European studies blog

12 posts categorized "Writing"

08 December 2020

After Bodoni: Italian Typography in the 20th Century

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The culture of hand printing, the neoclassical aesthetic, considering the typeset as an art form in dialogue with its times: these aspects of 18th-century typographer Giambattista Bodoni’s work are still meaningful and constitute the core of his legacy, inspiring generations of Italian designers and typographers. Here are four examples:

Giovanni Mardersteig

Like many printers of the olden days, Hans ‘Giovanni’ Mardersteig came from Germany and established his hand press in Italy. In 1922 the Italian government granted him permission to use Bodoni’s original matrices and Officina Bodoni started, operating in Verona until Mardersteig’s death, in 1977. Mardersteig’s extreme care for detail is shown in his re-edition of Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico, 1788 and many more alphabets using his own typesets, like his Alphabetum Romanum.

Pages from Mardersteig's re-edition of Bodoni's Manuale tipografico, 1788 showing the letters M and N

Giovanni Bodoni and & Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.

Alberto and Enrico Tallone

Alberto Tallone and his son Enrico have worked since the 1930s to honour the book in its material and spiritual aspects. Engravers, typefounders, hand printers and publishers, the Tallone family takes from Bodoni the idea of manuals, describing in their four volumes of Manuale Tipografico centuries of typography, watermarks, original characters, frontispieces, inks used from the 18th to the 20th century. Tallone’s idea is to convey the spirit of the author by choosing size, characters, papers and spacing, in a dialogue between the text and the content, so that every book is unique.

Manuale Tipografico

Manuale Tipografico. 2, Dedicato All’impaginazione, Ai Caratteri Da Testo E Ai Formati.(Turin, 2008) Cup.937/992.

Tallone’s books are set by hand in traditional foundry types, which derive from hand-cut steel punches engraved with a burin by great artists. This video shows the process and it was filmed in their typographic studio in Turin:

Franco Maria Ricci

Born in Parma in 1937, bibliophile, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci grew up in an aesthetic and cultural background that stemmed directly from Bodoni’s tradition. Ricci studied and collected Bodoni’s works for his entire life, helping rediscover and promote Bodoni and making his types part of Italy’s everyday life. Ricci’s art magazine, FMR (in French it appears to read éphémère, transitory) had a reputation for being the world’s most beautiful magazine.

Ricci shares with his master the great respect for proportions, distance, and white spaces.

Cover of Franco Maria Ricci (ed.) Bodoni, 1740-1813

Cover of Franco Maria Ricci (ed.) Bodoni, 1740-1813.(Parma, 2013) LF.31.b.11849. The cover shows a photograph of Bodoni’s original books, from the Bodoni Museum in Parma. The title is set in a digital font by Franco Maria Ricci, which is true to Bodoni’s original typefaces.

Massimo Vignelli

Designer Massimo Vignelli takes from Giambattista Bodoni an interest for Italian letterforms. A modernist by choice, Vignelli became famous for creating the iconic New York City Subway Map in 1972 (using Helvetica), a landmark in graphic design. His preference was always for four typefaces that he considered perfect, including Helvetica and Bodoni. Vignelli says: “In the new computer age, the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones, and trash the rest.”

Vignelli Associates, Our Bodoni

Vignelli Associates, Our Bodoni, from Archivio Grafica Italiana 

In 1989 Vignelli revisited the Bodoni typeset creating Our Bodoni, commissioned to him by World Typeface Center (WTC) of New York: “When Bert Di Pamphilis (…) asked us to design a new typeface, we told him we do not believe in ‘new’ typefaces, but that there was room for improvement on existing, classic typeface designs. We consider the ratio between upper- and lower-case Helvetica letters to be the best there is. We wanted to redesign Bodoni using a similar ratio between the cases, with short ascenders and descenders, and articulate the type in four weights: light, regular, medium, bold.” (Massimo Vignelli).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections

References/Further reading

Giovanni Mardersteig, The Officina Bodoni: an Account of the work of a Hand Press 1923-1977. Edited and translated by Hans Schmoller. (Verona, 1980)

F. Feliciano and Giovanni Mardersteig, Alphabetum romanum. Edited by Giovanni Mardersteig (Verona, 1960)

Alberto Tallone, Manuale Tipografico Dedicato Ai Frontespizi E Ai Tipi Maiuscoli Tondi & Corsivi (Alpignano, 2005) LF.31.b.1808.

Pablo Neruda and Alberto Tallone, La Copa De Sangre. (Alpignano, 1969) RF.2017.b.76

FMR (Milan, 1982-2009?) P.2000/1106

Michael Bierut,. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface’. Design Observer

17 December 2019

Beautifully meaningless: Codex Seraphinianus

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Despite what title of this book might suggest, there is no need for Latinists or philologists: the Codex Seraphinianus is not a medieval manuscript, nor a translation from Latin, it is not written in an undiscovered or secret language either. All the scholarly efforts to decipher the text were dismissed by the author himself who revealed that the writing is asemic, therefore no hidden message to discover. And I guess this is the beauty of his work (the beauty of art in general): the trick can be exposed but the mystery remains, the mystery of creativity.

Codex Seraphinianus text
Pages of text from Codex Seraphinianus (New York, 1983) f84/0685

We look at “…those minute, agile and (we have to admit) very clear italics of his”, as Italo Calvino finely put it, and “we always feel we are just an inch away from being able to read”.

The art book by the Italian artist, designer and architect Luigi Serafini – an imaginary encyclopedia of an imaginary world – was first published in a two-volume edition in Italy in 1981, followed by a single-volume edition in 1983 published in New York, which is the edition held by the British Library. The limited editions and the value attributed to them make the Codex a rare item, sought-after by collectors. Paul Fisher Davies in his article gives an overview of the studies on the text: as he rightly points out, there is a narrative in the sequence of the images and in the way the text connects to them. Even though, the readability of narrative Davies refers to is still imaginary in that the text itself remains undeciphered, the connection between text and images has a powerful impact. Serafini says it himself in an interview: “There is no a written message or something to decode. There are other aspects. There are beauty, the relationship between the images and writing.” (You can see video of Serafini being interviewed here:

Certainly the book does not lack of the systematic division we expect from a science book, and this is marked by what can be assumed is the title, followed by an introduction and table of contents, before the beginning of each of the 11 “chapters” of the 1983 edition, as the photo above shows. However, even the illusory systematicity of the first chapter, which can be safely interpreted as dedicated to “botany” from beginning to end, does not seem to be applied in the second chapter. This begins with an illustrative catalogue of individual light particles, each with different shapes and names, and in the image below it the same light particles are shown as a swarm flying out from the head of a street lamp. This and the bigger catalogue of individual rainbow particles which comes after, tell us that the second chapter is dedicated to “light”.

Image of a rainbow and rainbow-coloured particles from Codex Seraphinianus
Rainbow particles from Chapter 2 of Codex Seraphinianus

But the chapter changes pattern and shows images impossible to interpret, even though, the text below them gives us a sense of reconciliation, an explanation which cannot, does not need to be put in words. And it makes me wonder: can attempting to read asemic writing echo back as a liberating asemic thinking? As Calvino observes “Serafini’s writing has the power to evoke a world where the syntax of things has been distorted, it must contain, hidden beneath, the mystery of its indecipherable surface, a deeper mystery still regarding the internal logic of language and thought.”.

The second chapter continues with images of fishes, snakes, birds, dogs, deer, horses, and ends with this:

Images of rhinoceros-like beasts from Codex Seraphinianus

The third chapter does not even try to make us believe it’s focusing on anything in particular, yet it does not stop overwhelming us with surreal shapes and wonderful colours. And again in the following chapters, until chapter 7: this opens with a catalogue showing the profile view of human heads, which, after so many surreal images, we find ourselves absorbing with the same puzzlement.

The beautifully meaningless journey continues and ends with a page tightly and tiredly written (with a couple of words crossed out, and a couple of others inserted in between, in different parts of the text) and partly lifted as if it accidentally detached itself and, pulling up like a curtain, shows what was not meant to be shown: the broken bones of a hand laying on the floor of a tiny grim room.

In the end what Serafini asks us to do is nothing but immerse ourselves in his magical, often disconcerting world. I find interesting that Serafini decided to give his art book – a book which celebrates freedom from the rules of interpretation and meaning – a title in Latin, which seems to impose a certain historicity based on those rules. I like to think that he does this to make us feel a contraction of time which propels us to a world where, dare I say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Pliny’s Historia Naturalis meet. As Serafini says in the same interview mentioned earlier, his work could be open to artists of the future, “ … every 5/6 years I could add a chapter and even in the future, I would imagine it as an open work which can be continued by other artist maybe for two or three centuries…”.

Images of fantastical machines with human hands from Codex Seraphinianus
Fantastical machines from Codex Seraphinianus

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions Support Manager

References/Further reading

Paul Fisher Davies, ‘On the comics-nature of the Codex Seraphinianus’, Studies in comics, Vol. 6:Issue 1 (2015) ZK.9.a.12040

Italo Calvino, ‘The encyclopedia of a visionary’, in Collection of Sand. Translated by Martin L. McLaughlin (London, 2013). ELD.DS.180656

07 November 2019

The Book as a Project: Giambattista Bodoni

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This is the first of a series of blogs dedicated to Italian typography.

It is not an easy task to write something brief about the Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni. Bodoni the polyglot, Bodoni the artist, Bodoni who achieved rock-star fame during his lifetime. He made the Italian town of Parma world capital of printing from the second half of the 18th century, an obliged stop for intellectuals and bibliophiles during the Grand Tour. Rulers and princes would visit his workshop and he would dedicate books to them, in order to consolidate his prestige.

Plate with illustrations of mollusc shells
Illustration from Giuseppe Saverio Poli / Stefano Delle Chiaie, Testacea Utriusque Siciliæ Eorumque Historia Et Anatome Tabulis ... Illustrata, (Parma 1791). 458.g.11-13.

Trained in typography and ‘oriental’ languages in Rome, having unsuccessfully tried to come to London to learn new skills and perfect his technique, in 1768 Bodoni was called to Parma by Ferdinand of Bourbon, with the purpose of establishing and managing the government Royal Printing Office that he would be in charge of for the rest of his life.

Page from Britannia

Robert Hampden, Britannia; Lathmon, Villa Bromhamensis (Parma, 1792). G.10064.

Despite never leaving Parma, Bodoni managed to be known internationally, by choosing his patrons (Napoleon and his family, the monarchs of Spain, Italian rulers), by printing in many languages and scripts, and by setting his much-imitated typographic style. In his own words, he ‘shook the old typographic conventions’, introducing harmony and proportion in the frontispieces, showing neo-classicist taste in his bare, epigraphic compositions. The sense of perspective and the balance between space and font offer optimal readability to his pages. The series of crisp and neat ‘bodonian’ typefaces that he designed in the late 1780s are still very popular today, appreciated for the clear contrast between the thickness of strokes and the thinness of rules and serifs.

Title page from The Castle of Otranto

Horace Walpole. The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story. Sixth edition (Parma, 1791). 682.f.22

A lot was printed in his Greek typefaces, and many of his books were in foreign languages, including English. The most celebrated of his works in English were Walpole’s 1791 edition of The Castle of Otranto, on behalf of the London bookseller Edwards, and the 1792 Britannia by Lord Hampden. Of Britannia, the British Library owns the only copy printed on vellum (G.10064.), from the splendid library of Marshal Junot, sold by auction in London in June 1816 and purchased by Thomas Grenville for his rich collection of rare books, which are now part of the British Library.

Page from Britannia

Robert Hampden, Britannia; Lathmon, Villa Bromhamensis.

Constantly in competition with his fellow typographers (notably with the Didot brothers in France, known for the rigour of their editions), Bodoni liked to re-edit books published by others, trying to make them better. A case in point is the Oratio Dominica (a polyglot edition of the Lord’s Prayer), which Bodoni was invited to produce by Pope Pius VI when he stopped to see him in Parma. The Pope said that, during his recent visit to Paris for the coronation of Napoleon, in December 1804, he was gifted with a copy of the Oratio Dominica in 150 languages, by Jean-Joseph Marcel, director of the Imprimerie Nationale, and he challenged Bodoni to produce something finer and in more languages, to prove his skills.

In less than a year, Bodoni put together an acclaimed Oratio Dominica, in 155 languages, using 215 typescripts (including Phoenician, Tibetan, and Etruscan), some of which were missing from the French edition.

Pages from Oratio Dominica

Oratio Dominica in CLV. Linguas Versa Et Exoticis Characteribus Plerumque Expressa (Parma, 1806). Cup.652.m.4.

However, Bodoni’s masterpiece was certainly printed after his death, in 1813. Having produced his own types since 1771, in 1788 he published the first manual Manuale tipografico containing a hundred Roman type alphabets, 50 italics and 28 Greek alphabets. His alphabets were improved during the course of his career, and this project was accomplished by his widow, Margherita Dall’Aglio, with the posthumous publication of the final Manuale Tipografico in 1818.

The fruit of more than 40 years of work, this manual in two volumes was composed of 265 pages with roman types, capital letters, Greek and oriental types, borders, ornaments, numbers, and musical examples.

Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico established high standards for typography. It offers an overview of the uniformity of design, neatness and good taste that made him famous and inspired generations of typographers up to the present day. But, this is a topic for my next blog…

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Further Reading

Of the over 1400 ‘Edizioni Bodoniane’ (listed by H C Brook’s Compendiosa Bibliografia delle Edizioni Bodoniane) printed while Bodoni’s presses were active, in 1834, the BL collections has over 200, of which 38 are available digitally 

Giovanni Battista Bodoni, Manuale Tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968). L.R.413.h.17.

Franco Maria Ricci, Bodoni, 1740-1813 (Parma, 2013) LF.31.b.11849

Andrea De Pasquale / Massimo Dradi, B Come Bodoni: i Caratteri di Bodoni a Brera e nella Grafica Contemporanea (Milan, 2013). YF.2014.a.22184

Hugh Cecil Brooks, Compendiosa Bibliografia di Edizioni Bodoniane (Floerence, 1927) 2704.bp.2.

20 August 2019

Learning to read Cyrillic from 13th century Novgorod to the USSR

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We do not know much about how children learned to read and write Slavonic languages in Cyrillic script in the 11th-15th centuries. The most popular teaching method was learning Psalms and copying manuscripts. Near the Russian city of Novgorod, among birch bark manuscripts, archaeologists found a tablet with a wax surface for writing on the right and the Cyrillic alphabet carved on the left.

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century. Reproduced in A.F Medvedev, Drevnerusskie pisala X-XV vv., in Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1960, issue 2

It definitely looks like a school exercise book, but who keeps their jotters? Children learning to read Cyrillic did not, and nor did they even care much about their textbooks, passing them from one to another until the books disintegrated. That is why only two copies of the first Eastern Slavonic printed primer, published in Lviv by Ivan Fedorov in 1574, are known. The copy held at the British Library has been digitised and is freely available. 

The first page of the 1574 Azbuka

The first page of Ivan Fedorov’s primer (Lviv, 1574). C.104.dd.11(1)

It starts with listing Cyrillic letters three times: in the direct and reverse order, and in columns rather than lines. Then the book suggests that learners could put together consonants and vowels. As Russian is primarily a phonetic language, where written symbols directly correspond to spoken sounds, it is quite an easy exercise. Try it yourself: M+A=MA, B+A=BA, etc. Elementary grammar and texts for reading were also included.

Such books were called Azbuka, for the first two letters of the Cyrillic alphabet: A – was called Az and B – Buki. Another name for them was Bukvar’, from the word ‘bukva’ – letter. Soon, educators started separating such alphabet books from more advanced grammars. Also, the power of images in teaching and learning was recognised and more educators started to include pictures in their textbooks.

The most remarkable example of an illustrated primer was created by Karion Istomin, one of the first Muscovite enlighteners, who was editor of the Moscow Printing House, court poet and tutor to the royal children. The book was published in Moscow in 1694, but previously two manuscript copies had been presented to the royals for Peter the Great’s son and two young nieces.

The book opens with a short introduction illustrated by an engraving showing Christ teaching schoolchildren. Each page is devoted to one letter, which is drawn symbolically as a picture, and then in various other ways – print and shorthand. Istomin also wrote short poems that would help learners remember the letter, and included images of objects and animals whose names started with that letter. The book was too complex to be printed with moveable type and therefore was engraved by Leontii Bunin. He seems to have worked on it for about two years, between 1692 and 1694.

First page of Karion Istomin's Bukvar

Letter A from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter A.

Letter Zh from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter Zh.

Letter O from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter O.

Letter S from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter S.

First page, letter A, Zh, O, S. Images from the facsimile edition: Bukvar’ sostavlen Kariononm Istominym; gravirovan Leontiem Buinym; otpechatan v 1694 godu v Moskve. Leningrad: Avrora, 1981. X.955/980.

Although most scholars agree that so many variations in the letter shapes could confuse rather than help learners, this primer set up a tradition of illustrated textbooks for learners.

By the beginning of the 19th century, textbooks and learning materials were in demand by a network of various educational establishments and private tutors. Not only royal children could get books with pictures (although of course not so lavishly printed!). An Azbuka published in 1818 for public schools, was called Dragotsennyi podarok detiam (‘A Precious Present for Children’). It also introduced the alphabet in various types and shorthand, illustrating it with pictures, elementary reading exercises and texts for further reading, such as moral instructions and prayers.

As part of our Google Books project the British Library’s copy of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam published without changes from the 1818 edition was digitised

Title-page of 1830 Azbuka

Title-page of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam, ili novaia i polnaia rossiiskaia azbuka (Moscow, 1830) RB.23.a.23374

The cheap popular editions that mushroomed at the end of the 19th century could not afford many pictures, but at least tried to include some under colourful and attractive paper covers.

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Most of the reading materials were still prayers, adaptations from the Gospels, and some simple statements and proverbs. Leo Tolstoy, who established a school for village children, was also concerned with education. He wrote his own Azbuka, where he aimed to offer exercises suitable for any learning method, including the ‘word method’ (reading not syllable by syllable, but memorising whole words), which, as he wrote in the introduction, was popular in England and America. It is interesting to note that Tolstoy thought pictures to be a luxury feature that could only distract pupils.

Cover of L. Tolstoy's Novaia Azbuka

L. Tolstoy. Novaia Azbuka . 25th edition (Moscow, 1908) 12975.m.33

In the new Soviet state this idea of Tolstoy’s was definitely not accepted. Primers illustrated with new communist propaganda became quite popular and were issued for adult learners. In 1921 Dmitrii Moor illustrated an Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier where he applied the same principle as in standard textbooks – introducing letters with a two-line verse and a picture. For example, letter ‘B’ showed a miserable bourgeois, begging for mercy.

Letter B from Dmitrii Moor's Red Army Alphabet. The illustration shows a worker, a peasant and a Red Army soldier standing over a 'bourgeois capitalist'.

Dmitrii Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa, (Moscow, 1921) Cup.401.g.25.

The campaign “Down with illiteracy!”, which started almost immediately after the October revolution in 1917, also required new textbooks, where learners’ first texts would be citations from Lenin and Trotsky instead of prayers.

Cover of a textbook for adults with an image of adults learning

Doloi negramotnost’. Bukvar’ dlia vzroslykh, (Moscow, 1920). 12975.n.15.

The Soviet primary school textbook had Lenin and a map of the USSR as the first pictures that children would see when they started learning to read and write. This is what the last Soviet edition of primer looked like; it was reproduced in more or less the same way for decades, so I also recognise the cover as my first schoolbook.

Last Soviet bukvar' with an image of Lenin and map of the USSR

Bukvar’. 9th edition (Moscow, 1989). YA.1996.a.6783.

Meanwhile, Russian-speaking children abroad also needed primers. Their parents, who had fled the Soviet regime, wanted them to keep their heritage language. It is interesting to see how old fashioned the YMCA-Press edition of 1957 looks. Children born in the early 1950s were introduced to reading through pictures of a 10 kopeks coin of 1911, a samovar, a horse-drawn carriage, and birch-bark shoes. As well as modern Russian, émigré children were also supposed to learn Church Slavonic so that they could read Christian Orthodox books.

Double-page spread from the 1957 reading book for Russian émigré children

V.P.Vakhterov. Russkii Bukvar’ dlia obucheniia pis’mu I chteniiu russkomu i tserkovno-slavianskomu. (Paris, 1957). 12993.w.1

To learn more about reading and writing in various countries, languages, alphabets, and societies, visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark which is still open until 27th August.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/further reading:

Christine Thomas, ‘The East Slavonic Primers: Lvov, 1574 and Moscow 1637,’ The British Library Journal, 10 (1984), 32-47.

E. Rogatchevskaia, ‘“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”: An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library’, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Volume 51 (2017) Issue 2-3, 376-397.

Ivan the Terrible, primers, ballet and the joys of curatorship

06 August 2019

The three lives of the Georgian alphabet

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The Georgian alphabet is very old and is used only by the Georgian language. Its origins lie hidden in the depths of the past and are the subject of several theories.

According to the Georgian chronicles, King Parnavaz I was recognised as the creator of the Georgian alphabet. Among scholars, some suggest that the Georgian alphabet derived from Phoenician, while others propose Semitic and Aramaic origins. However, the majority of researchers consider that the Greek alphabet served as the basis for the Georgian one. In strictly structural terms, Georgian alphabetical order largely corresponds to the Greek alphabet with the exception of letters representing uniquely Georgian sounds, which are grouped at the end.

The oldest Georgian inscriptions date back to the fifth century AD. However, it is unlikely that the Georgian alphabet first appeared then as the written culture was by then long established and highly developed. According to the Georgian historian Ivane Javakhishvili, the Georgian writing system had been in use since the 7th century BC.

Inscription from Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, dated to 494 AD

Inscription from Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, dated to 494 AD, Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The evolution of Georgia’s written language has produced three scripts: Asomtavruli (5th-9th centuries), Nuskhuri (9th-11th centuries) and Mkhedruli (11th century onwards). The appearance of the letters at each stage is very different. Despite their obvious visual differences, all three scripts are closely interrelated and show a gradual evolution. Their letters share the same names and alphabetical order and are written horizontally from left to right. Originally consisting of 38 letters, Georgian today is written using a 33-letter alphabet, as five letters were dropped as a result of reforms proposed by Ilia Chavchavadze in the 1860s. All three Georgian writing systems are phonemic; every sound is represented by its corresponding letter and almost every written letter is pronounced in speech.

The three Georgian scripts

The three Georgian scripts: Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri, and Mkhedruli (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Asomtavruli (‘capital letters’) is a monumental script, and represents the oldest form of the Georgian alphabet. It is also known as Mrgvlovani (‘rounded’). The geometry of the Asomtavruli script is simple and plain. The first examples date back to the 5th century. From the 9th century, Asomtavruli was mainly employed for capital letters in religious manuscripts. Despite its name, this script is unicameral, i.e. it does not distinguish between upper and lower case, like the two later scripts, Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli.

Letter მ (M) in Asomtavruli script, 12th century New Testament MS

Letter მ (M) in Asomtavruli script, 12th century New Testament MS (Gelati Gospel) (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Book of prayers, 17th century (Sloane MS 1338). The manuscript is written in Nuskhuri, with Asomtavruli letter ‘M’ as a capital

Book of prayers, 17th century (Sloane MS 1338). The manuscript is written in Nuskhuri, with Asomtavruli letter ‘M’ as a capital

The second Georgian writing system, which derived from Asomtavruli, was Nuskhuri (‘minuscule’). Nuskhuri was soon combined with Asomtavruli illuminated capitals in religious manuscripts. The combination was called Khutsuri (‘clerical’) and was largely used in religious writings.

Lives of Holy Fathers, 11th century (Add. MS 11281). The manuscript is written in Khutsuri

Lives of Holy Fathers, 11th century (Add. MS 11281). The manuscript is written in Khutsuri

From the 10th century, Nuskhuri was employed in many texts. Nuskhuri developed as a written style because of the need to write faster and the increased demand for books. Nuskhuri letters have an angular shape, vary in height and slant to the right. They could be written without lifting the writing tool from the page. The oldest known inscription in Nuskhuri is the collection of sermons known as Sinuri mravaltvavi (‘Sinai Homiliary’) dated 864 AD.

These two scripts were followed by Mkhedruli, the modern Georgian script. It first appeared in the 10th century. The name Mkhedruli comes from the word mkhedari which means ‘knightly’. Mkhedruli can be seen as the product of the complex development of previous writing systems. It maintained the rounded design of Asomtavruli and, like Nuskhuri, facilitated faster writing. Letters, as in Nuskhuri script, can also be joined up. Due to its style and flexibility, it is also used for headlines and titles.

Mkhedruli has changed very little since its arrival in the 10th century and has become the standard script of modern Georgian and related Kartvelian languages. Mkhedruli first appeared in print in two books published in Rome in 1629.

Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini’s Dittionario giorgiano e italiano

Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini’s Dittionario giorgiano e italiano (Rome, 1629) 622.e.34.(2.)

The three writing systems co-existed for several centuries and all remain in use today. They were originally used for both religious and secular literature. Gradually, however, Mkhedruli came to be used only for state and secular purposes while Nuskhuri and Asomtavruli were limited to ecclesiastical use.

Georgian scripts were granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. The decision recognised the value of the three writing systems that live together in harmony and mark out the Georgian language.

Anna Chelidze, Curator, Georgian Collections

Further reading

Tʿamaz Gamqreliże, Alphabetic writing and the Old Georgian script: a typology and provenience of alphabetic writing systems (Delmar, N.Y., 1994). ORW.1995.a.283

Michael Kurdiani, Georgian language and script (Tbilisi, 2008). YD.2011.a.5239

Elene Mačavariani, The Old Georgian Script (Tbilisi, 2015). YD.2016.a.2180

Georgian scripts & typography (Tbilisi, 2016). YF.2019.b.1408

The British Library Exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark continues until 27 August 2019. 

13 June 2019

‘The Father of German Calligraphy’: Johann Neudörffer

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In an earlier post I wrote about the use and long survival of ‘gothic’ typefaces and handwriting in the German-Speaking countries. It was surely no coincidence that, at the time when the printing press and the influence of humanist thought and teaching were beginning to popularise ‘Roman’ printing and writing styles, the first printed writing manuals for German scripts also began to appear.

One of the first and most influential creators of such manuals was the Nuremberg writing and mathematics teacher Johann Neudörffer (1497-1563), who published his first collection of alphabets, designed for his own students and usually referred to as the Fundament, in 1519 (1267.g.24.(3)). His major work, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht der furnemsten Grunde aus denen die Jungen zierlichs schreybens begirlich, mit besonderer Kunst und Behendigkeyt unterricht und geubt mögen werden, appeared 19 years later.

Title-page  of Johann Neudörffer, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht 
Title-page  of Johann Neudörffer, Ein gute Ordnung und kurtze Unterricht (Nuremberg, 1538).  C.69.aa.18.

The Gute Ordnung contains not just alphabets and examples of how to form and join letters, but also models for the kinds of  documents his students would need to prepare in their later careers as court or civic scribes.

Practical guidance on points and lines from Ein gute Ordnung
Practical guidance on points and lines from Ein gute Ordnung

An alphabet in capitals from Ein gute Ordnung
An alphabet in capitals from Ein gute Ordnung

There are also models of scripts using prayers, Biblical quotations and educational maxims. Most are in German hands, although there are some samples of Roman and italic lettering. There are large and elaborate capitals, and texts in script almost too tiny to read, practical scripts for everyday work and decorative ones for special occasions.

An inscription in outline script
An outline script from Ein gute Ordnung

Decorative flourishes
Decorative flourishes from Ein gute Ordnung

Perhaps the most complex model is a prayer presented as a labyrinth pattern.

A prayer written out in a labyrinth pattern

Because of the method of reproduction used, many of the plates also appear in reverse, which were often bound in with the others. This, together with the fact that Neudörffer produced more plates in later years which were bound into some copies, makes the work a bit of a bibliographical challenge.

A page with a handwriting sample
A page (above) and its reverse (below) from Ein gute Ordnung

A page with a handwriting sample reproduced in mirror image

The British Library holds two copies, one (C.69.aa.18.) with 103 leaves of which 46 are accompanied by the reverse, and one (1256.kk.31.) with 101 leaves of which 45 are accompanied by the reverse and one appears in reverse only. Both copies show evidence of being owned by contemporary scribes. The first copy has an ownership inscription by a Hanns Lebzelter dated 1549, and the second has 18 manuscript leaves bound in, one of them signed by Veit Stoss (1533-1576) a grandson and namesake of the sculptor.

Ownership inscription 'Hannes Lebzelters Kunstbuch Anno 1549
Ownership evidence: Hanns Lebzelter (above, C.69.aa.18) and Veit Stoss (below, 1256.kk.31.)

Handwritten text and ownership inscription by Veit Stoss, 1550

The 1519 Fundament and Ein gute Ordnung are copy-books with little or no explanatory text, but in 1549 Neudörffer published what was more of a descriptive textbook. Ein Gesprechbüchlein zweyer schüler, wie einer den andern im zierlichen schreyben untherweyst takes the familiar pedagogical form of a dialogue between instructor and learner, although rather than the more familiar model of a teacher or parent in the role of instructor, Neudörffer’s dialogue is between fellow students of a similar age. Stephan is keen to improve his calligraphy skills with the help of the more experienced Johann (based on Neudörffer’s own son). “I’m ashamed to let you see my handwriting,” Stephan explains at the start of the first lesson, but Johann reassures him, “It isn’t so very bad, at least one can read it,” and goes on to explain how to cut and hold a quill, how to make basic lines, points and letter-shapes, how to form and join up letters and so on.

A diagram of a perfectly-cut quill pen
Above: A perfectly cut quill pen, from Ein Gesprechbüchlein zweyer schüler (Nuremberg, 1549) 1267.g.24.(1).  Below: Guidance on how to hold a pen, from a 1601 reissue of the work under the title Schreibkunst (Nuremberg, 1601) 1477.dd.52.(1)

Diagrams and an explanation of how to hold a quill pen

Under the title Schreibkunst, Neudörffer’s grandson Anton reissued the Gesprechbüchlein in 1601 with an additional collection of letters and alphabets, some of them so elaborate that it becomes almost impossible to decipher the basic letter-forms beneath the flourishes.

Decorative letters A-L
Decorative letters A-L (above) and R-S (below) from  Schreibkunst

Heavily decorated letters R and S

Neudörffer helped to shape the style of both German handwriting and German printing types in the 16th century, and thus to influence German writing and printing styles for four centuries. Today he is recognised as the father of German calligraphy, and has inspired modern designers of gothic typefaces who have given his name to their fonts.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Oliver Linke, Christine Sauer, Zierlich schreiben: der Schreibmeister Johann Neudörffer d. Ä. und seine Nachfolger in Nürnberg (Nuremberg, 2007) YF.2011.a.17762

Werner Doede, Bibliographie deutscher Schreibmeisterbücher von Neudoörffer bis 1800 (Hamburg, 1958) 2739.c.6.

13 May 2019

Script, history and ideology: German fonts and handwriting

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In the 15th century the earliest European printers used what we commonly call ‘gothic’ or ‘black-letter’ typefaces, reflecting contemporary handwriting styles. In Italy, however, humanist scholars had been developing a new ‘roman’ handwriting based on the lettering of classical inscriptions, and the first printers in Italy were quick to design typefaces based on this style.

Over the next two centuries, roman types and handwriting gradually became standard in most European countries, but in some parts of northern Europe black-letter types survived much longer.

Map showing European countries using Roman and Gothic script in the late 19th century
Map showing the distribution of script styles in Europe at the end of the 19th century, from Petermanns geographische Mitteilungen (Gotha, 1901) P.P.3946. German letters. marked in blue, are shown as dominant in Germany, Austria, Norway and Estonia, although they were already falling out of use in the last two countries

In Germany these forms remained dominant until well into the 20th century, alongside a handwriting style, called ‘Kurrentschrift’, based on late mediaeval models.

An example of 16th-century German handwriting
A sample of 16th-century Kurrentschrift from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533)

Black-letter types are generally called ‘Fraktur’ in German, although technically the term refers only to one of four families of black-letter type, the others being Schwabacher, Textura and Rotunda.

An alphabet in Fraktur type
Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ..

Roman types were not unknown in Germany, and were often used for printing Latin and other foreign-language texts. Latin quotations and foreign loan-words were also typically printed in roman type within a Fraktur text to highlight their difference. Sometimes different fonts appeared in a single word if it had a Latin suffix or root, as in the word ‘vegetabilischen’ in the example below.

German title-page of a book from 1639 showing the use of Fraktur and Roman type together
Title-page using both Fraktur and roman fonts, from Angelo Sala, Hydrelæologia, darinnen, wie man allerley Wasser, Oliteten, vnd brennende Spiritus der vegetabilischen Dingen ... distillieren vnd rectificiren soll ... (Rostock, 1639) 1568/1368.

From the late 18th century onwards some printers began to produce German texts wholly in roman type and some Germans adopted roman handwriting. The question of whether Germany should move over to roman types and scripts or maintain Fraktur and Kurrentschrift grew into a national debate in the course of the 19th century. Philologists came out on both sides, with Jacob Grimm a notable supporter of roman styles, and the lexicographer Daniel Sanders a staunch defender of Fraktur and Kurrentschrift.

Handwritten notes by Daniel Sanders in a working copy of his dictionary
Detail of working notes (in German script) by Daniel Sanders from an interleaved copy of his Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Leipzig, 1860-1865) L.R.276.a.3.

Some arguments were practical: both sides claimed that their preferred style caused less eye-strain, and advocates of roman type argued that its use would make German easier for foreign learners. Supporters of German type and script deployed the romantic argument that these were an innate part of the German character. This association had a long history: in his 1533 handwriting manual, Wolfgang Fugger claimed that “It does not look well when we write German in Latin letters”.

In 1876 a German Orthographical Conference came out cautiously in favour of a move towards roman letters (Daniel Sanders was one of four delegates who voted against) but this never became official policy. In 1911 the Reichstag debated a petition to teach roman letters alongside German ones in schools, but defenders of German styles lobbied strongly against such a move and, despite initial support, the motion was defeated. In the same year, graphic designer Ludwig Sütterlin was commissioned to design a new form of Kurrentschrift for use in schools. This was adopted in most of the German states and was known by the designer’s name.

An alphabet in the Sütterlin handwriting script
Ludwig Sütterlin’s handwriting style, from W. Jungk, Mit Sütterlin zur Schul- und Lebensschrift (Berlin, 1928) 7947.b.17.

Although German letters still had official status, the first decades of the 20th century saw an increase in books printed using roman types. In the 1920s the typographical experiments of the Bauhaus and of designers like Jan Tschichold gave roman types an added aura of modernity.

Eamples of sans-serif type from a Bauhaus prospectus
Prospectus designed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for a series of Bauhaus books, reproduced in Jan Tschichold, Die neue Typographie (Berlin, 1928) 11911.aa.23.

Tschichold saw ‘national’ scripts such as Fraktur as symbols of a backward-looking nationalism to be rejected in an increasingly internationalised world. The early years of Nazi rule seemed to confirm this view as Fraktur received official blessing, but the Nazis’ attitude to type and scripts was in fact ambivalent. They used both roman and Fraktur types in their propaganda material, and Hitler, in a speech given on 5 September 1934, actually criticised ‘street signs and typewriting in original Gothic lettering’ as examples of a ‘pretended Gothic internalisation’ unsuited to a modern nation.

In 1941, the Nazi government formally banned the use of German fonts and scripts. This move was partly driven by Germany’s conquests in the early part of the Second World War, which created a need to publish and communicate in a form more easily understood by non-Germans. However, the document declaring the ban gave the totally false explanation that Fraktur types were a Jewish invention (‘Schwabacher Judenlettern’) and were therefore not ‘German’ at all.

German title-page from 1939 in Fraktur type German title-page from 1940 in Roman type
Philipp Bouler, Kampf um Deutschland (Berlin, 1939 [above; 12254.c.10.] and 1941 [below; 9386.c.39]), issued by the Nazis’ central publishing house and showing the change from Fraktur to roman type.

Although the ban was a product of the Nazi regime and backed by a spurious antisemitic argument,  German type and handwriting remained linked in the minds of the post-war occupying forces with extreme nationalist ideology, and there was little enthusiasm for reviving them. Fraktur did not completely disappear: some publishers continued to use it in the late 1940s, and it survived in publications such as Bibles and hymn-books into the early 1970s. Some West German states taught Kurrentschrift in schools in the 1950s, although in addition to roman rather than as an alternative. But gradually roman became the norm, and today it is the dominant style in Germany as in the rest of Western Europe

However, Fraktur remains a part of the German landscape on shop and restaurant signs and in commercial logos, contexts where its use suggests tradition and authenticity. It has also become a hallmark – not just in Germany – of music scenes such as heavy metal. But there are also more serious uses: type designers continue to create and work with Fraktur fonts, and the Bund für deutsche Schrift und Sprache promotes the study and use of German letters. And of course anyone wanting to study older German literature, history or bibliography needs a knowledge of the typefaces and scripts used in books and manuscripts. Fortunately there are many guides both printed and online (such as this one) to help those keen to learn these skills.

𝕾𝖚𝖘𝖆𝖓 𝕽𝖊𝖊𝖉, 𝕷𝖊𝖆𝖉 𝕮𝖚𝖗𝖆𝖙𝖔𝖗 𝕲𝖊𝖗𝖒𝖆𝖓𝖎𝖈 𝕮𝖔𝖑𝖑𝖊𝖈𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓𝖘*

References/further reading:

Gerald Newton, ‘Deutsche Schrift: the demise and rise of German black letter’, German Life and Letters 56:2, April 2003.

Albert Kapr, Fraktur: Form und Geschichte der gebrochenen Schriften (Mainz, 1993) YF.2018.a.16367

Christina Kilius, Die Antiqua-Fraktur Debatte um 1800 und ihre historische Herleitung (Wiesbaden, 1999) YA.2001.a.30739

Silvia Hartmann, Fraktur oder Antiqua: der Schriftstreit von 1881 bis 1941 (Frankfurt am Main, 1998) YA.2000.a.34566

*Font converted using the YayText website

26 September 2018

Languages of Reckoning: The Gagauz Number System

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The more languages you speak, the more perspectives you have on the world. Bulgarian, Czech and Hungarian proverbs capture this observation: ‘Човекът е толкова пъти човек, колкото езика знае’ (Bulgarian: a person is as many times a person as many languages knows), ‘Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem’ (Czech: as many languages you know, as many times as you are a person), ‘Ahány nyelvet beszélsz, annyi ember vagy’ (Hungarian: as many languages you speak, as many persons you are). And a similar proverb has also been attributed to that famous polyglot, Emperor Charles V. By drawing on linguistics and anthropology, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that the proverbial language-thought nexus is universal, so that the structure of a language has an influence on the speaker’s thinking and behaviour even if the speaker is unaware of this influence.

Does the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis apply to non-alphabetic – in particular, numeric – languages as well? Learning numeric systems other than the prevailing Arabic and Roman ones, however, would be a challenge, as only a few other systems are preserved in Europe, mainly alphabetic numerals, for instance in Georgian, Greek and Hebrew. Why do we ‘speak’ so few numeric languages in comparison with alphabetic languages? If Sanskrit, the origin of Arabic numerals, and Latin, the origin of Roman numerals, had their own numeral systems, can we assume that each language once had its own symbols for writing numbers? If so, how, when and why did they abandon their own numerals?

A recent addition to the British Library’s Gagauz collection, Gagauz yortulari, adetleri, siralari (Gagauz Holidays, Customs, Rites), presented by the Gagauz linguist and ethnographer, Todur Zanet, in four parallel languages, Gagauz, English, Romanian and Russian, reveals numerals, which seem to be specific to Gagauz (p. 9). Considering how few languages maintained their numerals, the Gagauz model prompts a closer look.

Gagauz Cover YF.2018.a.9388
Cover of Todur Zanet, Gagauz yortulari, adetleri, siralari (Gagauz Holidays, Customs, Rites) (Chişinău, 2017) YF.2018.a.9388


Gagauz numerals, from Gagauz yortulari, adetleri, siralari, p. 9

The Gagauz are a Turkic people of Orthodox Eastern Christian religion. One of Europe’s 60 regional and minority languages, Gagauz belongs to the Oghuz, south-western branch of the Turkic language family, together with Turkish, Azerbaijani and Turkmen. Spoken by 140,000 people in Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece and other countries, Gagauz – in addition to Romanian and Russian – is the official language of Gagauzia, an autonomous region of the Republic of Moldova. Gagauz was mainly a spoken rather than written language until the mid-20th century. The orthographic changes from Greek letters to Cyrillic under Soviet governance and from Cyrillic to Latin after gaining independence imply profound political and cultural changes. Re-connecting with the Gagauz numerals and number system may perhaps be part of the efforts to construct a new identity.

Personal communication with Todur Zanet (May 2018) and Vitalie Sirf of the Moldovan Academy of Sciences (Aug 2018) reveals that the Gagauz numerals are not used any more, except in rare publications by leaders in cultural revitalisation. Gagauzians today use the Latin (Roman) script and Roman and Arabic numerals. Sirf adds that Gagauzians, both in Bessarabia and the Balkans, have been using Arabic and Roman numerals since the end of the 19th century.

The same set of Gagauz numerals Zanet brings to our attention (p. 9) were already published almost a century ago by Atanas I. Manov, a Bulgarian linguist. Manov’s brief account includes a statement that adds to the significance of these numerals, namely, the Gagauz men and women who used these numerals were illiterate.

Can numeracy precede literacy? The examples of other pastoralists, farmers, navigators and many other illiterate artisans who used complex calculations suggest an affirmative answer. Joseph Mazur, an American mathematician proposes that ‘mathematical writing predates literature by more than a thousand years.’ One can be illiterate and mathematically literate. This may sound counter-intuitive in our age of computers when literacy is more valued than numeracy and large portions of our population suffer under an alarmingly low level of numeracy.

Gagauz Manov
Cover of Atanas I. Manov, Potekloto na gagauzitiei tiekhnitie obichai i nravi (Varna, 1938) YA.2002.a.20996

The Gagauz numerals in Bulgarian, from Potekloto na gagauzitiei tiekhnitie obichai i nravi

Gagauz numerals are written using four basic symbols (vertical stroke, cross, half-circle, full circle) and their superimposition (vertical stroke in a circle, cross in a circle). The six icons are easy to notch with a few strokes or made as impressions by simple tools, characteristics they share with others number symbols, which Karl Menninger has labelled ‘folk’ and ‘peasant’ numerals.

The symbol for hundred represents the highest value carried by an individual icon. This may suggest a base 10 (decimal) thinking, however, the Gagauz number system seems to combine decimal and vigesimal (base 20) elements. Base 10 is used up to 19 and base 20 from 20, similar to what Georges Ifrah found in Danish, Celtic (Breton, Welsh, Irish) languages, Basque and Georgian. The French for eighty, quatre-vingts, which literally means ‘four twenties’ is also a vestige of base 20 thinking.

Gagauz numerals are read from left to right and formed in three ways: (i) adding, (ii) multiplying adjacent symbols or (iii) combining addition and multiplication. For instance, addition is applied up to 499; multiplication for 500 and 1,000, and their combination for 600 and above. No sign but the relative values of adjacent numerals indicate the algorithm change from addition to multiplication and combination: if a lower value numeral precedes the next, the lower is interpreted as a multiplier. The algorithm change from addition to multiplication marked by sequence exists also in other number systems, for instance Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian, and ancient and current Chinese.

Examples of Gagauz numerals formed by addition, multiplication and their combination

Let’s convert some Gagauz, Roman and Arabic numerals and experience the joys of learning a new numeric language (the key is at the end of the post).

Quiz to convert Gagauz, Roman and Arabic numerals

Converting one system to another raises awareness of the challenges people faced when trying to translate between different ways of counting. These transactions may have facilitated processes in which local numerals and number systems got lost in translation, and more widely shared systems for commercial, administrative and scientific communication were adopted.

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger all four Gagauz dialects are endangered, without any reference to their numerals. The Gagauz number system may be extinct, yet it is an important part of the world’s cultural heritage, even if not listed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Heritage , because it highlights the diversity of knowing the world, well, more precisely, the diversity of reckoning. Losing local number systems, just like losing alphabetic languages and local knowledge sensu lato, is a stark reminder of losing important perspectives we could have on the world.

Andrea Deri, Cataloguer

Key to quiz: converting Gagauz, Roman and Arabic numerals

Contributions to this post from Todur Zanet, Vitalie Sirf (Moldovan Academy of Sciences) and Rossitza Atanassova, Saqib Baburi, Anna Chelidze, Bob Chen, Sara Chiesura, Eyob Derillo, Michael Erdman, Bink Hallum, Arani Ilankuberan, Marja Kingma and Geoff West (British Library) are much appreciated. 

References/Further reading:

Florian Cajori, A History of Mathematical Notations (New York, 1993) YK.1996.a.5633

Tobias Dantzig, Number, the Language of Science (New York, 2005) YK.2006.a.18415

Georges Ifrah, The Universal History of Numbers. Volume 1. The World’s First Number-Systems. Volume 2. The Modern Number-System (London, 2000) YC.2001.a.17568

Georges Ifrah, From One to Zero: a Universal History of Numbers (New York, 1985) 85/33662

Elizaveta N. Kvilinkova, ‘The Gagauz Language through the Prism of Gagauz Ethnic Identity’. Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia. Volume 52: Number 1(2013), pp. 74-94.  1546.502670

Joseph Mazur, Enlightening Symbols: a Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers (Princeton and Oxford, 2014) YC.2014.a.5849

Karl Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols: a Cultural History of Numbers (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England, 1970) qAL69/5025

Joseph Needham with the collaboration of Wang Ling, Science and civilisation in China. Vol. 3, Mathematics and the sciences of the heavens and the earth. (Cambridge, 1959) OIK 509.51

Magdalena Pasikowska-Schnass, Regional and Minority Languages in the European Union (Brussels, 2016) 

James A. Picton, On the Origin and History of the Numerals. A Paper Held before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, November 30, 1874. ([Liverpool, 1874]) 8531.dd.28.(1)

Edward Sapir, Language: an Introduction to the Study of Speech. (London, 1921) 012902.f.44.

Thomas Zitelmann, ‘Numbers, Numerals, Numeric Systems’ in Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. (Wiesbaden, 2007) OID 963.003


22 January 2018

Three Alphabets of the Belarusian Language

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The written culture of Belarus is over 11 centuries old. Many of us correctly associate the Belarusian language with the Cyrillic alphabet. However, many texts, in both Old Belarusian and the modern literary language (1850s onwards) were originally written and published in Latin characters. The existence of these two graphic systems in the Belarusian written tradition reflects the rich and complex cultural influences the country experienced at different periods. Many people may be surprised to learn that the Arabic alphabet was also used for writing in Belarusian. For that we should be grateful to the Tatars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

For centuries, Cyrillic script (kirylica) was the most commonly used graphic system of the Old Belarusian language both for religious and secular literature. The oldest Belarusian book known to us is the Turaŭ [Turov] Gospel. Its only fragment, consisting of ten sheets, was discovered in 1865 in Turaŭ, a town in the south of contemporary Belarus. It is preserved in the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences  in Vilnius. The manuscript is written in the Church Slavonic language, in uncial script (ustav) - the oldest type of Cyrillic writing.

Starting from the 14th century, a more economical half-uncial script was widely used in East Slavonic manuscripts. When the first Belarusian printer, Francysk Skaryna, established his press in the early 16th century, he chose a font based on handwritten half-uncial Cyrillic script.

All three versions (1529, 1566 and 1588) of the Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were written in Cyrillic too. There is no academic consensus regarding their language. Most Belarusian scholars call it Old Belarusian, but others refer to it as Ruthenian or Chancery Slavonic. In any case, the texts of the Statutes became important precursors of the modern Belarusian language. Unlike the first two Statutes, the version of 1588 was printed; a Cyrillic font imitating an italic script (skoropis) of that time was used. This script was used for civil publications, while religious books continued to be printed in a more elaborate half-uncial script.

Facsimile title-page of the 1588 statute with a woodcut device of a mounted knight
Title-page of the facsimile edition of the Statute of 1588, in Statuty Velykoho Kniazivstva Lytovs'koho (Odessa, 2002-2004), Vol. 3, book 1,  ZF.9.a.951

The organic development of the Cyrillic form of the Belarusian language was interrupted by the increased use of the Polish language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 17th-18th centuries. Polish was replaced by Russian in official use after the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland were partitioned by their stronger neighbours at the end of the 18th century.

A civil script, grazhdanka, developed for the Russian alphabet under Tsar Peter the Great’s supervision, was adopted by newspaper and book publishers after publishing in Belarusian became legal in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. After a short period of experimentation, the Belarusian alphabet settled into its current form. It is very close to the Russian and Ukrainian alphabets, but has its own particularities, e.g. the letter ў (ŭ) which recently acquired a mascot status for the whole Belarusian language.

A monument celebrating the character ў_

A monument celebrating the character ў in Polack, the oldest Belarusian city and the birthplace of the first Belarusian printer, Francysk Skaryna. (Photo by Pasacern7 from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Latin script (lacinka) was used widely in Belarus for writing in Latin and Polish. From the 16th century, we also have examples of Belarusian texts, usually written in Latin script using the Polish alphabet.

19th-century publications in Belarusian are dominated by lacinka: the folklorist Jan Čačot, the author Jan Barščeŭski, the poet and publisher Alexander Rypinski, the first major Belarusian playwright Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič, and the first major national poet, Francišak Bahuševič – all wrote and published their works in the Latin script. In 1862-63, the first – illegal then – Belarusian newspaper, Mužyckaja praŭda, was published by Kastuś Kalinoŭski, also using Latin script.

Cover of 'Niaczyścik'Cover of Alexander Rypinski, Niaczyścik, Ballada Białoruska ... Wydanie trzecie Akcentowane ([Tottenham, 1856?]). 11585.a.56.(7)

Cover of a facsimile edition of 'Dudka białaruskaja' Cover of the facsimile edition of Frantsishak Bahushėvich, Dudka białaruskaja (Minsk, 1990). YA.1999.a.4633

The earliest Belarusian newspapers and books published legally under the Russian Empire used both Cyrillic and Latin scripts, which they referred to as “Russian and Polish characters”. Cyrillic was used to address the Orthodox Christian population and the Latin alphabet – for Roman Catholics. The Naša Niva weekly, the main voice of the Belarusian national revival, dropped its lacinka version for the kirylica one due to costs.

Page from a facsimile edition of Nasha NivaPage from a facsimile edition of Nasha Niva (Minsk, 1992). ZA.9.d.379

The Latin script continued to be widely used in the western part of Belarus, which from 1919-1939 was under Polish rule. Here, the outstanding linguist Branislaŭ Taraškievič proposed a version of the Belarusian Latin alphabet which broke away from the earlier conventions; for example, instead of digraphs common in Polish (cz, sz), letters with diacritics (č, š) were introduced. This version was quickly and widely adopted by publishers in western Belarus.

In Soviet Belarus, the possibility of adopting the Latin script was discussed only once, during the Academic Conference for Reform of the Belarusian Grammar and Alphabet in 1926. The conference agreed that such a change would be the best solution, but premature at that time. Three years later, the Bolsheviks described such views as sabotage and tearing Belarusian culture away from that of Russia. Mass purges of the Belarusian intelligentsia followed soon after.

A slightly modified version of Branislaŭ Taraškievič’s lacinka has recently been adopted by the Belarusian government for transliterating Belarusian geographic names into Latin script and recommended for use by the United Nations.

From the 14th century, Tatars from Crimea, the Volga region and the Caucasus settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – some were invited to join the Duchy’s army, while others were refugees or prisoners of war. Many of their settlements survived until very recently in contemporary Belarus, and even now the small town of Iŭje is primarily known for its Tatar community. In literature, they are referred to as Lipka Tatars.

 The Tatars adopted the vernaculars of the peoples they lived among, and used them in their own manuscripts – translations of and commentaries on the Quran, prayer books and books of religious instruction. Belarusian dialects predominate in Lipka Tatar manuscripts, particularly in the oldest known to us, dating from the 17th-18th centuries. The Tatars preserved the Arabic script for writing and recorded phonetics of the language they – and people among whom they lived – spoke. These manuscripts are an important source about the development of the Belarusian language: many characteristics of the contemporary Belarusian language can be seen in Lipka Tatar writings from centuries ago.

Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London.

References / Further reading:

Peter J. Mayo, ‘The Alphabet and Orthography of Byelorussian in the 20th Century’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 4/1 (1977), pp. 28-47. ZC.9.a.9127 .

George Meredith Owens/Alexander Nadson, ‘'The Byelorussian Tartars and their Writings'’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 2/2 (1970), pp. 141-176.

Paul Wexler, ‘Jewish, Tatar and Karaite Communal Dialects and their Importance for Byelorussian Historical Linguistics’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 3/1 (1973), pp. 41-54.

Shirin Akiner, ‘The Vocabulary of a Byelorussian Tatar Kitab in the British Museum’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 3/1 (1973), pp. 55-84.

Shirin Akiner, Religious language of a Belarusian Tatar Kitab: a cultural monument of Islam in Europe (Wiesbaden, 2009). EDM.2009.a.41

Barys Sachanka, Belaruskaia mova: ėntsyklapedyia (Minsk, 1994). YA.1999.b.2123

A. Susha, ‘Turauskae Evanhelle – samaia starazhytnaia kniha Belarusi’, Belaruski histarychny chasopis, no. 8 (2015), pp. 22–32. ZF.9.b.69


05 June 2017

One World, One Script, Many Lects: Early Soviet Turkic Language Reform

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The concept of a unified national language is very much a product of the modern era. Since antiquity, commentators, authors, scribes and others have complained about the quality of language use in literary and scholastic circles and everyday life. Such gripes motivated the creation of highly curated liturgical and sacred languages, such as Classical Arabic or Sanskrit. Nevertheless, the creation of a norm against which transgressions could be measured, and its adoption as a tool of the state – as opposed to a religious institution – are novelties of the last few centuries. Profane language tinkering was undertaken with vigour across much of Europe in the 19th century, from French to Hungarian and Greek. It was not until the 20th century that the trend took minority European languages and non-European idioms by storm. Among the Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire, it was the advent of Soviet hegemony that turned language reform from a topic of discussion among intellectuals into stark reality.

The Language Issue, as it is often known, was a subject of frequent conversation among Turkic intelligentsia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jadidists  and Qadimists – so called because of their adherence to new or old methods of education – fought over the means and content of education, including language. It was during the first few years of Soviet power, however, that such actors were enlisted to help delineate linguistic boundaries and compile “scientific” knowledge about speech communities across the Union.

ITA1986a1059 Xocayev Ottoman Kazakh Uzbek Grammar

Bekir Çobanzade, for example, wrote a grammar of the Kumyk language. Xalid Sǝid Xocayev’s Comparative Conjugations of the Ottoman-Uzbek-Kazakh Languages (pictured above) is another case in point . These fed into the broader process of understanding and standardizing linguistic structures, which culminated at the 1926 All-Union Turcological Congress. The collection of articles prepared for the Congress, the Bulletin for which is held by the British Library, show the degree to which language issues and linguistic reform dominated the proceedings.

14499tt26 Ileri Lenin Portrait

Portraits of Lenin (above) and Stalin (below) from İleri (Simferopol, 1926-[1927?])

14499tt26 Ileri Stalin Portrait

Along with linguistic reform came change in orthography and writing systems. A quick glance through Turkic-language publications from the first half of the 1920s shows that experimentation with different means of Perso-Arabic spelling was common. Crimean Tatar publications such as İleri  and Yeşil Ada demonstrate just how much writers dabbled in such matters. Despite discussing the standardization of such experiments at length, delegates at the 1926 Baku All-Union Turcological Congress eventually settled on whole-sale Latinization as the most efficient alternative. Thus, the ‘Uniform Alphabet’ was born. This particular Latin-based writing system aimed to give all languages within a particular language family the same grapheme for the same sound. It was based, in part, on earlier Tatar efforts at Latinization known as Yañalif, although it did also incorporated important innovations from other languages. Unlike European alphabets, where the English sound sh as is ship could be written sch (German), ch (French), sci (Italian), sz (Polish) or just plain s (Hungarian), all Soviet Turkic languages would now use ş.

14499tt25 Yesil Ada Cover Page
Cover of Yeşil Ada (Aq Meşçid [Simferopol'],1920.)

14499tt25 Yesil Ada Article Milli AqintiArticle from Yeşil Ada (Aq Meşçid [Simferopol'],1920.)

The Soviet authories used readers such as Jeni Turmuş and Jaş Kyc, both from Uzbekistan, to promote aggressively the new alphabet.  These formed part of mass education movements aimed at eradicating illiteracy as well as pre-Revolutionary epistemologies.

ITA1986a1112 Jas Kyc Erkin Qbz

Page from Jaş Kyc (Samarqand,1929). ITA.1986.a.1112 

Even those members of the new élite who had actively opposed Bolshevik advances, such as Akhmet Baitursynov,  joined the effort. Baitursynov’s 1927 publication Alip-Ba (Zhanga Kural)  sought to teach students the new Latin orthography. It followed upon his efforts to compile a grammar of Kazakh, entitled Til Qural, in 1925. Together, they provided a complete corpus of texts for the fixing and propagation of Soviet Kazakhstan’s new national language.

ITA1986a1104 Baitursynov Grammar Cover Page

Cover of Til-qural by Akhmed Baitursynov (Qyzylorda, 1925). ITA.1986..a.1104

ITA1986a1138 Baitursynov Reader Cover Page

Cover of Alip-Ba (Zhanga Kural) by Akhmet Baitursynov (Qyzylordam 1927) ITA.1986.a.1138

Orthographic standardization was informed by both a desire to simplify literacy and printing, and the Marxian belief that as humanity marched towards Socialism, languages and national cultures would merge into one. This humanity-wide kulturbund, united in its pursuit of socio-economic well-being, would no longer be divided by the bourgeoisie’s artificial distinctions of nationality, race or language. The Soviet authorities’ wish to help this process along among the Turkic languages is very much evident in an article entitled ‘Turkmen edebi dilining esaası yaghdayları’ (pictured below) from Tyrkmen Medenijeti . K. Bööriyif wrote the piece in 1930, which leads us to believe that it was, at least partially, influenced by the dominant ideology of Stalinism. In it, the author argues for the creation of a standard Turkmen language through the selection of “ideal” linguistic elements from various vernaculars. This is language management at the extreme, precluding the sort of linguistic unification that comes from literary production and socio-political changes, as occurred in Italy and Spain. Such a suggestion only adds to the overwhelming evidence the state’s push to imbue all aspects of Soviet life with Stalinist elements.

Tyrkmen Medenijeti B+Â+Âriyif article

Language reform and management are tools utilized by a wide swathe of governments, not just totalitarian ones. What is unique about the Soviet experience, and the Soviet Turkic experiment in particular, is how all aspects of language came under scrutiny. The brief period of forced convergence in the 1920s and early 1930s came to an abrupt end around the time of the Great Purge, when Stalin employed terrible violence to cleanse the state and the country of perceived ideological enemies. Latin gave way to unique Cyrillic alphabets for each language at this point, and the creation of new linguistic standards lost steam. Today, the peoples of the Turkic republics of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Siberia live with the consequences of this turbulent period, while some – including the Uzbeks, Turkmen and most recently the Kazakhs – have sought to determine what would have happened, had the changes of the late 1930s never been enforced.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator

Further reading:

Kazakhstan sets out plan for alphabet swap,” Deutsche Welle, Berlin: 12 April 2017.

‘Nursultan Nazarbaev. Bolashaqqa baghdar: rukhani zhangghyru’ Egemen Qazaqstan, Almaty: 12 April 2017.

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.