Asian and African studies blog

27 posts categorized "Language studies"

05 October 2020

Defining Dialects: Accounting for Turkic Languages in the British Library Collections

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Several weeks ago, I wrote about the provenance and curation of the 150-odd works in our Chagatai collections. In that blog, I promised that I would return with a related piece about the languages of our holdings. In this piece, I'll be looking at where the name "Chagatai" comes from, why we use it to describe our holdings, and why it isn't an ideal way to refer to what we have on hand. 

Double-page spread of text in Old Turkic script in black and red ink
Two pages from the 8th-century CE divination book Irq Bitigwritten in Old Turkic script. (Irq Bitig. Dunhuang. 8th century CE. Or 8212/171)
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The earliest written records in a Turkic language come to us in the form of the Orkhon inscriptions, which were produced some time in the 8th century CE. Turkic lects were obviously spoken long before this, but the inscriptions are among the first written records that we have by which to measure their spread and evolution over the following thirteen centuries. The inscriptions were written in the Old Turkic script, which I wrote about in this blog. It is replicated in Or 8212/76(1) and Or 8212/76(3), military inventories, as well as in Or 8212/161, the famous 9th-century CE Irq Bitig divination manual. These documents are part of the British Library’s Stein Collections and provide an exceptionally rare look at the early history and worldview of the Turkic languages and people. While there is remarkable uniformity between the language of the Orkhon inscriptions and the manuscripts in the Library’s collections, orthographic idiosyncrasies point to the great influence that individual writers exerted in defining early written Turkic expression. Such peculiarities would grow to reflect dialect divergences over the coming centuries.

During this time, the Turkic peoples underwent some pretty fundamental changes. In the 8th century CE, Islam began to take root among Central Asian communities, radically altering worldviews as well as linguistic patterns. It led to the introduction of new words, concepts and paradigms into Turkic lects and literatures. The 11th century CE saw two different milestones of importance for Turkic historical linguistics. In the 1070s, the Qarakhanid polymath Kaşgarlı Mahmud compiled his Divan-ı Luğati’t-Türk (YP.2007.a.173), a compendious dictionary of the Turkic dialects, and an invaluable window on linguistic diversity within the language family. In the same century, the Seljuqs, a clan from the Oğuz confederation, swept through Persia into West Asia. They brought with them the dialects that would eventually come to dominate Turkic communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan.

A page of handwritten text in Arabic script in black ink surrounded by an intricate geometrical and floral border in blue, red, white and gold, with gold margins
The first page of the Nusratnama, greatly faded, with showing the intricacy of the illumination. (Nusratnama. Central Asia. 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 1v)
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In the 13th century CE, a different invasion – that of the Golden Horde – brought another seismic shift. Genghis Khan and his Mongolian armies whipped across Eurasia, subjugating Turkic states caught in their path. While there is some Mongolian input into the development of many Turkic languages, its influence over Central Asian and western Turkic languages over subsequent centuries was not nearly as great as that of Persian. Language does not exist outside of a historical vacuum, however, and Genghis Khan’s invasions did effectively tip the scales of fortune in favour of certain dialect groups. The Chagatai Khanate, established under the sovereignty of Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai Khan, is such an example. Originally Mongolian in language, the state was gradually Turkicized. As it reached the zenith of its political and military power under Timur, the Turkic dialects of the region gradually began to coalesce as a language of state power. Add MS 7851, Al-Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya, reflects this stage of transition and the emergence of Chagatai as a language of literature and statecraft. The Khanate’s military prowess waned over the next three centuries, but its cultural legacy only continued to grow. From the 14th century CE right up to the advent of Soviet power in Central Asia, Chagatai was a medium of literary creation and historical recording from Delhi to Siberia, and from Iran through to Bengal.

The problem, however, is that what was written in 15th-century CE Samarqand wasn’t necessarily the same dialect as that found in a 19th-century CE manuscript from Qazan or Qashgar. As a language, Chagatai never had a state-sponsored, institutionally-regulated standard in the way that Turkish, French, Filipino or Korean do. Moreover, there is no body of active, native speakers on whom to rely for intelligibility tests, as one would use for lects without global standards, such as English, Southern Quechua or Yoruba. As a result, the tag “Chagatai” is used by the Library – and many orientalists, but not linguists – to describe a body of works that exhibit a breathtaking amount of linguistic variation. The great poet Mir Alisher Navoiy, a giant in the canon of Chagatai literature, helped to set a benchmark for composition in the language. So too did Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty. But without an active insistence on these examples being prescriptive, as well as admirable, there was little to discourage writers from including social or geographical variants as they sought fit. I’m not a linguist, and I am by no means competent in determining which alternative label might be better to affix to some of the works in our Chagatai collections. Nonetheless, with what follows, I hope to elucidate why we have grouped so many disparate works together, and why improved access to them might help me and future curators in understanding just how to describe them.

A page of text in Arabic script written in black and red inkDouble page of text in Arabic script with various words underlined in red
(Left) Words in the Kyrgyz dialect of Bukhara along with Arabic and Persian translations indicated in red. (Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari. Sabab-i Taqviat. Kazan. 19th century CE. Or 11042, f 57r)
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(Right) Explanations of various Turkic dialects in Persian with examples from the dialects themselves. (Sindh, Pakistan. 1253 AH [1837 CE]. Or 404, ff 17v-18r)
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The authors of some texts make this task relatively easy by stating overtly which lects they are using or discussing. Numerous manuscripts contain vocabularies of different dialects, as well as explanations of the divergences in pronunciation, morphology, syntax and semantics between the different Turkic communities. Or 11042, for example, gives us a glossary of the words used by Kyrgyz-speakers around Bukhara. Compiled by Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari of Qazan in the 19th century CE, it was intended to provide Tatar students in Bukhara with a key to the peculiarities of local speech patterns, translating these words into Persian and Arabic. Or 404 , by contrast, goes even deeper into the question of linguistic diversity, as Dr. Paolo Sartori has highlighted for me. A Persian and Turkic codex, the author of the first text, Ashur Beg, aimed to distinguish seven different dialect groups: Turani, Uzbeki, Irani, Qizilbashi, Rumi, Qashgari, and Nogay. While it is easy to guess how some of these map onto contemporary linguistic groups (Rumi is probably Ottoman; Qashgari is probably related to Uyghur; and Nogay might be Nogay and other Caucasian Qipchaq varieties), others are more difficult. Is “Irani” the Turkmen varieties of north-east Iran and Central Asia? And where does Turani fit in? Evidently, we still have quite long strides to make in order to understand how to reconcile the worldviews of the authors of these texts with those of the speakers of the languages discussed, both past and present.

Similarly, Or 1912, a Chagatai-Persian codex that contains numerous linguistic tracts, presents us with a few more issues of nomenclature. Copied in India in the mid-19th century CE, the work demonstrates Mughal scholars’ interest in various Turkic dialects. The first three texts present grammars and vocabularies of Chagatai, Azerbaijani, Nogay and Qashgari, none of which pose too many problems when it comes to identifying, roughly, contemporary linguistic communities. The fourth text, however, creates a bit of confusion. The author, who might have been Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi, states that Turkic peoples are divided between two camps: the Aimaqs, who say things like qayda, qanday,qali and tash, and the Turkmen, who say hayda, handay, ghali and dash. These divisions do appear to mark some phonological differences that we know of today. Consider, for example, Kazakh (Qipchaq) qajet and Turkish (Oğuz) hacet (meaning “need”); or Kazakh taw and Turkish dağ (meaning “mountain”). But beyond this, the lines start to get fuzzy. Today, Aimaq primarily designates Dari-speaking communities in Afghanistan; some members do claim descent from Turkic-speakers of Central Asia. Are these the same people described in the text? Did Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi retain a record of their ancestors’ speech patterns, or is he describing a completely different group of people? Only further research of this and related manuscripts might help us to get closer to the truth.

Chagatai, of course, isn’t just a language of manuscripts. For much of the 19th century CE, lithography was also used for the reproduction of texts. Lithography, unlike early movable type, helped replicate more faithfully the nastaliq style of calligraphy common in many Central Asian manuscripts. Movable type was also used, however, particularly within the context of Europeanisation programs imposed by various colonial empires. In the early 19th century CE, presses existed at Qazan (a history of it by R. I. Yakupov is available here ) as well as St. Petersburg, and were soon established in Tashkent, Orenburg, and Bukhara. The earliest example held in the British Library is the Makhzan al-asrar, published in Qazan in 1858 (ITA.1986.a.1077). It isn’t particularly beautiful, but it does embody some of the important history of Chagatai publishing. The monograph was published by Joseph Gottwaldt (there’s only a German-language biographical page for him), a professor of Arabic and Persian at Kazan University from 1849 until 1897. Gottwaldt became the University’s Oriental Librarian in 1850 and headed up its publishing house from 1857, showing, once again, the deep links between orientalist scholarship and the publishing of Chagatai literature.

Lithographed title page with text in Arabic script and many small illustrations of different outdoor settingsLithographed page of text in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and a page of poetry (right) showing the heights of lithographed calligraphy and imager from a Central Asian publisher. (Mashrab, Divan-i Mashrab (Tashkent: Tipografiia Bratsei Portsevykh", 1900).) (ORB.30/8204)
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Not all printed editions of Chagatai literature were created within the Imperial academy. A copy of the Divan-i Mashrab (ORB.30/8204), the collected poetry of Boborahim Mullah Wali, a 16th-17th century CE Sufi intellectual also known as Mashrab, was likely produced for the enjoyment of a Central Asian readership. This beautiful edition was lithographed in Tashkent in 1900 and demonstrates the aesthetic heights attainable for late 19th-century CE Central Asian artisans. It also provides us with a clear contrast to contemporary works produced by Turkic speakers, putting into relief the growing chasm between literary and vernacular modes of expression.

Printed text in Arabic script with small illustrated header showing fields and a treePrinted text in Arabic script with small illustrated header
Articles from the magazine Shura about sex work (left) and original works of creative writing with more vernacular linguistic features (right). (Shura (Orenburg: Vakit Nashriyati, 1908-1917).) (
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Vernacularization was already a trend by the final years of the Tsarist Empire. Turkic intellectuals across the Romanov lands were publishing in dialects influenced more by how people spoke than by traditional literary convention. In some cases, the result was written language that aligned somewhat closely with languages used today. The early 20th -century CE periodical Shura (, published in Orenburg by the Bashkir and Tatar Jadid Rizaeddin Fakhreddinov (Ризаитдин Фәхретдин), provides an example that shows Chagatai and Tatar features. Among them are the use of -ymyz instead of-ybyz for the first person plural (a feature of Chagatai), and the appearance of tügel for the negative copula (common in Tatar). It seems that Fakhreddinov operated on a sliding scale, with a more literary style preferred for social commentary, and, ironically, a more vernacular one for literary pieces.

Title page with a calligraphic title in Arabic scriptText in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and introduction (right) to a book about the travels of Abdurreshit Ibragimov and their importance for Turkic national development. (Davr-i Alim (Kazan: Tipografiia gazety Bayan'ul-khak", 1909).) (14499.p.5)
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Contrast this to the book Davr-i Alim (14499.p.5), an account of Abdurreshit Ibragimov’s (Габдрәшит Ибраһимов) travels around the world and their impact on national development. It contains elements that are common in Oğuz dialects (olmak, ile) as well as features that can be found in Qarluq or Qipchaq ones (-gan past and -a tur constructions). It’s not Chagatai, but it’s also not proto-Uzbek or Turkmen or Tatar. What’s going on here?

Cover page of a magazine lithographed in Arabic script with a floral border and illustrations of flora and fauna
The cover page of the periodical Oyna (Mirror), published in Turki (called Uzbek in Russian), Persian and Russian by the Jadidist intellectual Mahmud Hoja Behbudi. (Oyna (Samarqand: Makhmud Khwaja Behbudi, 1913-1915).) (ITA.1986.a.1625)
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Perhaps what we’re seeing is something new – an emergent lingua franca for Muslim Turkic communities across Eurasia. Occasionally, it is referred to by the simple moniker of Turki, a name that was, incidentally, used to refer to Chagatai as well. We see on the cover of an issue of Oyna (ITA.1986.a.1625) from 1914. Other types of common Turkic systems had certainly been proposed – the most famous of which was pushed by İsmail Gaspiralı – but none seemed to gain unconditional support among intellectuals and the average Turkic-speaker alike. A scholar of Eastern Turkic texts, literary culture and multilingualism, Ahmet Hojam Pekiniy, alerted me to the widespread presence of an inter-dialect Turki in Eastern Turkestani documents too. There is still so much more for us to understand about this phenomenon, and how it relates to Chagatai linguistically, historically, socially and politically.

In the end, it wasn’t the printing press or mass communication that forced standardization, but rather the process of Sovietization. Soviet authorities, informed by Stalin’s Nationalities’ Policy, set about demarcating the languages of distinct Soviet peoples. Chagatai lost out to a host of semi-vernacular, heavily-managed languages – Uzbek, Tatar, Bashkir, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, among others – which became the new literary norms. Chagatai, or maybe Turki, didn’t die out completely, but lived on for a while longer in exile. I’ve written about Yangi Yapon Mokhbire elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning once more as an example of the continued use of the language as a common denominator amongst exiles from various Turkic communities, at least until the late 1930s. Nonetheless, Chagatai’s quiet disappearance from the world stage has denied us the opportunity to understand truly what it was and was not, and to see its place within the rich tapestry of Turkic cultural production. And for the community of cataloguers and curators, it means a continued struggle to categorize these works in a way that makes them discoverable and useable by readers from around the globe. In time, we hope, a greater public interest in them and the language itself will help revive some of Chagatai's importance in understanding the history of Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further Reading

Eckmann, János, Chagatay Manual ([London?]: Taylor and Francis, [2017]). (DRT ELD.DS.166473)

Khalid, Adeeb, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Schluessel, Eric, An Introduction to Chagatai: A Graded Textbook for Reading Central Asian Sources (Michigan: University of Michigan Press Services, 2018). (YP.2019.b.567)

The Turkic Languages, edited by Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)

02 September 2020

Early Yorùbá books at the BL and how to find (some of) them online

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This blog deals with the earliest Yorùbá books held at the British Library up to 1870, some of which have been digitized. At the end of this blog is a link to a bibliography of all these items and where they are available digitally.

Vocabulary of Yoruba Language by Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Vocabulary of Yorùbá Language by Samuel Ajayi Crowther (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)
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The first Yorùbá-language published item in the British Library dates to 1843. That is:

Subsequent items published around the same time give an insight into the early days of Yorùbá language publishing — a list of them is available for download at the end of this list. There are thirty-five items I found catalogued between 1843 and 1879, using a list of catalogued entries with ‘yor’ language classification, along with other speculative searches on BL Explore.

Out of these, fourteen have been successfully digitized and exist either as a digital collection item or on Google Books, with a few exceptions. But all reachable from the British Library website.

The last digitized item is —

Both Crowther and Gollmer have been dead for more than seventy years, which allows for their work to be made public in this way, as prescribed by copyright laws governing the entry of published books into the public domain. All the other works in this list also fall under this description.

What is most notable about these works is that they are mostly either a record of missionary activities or a record of outputs of missionary activities of these early writers. The books of the bible were common. The first in this list is

This is the first published book of the bible into Yorùbá. Others followed at different times.

Then there are books of common prayers, like

But there was also commentary on the religious practices of the environment in which these missionaries worked. For instance


Kristi ti Awon Sacramenti. Shelfmark General Reference Collection 012991.r.14
Kristi ti Awon Sacramenti
. One of the early missionary books in Yorùbá published in 1960 by Longmans London (General Reference Collection 012991.r.14)
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There is also travel writing, for instance:

which has invaluable knowledge of the àrokò system, described briefly in this essay by the British Library Africa Curator, Dr. Marion Wallace;

Abbeokuta or Sunrise within the Tropics an outline of the origin and progress of the Yoruba Mission
Message of good will from Abbeokuta; or Sunrise within the Tropics: an outline of the origin and progress of the Yoruba Mission
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The rest are grammar books, like the aforementioned Vocabulary of the Yorùbá.

There are also periodicals, such as

which I have talked about at length in an earlier blog.

The digitization of some of these materials have put them in the hands of people who may not have been able to physically come to the British Library — especially now during this time of the pandemic. While the physical copies remain at the Library and will remain available for time to come, having them digitally present extends the reach of their use to a wider audience. It is of immense benefit for researchers interested in the origins of Yorùbá language publishing, the work of the early Yorùbá language missionaries, the record of the original translations of the bible into Yorùbá, the thoughts of people traveling within the Yorùbá country in the middle of the 19th Century, and any other interesting tidbits that can be obtained by contact with such records.

One of the books within this range—

—no longer exists as a physical item at the British Library. A note in the record says “Physical condition: Copy at D-4419.h.24.. Destroyed in World War II.” It may exist in some other library or private hands, but the record puts into sharp relief the benefits of digitization for the long term survival of these records.

As I mentioned earlier, some of these items are on Google Books while some are on the British Library website. Their presentations are also different. The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, for instance, does not have its cover page on Google Books; one lands on the title page. Whereas, in the BL Viewer, one begins on the cover page, with a chance to see the cover art and enjoy a little faux sensation of encountering a real book. The BL viewer also presents full metadata on the right side of the page. What Google Books has that the BL Viewer does not is a search box, allowing the user a chance to go directly to the search term they may be looking for. On the BL Viewer, one can only go to specific pages, not to specific terms/words.

Having both options available for researchers is a great help. Unfortunately, not all the digitized options show up on the BL search results. I have indicated in the linked list: Publications in Yorùbá 1843 – 1879 held by the British Library where they have been digitized and where they have not.

A story of the mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country, published by the Basle Missionary Society.
Oguyomi. A story of the mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country, published by the Basle Missionary Society. Romansch. Basel, 1867 (General Reference Collection 884.a.13.(2.))
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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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14 August 2020

How Should We Write Yorùbá? Diacritics in Modern Yoruba Writing

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Chart of letters with diacritics in Yorùbá in black and white
A version of Yorùbá letters for the computer.
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Working in the British Library collections — as Chevening British Library Fellow in the Asian and African Collections — has given me a unique insight into some issues in the orthography of Yorùbá. Having spent close to a year working with the printed materials in the language from the very first published texts to the modern day, I have as much familiarity with some of the problems as many new questions of my own. As my fellowship wraps up, I consider this an opportune time to engage with relevant stakeholders in a conversation on this subject with a view to providing direction to the future of the language. And with COVID-19 keeping everyone at home, an online conversation provides a good opportunity.

The proposed event — an online symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century — will be held on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020, 15.00-17.00 (details below).

Writing in Yorùbá with the computer has always been an issue. I first noticed it as an undergraduate at the university in the early 2000s, where my Microsoft Word underlined my name with a red wriggly line because it was not recognizable in English; but also when I couldn’t find the diacritics under the symbols menu to properly write the name. Yorùbá, being a tone language, uses diacritics (special symbols under and on top of vowels and some consonants) to differentiate words that have similar spellings but different meanings. (I spoke more about this problem in a recent essay on a new writing script for Igbo.)

Names in Yorùbá are given with the express purpose of couching meaning, cultural values, ambitions, prayers, and aspirations for the child, among others. If they are written in a way that doesn’t convey their meanings, perhaps because of the lack of diacritics, then their purposes have been defeated. Yet many writers have had to write Yorùbá names without diacritics, mostly for the lack of computer technological resources to write them in any other way; but also because over time, literacy in reading and writing Yorùbá also had begun to wane, leaving many to assume that the language can be written in official publications without the use of diacritics.

As an adult graduate of linguistics, I found that the issue was not limited to Yorùbá or Nigeria at all, but to many minority languages in the world, especially ones with special characters.

Three books at an angle over a book stop with a toy-sized man
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But there are other issues in Yorùbá orthography that are worth discussing. Since Bishop Àjàyí Crowther first wrote the language down in 1843, there have been very many changes made to the writing of Yorùbá, most notably in 1967 by Ayọ̀ Bámgbóṣé, a Professor of Linguistics. There have been others, from formal critiques and reviews to informal suggestions and creative use in literature and social media. And scholars working in the language — even writers using it in code-switching instances in their literature — have had to grapple with the many complications arising from using Yorùbá in the 21st century, not least how it is supposed to work on the web – where young writers are circumventing the old orthography with words like “oshey” or “wayray” or “jor” showing up to replace “oṣé” (thank you), “wèrè” (a mad person) and “jọ̀ọ́” (please).

That’s why the British Library, in partnership with the Lagos Studies Association and Africa Writes, is organising an online conversation to discuss these issues. It is titled:

How Should We Write Yorùbá?

A Two-session Online Symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century

(Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020

15.00-17.00, West African and UK time).

The event brings together experts in the field to share their experience and thoughts. There will be plenty of time to discuss issues raised by our panels as well as by audience members, who we hope will come from all around the world.

The conversation will be of interest to anyone interested in Yorùbá, writing in any tonal language that uses diacritics, publishing, code-switching, language scripts, language evolution, and challenges in African language writing in the 21st century in general.

Day 1: Yorùbá: From Mission Field to Web Page

Wednesday 2 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Day 2: Using Yorùbá Today: Literature, Leisure and the Academy

Thursday 3 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Register here to attend.

Head shot of man outdoorsHead shot of woman outdoors
Presenters Dr Túndé Adégbọlá (left) and Professor Karin Barber (right). (© Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún)

Confirmed speakers include:

• ● Professor Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́,Humanities Distinguished Professor, Ohio State University

• ● Dr Túndé Adegbọlá, Human Language Technologist, and Executive Director, African Languages Technology Initiative

• ● Mosúnmọ́lá Adéọjọ, doctoral student and Writing Instructor at the University of Florida

• ● Àrẹ̀mú Adéọlá, the Yorùbá scrabble inventor

• ● Professor Karin Barber (CBE), cultural anthropologist and academic; currently London School of Economics Centennial Professor

• ● Dr Carli Coetzee, editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies and Research Associate, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

• ● Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Nigerian linguist, creative writer and currently a Chevening British Library Fellow working in the Asian and African Collections

• ● Mọlará Wood, writer, cultural activist and critic

Host: Dr. Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, at the British Library

I look forward to seeing you there.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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08 July 2020

Toys and ephemera in a fifteenth-century multilingual illustrated dictionary from India

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The Miftāḥ al-Fużalā or Key of the Learned of Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī (BL Or 3299), a multilingual illustrated Persian dictionary written in 1468 gives us glimpses into the ephemeral life of the sultanate of Malwa in Central India. This illustrated dictionary (farhang) has quadruple the number of illustrations (179 in total) as Mandu’s famed Ni‘matnāmah or Book of Delights (BL IO Islamic 149), but it has mostly escaped scholarly attention until recently. It has been attributed to 1490 based on its paintings’ close relationship to a contemporaneous Shirazi idiom. Like the Ni‘matnāmah, it is a unicum and no other known illustrated versions survive. Other works by Shadiyabadi include a vernacularised Persian transcreation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century Arabic book on automata (Wonders of Crafts, ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī, BL Or 13718) and a commentary on the Persian poet Khāqānī’s oeuvre (Bodleian MS Fraser 63).

My doctoral thesis, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600)—a study of the corpus of Islamicate cosmographies and related wonder manuscripts in South Asia—was prompted by the Miftāḥ. My work on the Miftāḥ and the ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī led me to conduct a global search of early-modern manuscripts devoted to wonder and the cosmos made in South Asia. Through a philological and codicological analysis of the Miftāḥ my thesis argues that the experience of this book generated a playful, didactive soundscape and its form and function owed much to the genre of the Islamicate cosmography (‘ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt). The definitions contained in the Miftāḥ shed light on nearly every aspect of early-modern material culture including metalwork, textiles, arms and armour, food, and architecture.

Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490. Or3299_f51v
Fig. 1: Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 5.9 x 6.8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 51v)

As a happy diversion from today’s world, here I present some of the toys from the Miftāḥ. The Miftāḥ’s large, well-spaced nasta‘līq writing suggests that it may have been intended for a young learner, likely a child. The inclusion of several entries devoted to toys also implies a child reader. For example, the first illustrated entry one encounters in the Miftāḥ is for the term dolls. Shadiyabadi defines ‘bādajan’ as “dolls that young girls make clothes for and play with, and in Hindavi they are called ‘guriy[a]’.” (fig. 1). Like a child playing with their early-modern Cabbage Patch Kids, the entry shows a young girl putting her three dolls to bed. It captures a lost moment of childhood play from the past.

Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 .Or3299_f259v
Fig. 2: Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.5 x 8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 259v)

To work on the Miftāḥ I developed a finding aid in Excel that allowed me to notice how its craftsmen created several visual synonyms. So, for the word ‘bādajan,’ we have the visual synonym of ‘lahfatān’ (fig. 2). Shadiyabadi states that these are dolls for which young girls (dukhtarān) make clothing and play with. This entry, however, does not include the Hindavi equivalent.

Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
Fig. 3: Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)

Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
Fig. 4: Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)

Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)
Fig. 5: Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)

In addition to dolls, the Miftāḥ contains entries on toys that one would recognise from South Asian art more broadly. For example, it devotes an entry to the whip-top or yo-yo which Shadiyabadi calls a farmūk in Persian and laṭṭū in Hindavi (fig. 3). It too has a visual synonym in the word bādfarah that is also accompanied by its Hindavi equivalent (fig. 4). These yo-yos, like many of the crafts and objects depicted in the Miftāḥ, can be found in numerous other examples. There are several Rajput paintings of ladies playing with yo-yos, for instance (fig. 5). The Miftāḥ gives words to these objects in both Persian and Hindavi thereby allowing art historians to come closer to these objects through philology.

Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
Fig. 6: Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)

By way of one final example, a teaser for forthcoming work on the Miftāḥ’s sonic elements and sultanate soundscapes, I offer the definition of kazhmazh. Shadiyabadi defines kazhmazh as the child whose language is still not fully developed. The word itself is onomatopoetic, suggesting a childlike babble. The painting depicts a larger woman, probably the mother, speaking to her son. The child is comparatively much smaller. As we know so little about childhood and play in early-modern India, this illustrated definition gives us one vision of that ephemeral world. We can both hear and see the child struggle to correctly pronounce words correctly. It, along with the entries devoted to toys, draw us into a world of the pleasures of sultanate children.

I dedicate this piece especially to my nieces Anika and Zarina Tekchandani.

Vivek Gupta, PhD History of Art at SOAS, University of London; Postdoctoral Associate in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge based at the Centre of Islamic Studies (from September 2020); and former doctoral placement at BL Asian and African Collections

Supplementary Reading

Baevskiĭ, Solomon I, Early Persian Lexicography. Trans. N. Killian. Global Oriental: Kent, 2007.
Gupta, Vivek, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of  South Asia, ca. 1450—1600. PhD thesis, SOAS University of London, 2020.
Karomat, Dilorom, “Turki and Hindavi in the World of Persian.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, eds. Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 131-66.
Qaisar, A. Jan, and Verma, Som Prakash,  “The Miftah-ul Fuzala’: A Study of an Illustrated Persian Lexicon.” In Art and Culture Painting and Perspective vol. II, eds. Ahsan Jan Qaisar, Som Prakash Verma, Abhinav Publications: New Delhi, 2002, pp. 17-32.
Titley, Norah, “An Illustrated Persian Glossary of the Sixteenth Century,” The British Museum Quarterly 29. no. 1/2. (Winter 1964-1965), pp. 15-19.

27 May 2020

Èṣù at the BL: Journeys Through Literature and Technology

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A sculpture of Esu against a backdrop of books
A sculpture of Èṣù. (©, used by permission)

This character in Yorùbá mythology, Èṣù, achieved a somewhat more controversial status at the beginning of the 19th Century when it entered into literature. (The name is sometimes written as “Eshu” or “Exu/Echu” in Latin American literature or Legba, Elegba, Laaroye, Legba, Elegbara, among many others).

Oyelaran (2020) describes the deity as “the most important primordial bastion of the Yorùbá people’s metaphysical embodiments of organising and regulatory existential principles.” A mouthful of a description, more comprehensive than previous easy substitutions like "trickster god" or "messenger god", which have been used in the past, especially in Western literature. Wọlé Ṣóyínká calls Èṣù a “master dialectician” — one of the many important deities in the Yorùbá religious system, notable for its role as a sort of intermediary for other higher deities. Èṣù’s errands, according to stories in Ifá literature, were of different shapes, but the outcome — at least for those who crossed paths with him — could be either good or bad. But it was never just one thing, and those who worshipped it, or encountered it in a shrine or on the road, knew what propitiation was necessary to avoid its wrath or seek its warmth or direct them on another errand. Sophie Olúwọlé called Èṣù something akin to a policeman, a law enforcement agent who did not make rules but was often called upon to enforce them.

In the early 19th century, however, notably at the hands of the early missionary translators, Èṣù became something else: a total and exclusive symbol of evil. In translating the words “Satan” and “Devil” in his book Vocabulary of the Yorùbá Language (1843) [Digital Store 1333.f.23.], Samuel Ajayi Crowther had settled on “Èṣù” as the most appropriate word.

A listing of words including Satan along with its Yoruba translation
The entry on “Satan”. (Crowther, Samuel, Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language: Part 1 (London: Church Missionary Society, 1843). (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)).
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Àjàyí Crowther was an early missionary and the first African Bishop on the Niger. A Yorùbá man himself — though he was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. After his rescue by the British, he was educated in Sierra Leone and eventually returned home. He was intimately familiar with Yorùbá religious and cultural patterns, which made his choice of "Èṣù" for "Satan" an odd one. By settling on this rendering, however, history was forever changed. It had huge, perhaps unintended, consequences for the worship of the deity, the attitude to those who bore it as a root morpheme in their names (Èsùbíyì, Èsùgbàyí, Èsùlékè, Dáraléṣù, etc), and the perception of good and evil in Yorùbá culture and religion. (The same, later, happened in Igbo with “Ekwensu”).

Subsequent dictionaries of Yorùbá followed this particular tradition, retaining Èṣù as the appropriate translation of Satan, devil, or even demon. The Dictionary of Yorùbá Language, published by the Church Missionary Society in 1913 [X.208/3458.], did the same, as did many others. (See this review of Yorùbá dictionaries to see how Èṣù was rendered throughout history till current time). It was only natural that when technology took over as the repository of words and translations, Google Translate began to render the translation of Èṣù as “Satan” or “devil” or “demon” as well. This didn’t go well with a number of people. Adherents did not take too kindly to the association with evil, although for over a century they could not do anything about it.

Oríta Mẹ́ta by Moussa Kone, ink and watercolour on paper, 76 x 56 cm, painted in 2020. (© Moussa Kone, used by permission).

When I worked at Google from 2015-2016, I worked on the first permanent fix of that online problem. I have written about that in a 2016 blog post. In the end, Èṣù, having no direct equivalent in English, was retained as “Esu" in English translation on Google Translate. Demon became “Ànjọ̀nú”, and Devil/evil became “Bìlísì” — a Yorubanized version of “Iblis”, an Arabic word for devil (which had also shown up in later translation of the bible in the line for “deliver us from evil” as “gba wa lowo bilisi”).

I had known for a while that Àjàyí Crowther had something to do with the misrepresentation of Èṣù in modern imagination — Wole Ṣóyínká in 1976 had alleged that the Bishop had “grovelled before his white missionary superiors in a plea for patience and understanding of his ‘backward, heathen, brutish’ brothers”. But many who have engaged with the topic over the years had assumed that this mistranslation happened during the Bishop’s translation of the Bible. It was, earlier this year, while working with the physical copy of The Vocabulary of Yorùbá at the British Library (referenced earlier) that I discovered the original source of the problem. It predated the work on the Bible by a number of years.

Figures of Esu2
Figures of Èṣù published in the Dictionary of Modern Yorùbá. (Abraham, Roy Clive, H. J. Sutton (illustrator), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (London: University of London Press, 1958).) (12912.m.25)
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Now while one could argue that the skills used in dictionary lexicography are necessarily different from those used in prose translation, the eventual consequences of the choice of words used still point to the influence of Christian ideas about good and evil in the Bishop’s lexicographical choices. In today’s spoken Yorùbá, the word Èṣù is used interchangeably with ‘devil’ or ‘satan’, to the consternation of those cognisant of the initial error. But this is only in Nigeria. The diaspora Yorùbá in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America appear to have kept the deity in his place of reverence and celebration, along with the other deities.

Most dictionaries of Yorùbá, alas, have followed Àjàyí Crowther. Even dictionaries published as late as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary [YC.2006.a.19076] have retained that original “evil” association. Most who speak the language today do not even know of the time when the association wasn’t always present. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today only means “child of the devil”. So whether the bell of the evil linkage can be successfully unrung is a question that will remain up in the air.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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Ayankunle, Lamidi (bata); Baba Lati (bata); Baba Nasiru (bata),Eshu (Erin Osun, Osun State, Nigeria: 1985). [Live performance] ( ^A184405)

Harper, Peggy (sound recordist), “Eṣu”, on Peggy Harper African Recordings (Otu, Iseyin district, Western State, Nigeria: 18 November 1968). ( ^A250464). Available for listening in the British Library reading rooms only.

Ogundipẹ, Ayọdele, Èșù Elegbára: change, chance, uncertainty in Yorùbá mythology (Ilorin, Kwara State : Kwara State University Press, 2012). [ Asia, Pacific & Africa YP.2020.a.678 ]

Ogundele, W., “Esu-Elegbara: Ambivalence in Yoruba philosophy,” in Bayreuth African Studies, 38 (2001), pp. 29-36. ( 1871.242550 )

Ogunyẹmi, Wale, Eshu Elegbara (Ibadan: Orisun Acting Editions, 1970.) ( X.908/25448 ).


Further readings

Adefarakan, Temitope, “ 'At a Crossroads': Spirituality and The Politics of Exile: The Case of the Yoruba Orisa ,” Obsidian, 9:1 (2008), pp. 31-58.

Bacelar da Silva, Antonio José, “Exu is not Satan – the dialogics of memory and resistance among Afro-Brazilians,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 13:1 (2020), pp. 54-67. (doi: 10.1080/17528631.2019.1637143)

Kone, Moussa, “ Yorùbá Dictionaries ,” Orisha Image Blog, 15 May 2018.

Oyèláràn, Ọ., “ Èṣù and ethics in the Yorùbá world view ,” Africa, 90:2 (2020), pp. 377-407. (doi:10.1017/S0001972019001098)

30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

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As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
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On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
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Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
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There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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05 August 2019

Charles Wilkins as a type designer: hand drawn Modi script

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Today’s guest blogger is Komal Pande, who was the Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at the British Library from February to May 2019. Komal is also the Assistant Curator for Numismatics and Epigraphy at the National Museum in New Delhi.

As part of my research fellowship in the Visual Arts section, I had the opportunity to research and arrange as a set of hand-drawn Modi letters. Modi, is the vernacular script used to write the Marathi language spoken predominantly in Maharashtra, India. The Peshwas, the ruling class of the Maratha empire from the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, used Modi script for administrative purposes ‘as preserved in the many parcels (rumals) of official documents in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai’. Marathi merchants also used the script for their business transactions. In 1917, Modi was replaced with Devanagari. Since few people can read Modi, these hand-drawn letters are important to India’s vernacular cultural past. The orientalist Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) prepared this set of Modi letters in the early 1800s.

Image showing four examples of Modi script on seperate cards
Cards with the Modi script for vowels, British Libary, Foster 5702

Wilkins, an employee of the East India Company, was assigned as the superintendent of the Company’s factories in Malda (western Bengal) from 1770. Wilkins studied a range of languages and became proficient in Sanskrit, Bengali and Persian. Based on his expertise and knowledge of Bengali, the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings commissioned Wilkins ‘to undertake a set of Bengal types’. Wilkins manufactured a set of metal printing founts or typefaces, that could be used to mechanical print the Bengali language as exemplified in Nathanial Halhed’s instructional volume, A Grammar of the Bengal Language (Hoogly, 1778). Wilkins returned to England in 1786.

The set of sixty-nine hand-drawn Modi letters was prepared after Wilkins returned to England. According to Graham Shaw (formerly, Head of Asian and African Collections, British Library), ‘they may well be associated with [Wilkins] connection to the East India Company’s Haileybury College from 1805, perhaps to be used in printing text-books for the Company’s new recruits to learn the Modi script’.

Each card features one Modi letter: its transliteration in English and Hindi written below it, making the cards bi or trilingual. A card may contain vowels or consonants, along with some variations of half, conjunct and compound consonants. While each card measures approximately 75 x 25mm,  slight variations can be noticed in width of these cards. While the vowels and consonants are of similar size, the half letter cards are written on narrower pieces of card. The cards for the compound consonants are broader to accommodate the form and clarity of the fount.

An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.
An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.

The letters are written in black ink. The calligraphy on these cards is particularly intriguing as its purpose is more utilitarian than ornamental. The stylization of these letters was created to understand the fount in three dimensions, as these cards were prepared as functional typeface that had the potential to be used for creating matrices and punches.

Interestingly, the set also includes some blank, unfinished and cancelled cards. These cards are as important as the complete cards, as they elucidate Wilkins’ method of scribing. On the card, the pencil rules were drawn in the upper centre creating a space for the Modi letter. Since the card was to be bi or trilingual, keeping Modi as the prime script, a Modi letter of 35x25 mm dimensions was drawn in pencil. Once the form of the letter was decided, the outline was made in ink and its transliterations was scribed under the letter. Finally, the outlines of the letter were filled in black ink giving it dimension and volume. Most of the complete cards show, voluminous Modi letter in the centre along with its transliteration in small Devanagari and Roman scripts for the purpose of identification of each letter.

Alongside the process of scribing, it is equally interesting to study the method of corrections carried out by Wilkins. A few of the cards in the set show the process of how the corrections were made on the inscribed Modi letters. These include correcting the form of the letters and reflect how the three dimensionality of the letter was rectified by adjusting angles and curves by scraping off all imperfections. The cancelled signs, the scalpel marks and the pencil ruled lines inform us of Wilkins’ efforts to achieve perfect typefaces.   

According to Graham Shaw, ‘as far as it is known, no work was ever printed using a Wilkins Modi fount. When James Robert Ballantyne published his A grammar of the Mahratta language’ in Edinburgh in 1839 (for use at Haileybury), he noted in the preface “The lithographic press has been employed because no fount of Mahratta [i.e. Modi] types was to be found in London”. The only other early Modi fount cast was at the Serampore Mission Press in Bengal, used in 1808 to print the second edition of the Baptist Missionary William Carey’s A grammar of the Mahratta language’ (after criticism for the use of the Devanagari script in the 1805 first edition.’

Further reading:

Ross, F. and Shaw, G. (2003) 'An unexpected legacy and its contribution to early Indian typography', in: Randle, J. and Berry, J. (eds.) Type and typography: highlights from Matrix. Mark Batty Publisher, New Jersey, pp. 169-181

With thanks to Graham Shaw for his invaluable comments for this blog post.

08 January 2018

The script of the Naxi, their religious literature and early translation attempts

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This week’s guest blog post is by Dr Duncan Poupard, Assistant Professor (Translation) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Naxiologist. He sheds light on some of the most extraordinary, mysterious and visually interesting manuscripts we hold in the Chinese section of the Library: the Naxi dongba manuscripts, commenting also on some of their early translations in the Library

The British Library holds a modest but important collection of religious texts from a lesser-known people: the Naxi of the Himalayan foothills in southwest China. Among China's officially-recognised ethnic minorities, the Naxi are a relatively small group, especially when compared to their more populous neighbours to the north, the Tibetans. But the Naxi are nevertheless significant, not least for the unique way in which they record their religious literature: the dongba script.

Naxi picture 1.jpg
Example of Naxi script, from the British Library volume containing Or.11417A to Or.11426A

This script can probably be dated to at least as early as the Mongol period (1253 -1382). The Naxi ritual texts, hand-written in books and read from left to right, form the basis for what we know about the culture and beliefs of the Naxi people. The dongba script is often touted as the world's last living pictographic script, although this classification is problematic as they are not really in active use, and are not strictly pictographic either.

The graphs can be seen in and around the city of Lijiang (centre of the Naxi population in Yunnan province), on shop fronts and road signs, but as the general populace cannot read or write the script, these signs are mostly for show.

Naxi picture 2 with circle.jpg
Starbucks Coffee shopfront, Lijiang old town. Intercultural globalisation in action
© the author

In this picture, the Naxi (top) and Chinese (bottom) names for 'Starbucks' can be seen on the board above the English lettering. In Naxi, 'Starbucks' is translated as 'gee bbaq kee'.

Naxi picture 3.jpg
The first character above means 'star' (gee, depicted as three stars), the second and third graphs being phonetic loans, the flower (bbaq) and the dog (kee) together approximating the sound of the English 'bucks'; it is a combination of literal and phonetic translation.

In fact, the script was historically reserved for the dongba religious practitioners and was primarily used for ritual, not secular (or Starbucks-related!) purposes. The books are recited by a dongba during the performance of religious ceremonies such as funerary rites, or when appeasing a vast pantheon of gods and spirits. Looking at the Naxi manuscripts themselves, which are written on specially made paper, and knowledge of which was historically only passed down the male family line, we would be forgiven for thinking they looked like comic strips: especially as they are separated into clearly marked rectangular sections. Of course, however, there's a lot more to this writing than meets the eye.
Naxi picture 4.jpg
Detail from the opening page of British Library Or.11417A

The image above is from a manuscript titled Ssee zhul: El-miq Rherq Zhail (Increasing longevity: calling upon the power of great dongba El-miq), recited at a ceremony held after a funeral to prolong the life of the surviving members of the family. This particular book is a call to a powerful dongba from Naxi history, El-miq, entreating him to aid the dongba who is conducting the ritual by investing him with power. In the first section on the top left, after the page decoration on the left, there are a total of ten graphs.

Naxi picture 5.jpg
Here we have the character for the sky, beneath it three stars (just as in the Starbucks sign), beneath the middle star a piece of jade, to its right a svastika (a symbol of good luck in Naxi culture that was likely borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism), then an image that looks like a cross on a triangle that originally meant 'to hang (as an object hanging off a cross)', and below it the earth, sprouting tufts of luxuriant grass. To the right we have the more easily identifiable sun, above a person pointing to their left (but our right) and the moon above someone pointing to their right (our left). Lines emanating from the celestial bodies indicate light being cast (and for the sun, by extension, warmth).

This first section is an opening benediction, an incantation that is supposed to bring about good fortune for the ceremony to come, but also contains much of the cosmological wisdom of the Naxi people. These ten characters, when read out during a performance of this text (for all such ritual texts are to be orally performed, not read silently), will become 40 spoken Naxi words. How can this be so? Simply because the relationship between what is written and what is said follows no clearly defined rules. The characters are often called in to use more than once, and much of what is said is not actually written. Despite this, every dongba would be able to recite this section without any problems. An English translation might read,

The stars shine bright in the sky
And today they shine brightest
The grass grows green on the earth
And today it grows greenest
The sun comes from the left, giving off its warmth
The moon comes from the right, giving off its light

One may wonder why the sun is on the left and the moon is on the right. The Naxi have a creation myth that tells the story of how, after the heavens and the earth were separated, the people all came together to build the holy mountain Jjuqnalsheel’loq, which acted as an axis mundi, propping up the heavens. Once the mountain was completed, they used a giant iron chain to tie the sun to the left of the mountain and the moon to its right. Thus, in the Naxi cosmogony, the sun and moon rotate around the holy mountain, in between the sky and the earth, and these opening lines are a microcosm of the Naxi cosmogony.

Alongside 107 dongba manuscripts, the British Library holds a number of Chinese and English translations of several of the texts: these were in fact the first Chinese and English translations of Naxi manuscripts to be completed, making them especially important to the history of Naxi studies. The Library's translations were commissioned by the British Foreign Office after a recommendation by S Wyatt Smith (1887-1958). They were acquired by a Pentecostal missionary (probably James Andrews, a British missionary in Lijiang during the 1920s and 30s) on the consul's behalf, and translated into Chinese, with the help of a Naxi to read the manuscripts and a Chinese translator to translate them. Some of the manuscripts were subsequently translated into English at the consulate. As is the case in much of translation history, the translators remain invisible, as the identities of the Naxi, Chinese and English translators have, it seems, been lost to history. The translation work stopped in 1931 as it presumably became prohibitively expensive: three translators were required to get the final English translation, and prices of the original manuscripts in Lijiang were rising as Joseph Rock, the Austro-American explorer and Naxiologist, began to make bulk purchases in the region.

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First page of Or.11417C, containing an early Chinese translation of Or.11417A

In 1934 the collection was given to the British Museum and the India Office. The 1930s were an exciting time for translations of Naxi manuscripts: many of the English versions that we have today were completed in this decade. There was a serious popular interest in the Naxi during this period, fostered by Joseph Rock's National Geographic articles on the region which highlighted this ‘strange tribe’. Joseph Rock began seriously translating and publishing his work on the Naxi in the 1930s, and he eventually went on to monopolise the field, with a somewhat unassailable combination of exhaustive (some may say pedantic) scholarship, a knack for self-promotion, and deep pockets.

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Provenance note on the first page of Or.11417C to 11426C, containing the Chinese translations of the correspondent “A” volumes in Naxi

Rock is dismissive of the Library's translations, writing that they have ‘totally wrong titles and explanations in Chinese’. This is, I believe, an unfair assessment. Even a preliminary look at the translation of this first manuscript shows a quite accurate rendition, with the title, Si Chong, being the correct name of the ceremony in romanisation. Perhaps Rock was unhappy as to the nature of the Library collection's acquisition: some fifty Ssee Zhul texts were acquired by the missionary acting on behalf of the Foreign Office from the officiating dongba after the Ssee Zhul ceremony had been performed for Rock. This was a purchase that transpired without Rock's knowledge.

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Cover page of British Library manuscript Or.11417A

The British Foreign Office's translations were pioneering, despite being somewhat unilluminating. They are presented without introduction and without any exegesis, which, combined with the large number of proper names present in the texts, makes for slow and mystifying reading for the uninitiated.

Anthony Jackson has suggested that a dictionary (as yet undiscovered) was compiled from this translation work, which would have been used to translate more of the texts without going through a Naxi intermediary. This was probably wishful thinking; to this day, Naxi dongba are required to give a reading of a book before it can be translated. This is because the texts are fluid: there is so much that is not written, there are graphs that are written and not read, and there are incantations that are recorded in a phonetic system separate to the picture-based graphs.

Translation of the Naxi texts is a practice that has all but died out in the modern era, as the remaining dongba grow fewer in number and their traditions become less relevant to modern life in Lijiang. This makes the library's collection all the more invaluable, for there will come a time when such translations will be all but impossible to carry out.


Further reading:
Jackson, Anthony. 1966. “Mo-So Magical Texts,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48: 141-74.
Poupard, Duncan. 2015. “Beyond the pictogram: echoes of the Naxi in Ezra Pound’s Cantos”. Neohelicon 43 (1): 233–249.
Rock, Joseph F. 1963. A Na-Khi - English encyclopedic dictionary. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.

Duncan Poupard, The Chinese University of Hong Kong