgatahṛdaya-dhāraṇī Line 13] (NNA plus reversed subjoined Y)
|46||ꡱ||TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER RA ྲ [U+0FB2]||Subjoined RA||r||bh-ru^ (Sanskrit bhrūṁ) [Ill.3 Line 2]
mu dre (Sanskrit mudre) [Ill.3 Line 9] ba dzra (Sanskrit vajra) [Ill.3 Line 9]
bkra shis (Tibetan bkra-shis "prosperity, good fortune") [Ill.5]
|47||ꡲ||TIBETAN LETTER RA ར [U+0F62]||Superfixed RA||sangs rgyas (Tibetan sangs-rgyas "Buddha") [Ill.6]|
|48||ꡳ||TIBETAN SIGN SNA LDAN ྃ [U+0F83]
DEVANAGARI SIGN CANDRABINDU [U+0901]
|Candrabindu||^||o^ bh-ru^ bh-ru^ (Sanskrit oṁ bhrūṁ bhrūṁ) [Ill.3 Line 2]
sa^ ha ... (Sanskrit saṁhatana) [Ill.3 Line 9]
|17||非 fēi||*[p̪]||ꡤ||f-||Normal form of the letter fa|
|18||敷 fū||*[p̪ʰ]||ꡰ||f¹-||Variant form of the letter fa|
|19||奉 fèng||*[b̪]||ꡤ||f-||Normal form of the letter fa|
|20||微 wēi||*[ɱ]||ꡓ||w-||Letter wa represents [v]|
|29||審 shěn||*[ɕ]||ꡮ||sh¹-||Variant form of the letter sha|
|30||禪 chán||*[ʑ]||ꡚ||sh-||Normal form of the letter sha|
|31||曉 xiǎo||*[x]||ꡜ||h-||Normal form of the letter ha|
|ꡯ||h¹-||Variant form of the letter ha|
|33||影 yǐng||*[ʔ]||ꡖ||ʼ-||glottal stop|
|ꡗ||y-||Normal form of the letter ya|
|34||喻 yù||*[j]||ꡝ||-||null initial|
|ꡭ||y¹-||Variant form of the letter ya|
The Shilin Guangji used Phagspa to annotate Chinese text, serving as a precursor to modern pinyin. The following are the Phagspa transcriptions of a section of the Hundred Family Surnames in the Shilin Guangji. For example, the name Jin (金), meaning gold, is written as ꡂꡞꡏor Gim, similar to how it is transliterated in Korean (Kim).
ꡆꡞꡓ Jiw (Jiu)
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)