European studies blog

5 posts categorized "Writing"

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.

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

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.

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

BelarusianAlphabetsDudka 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.

BelarusianAlphabetsNashaNivaPage 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.

23 January 2017

Scratching the Surface: the Runic Imaginary

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A picture is worth a thousand words but a word, too, might conjure up a thousand images. One-to-one correspondences between words and objects are exceedingly rare, if not non-existent. Beyond that, however, the power of alphabets, syllabaries and ideographs is well-documented; such was the motivation for orthographic reform during the 20th century from Norway to North Korea. The Latin alphabet can provide a sense of false familiarity, making it seem as if Somali is easier for an English learner to pick up than would be Persian, despite the fact that the latter shares far more structural similarities to English than the former. However, it is not just Latin characters that are imbued with a magical power to draw close and imbue a sense of solidarity. The systems colloquially referred to as runes, too, have often been instrumentalised with much the same goal in mind.

Technically, the word rune is applied exclusively to the writing systems of Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet. There are various different versions of Germanic runes. While there are various different types of runes, all are derived from the Old Italic scripts. They were largely replaced by the Latin alphabet after Christianisation in 700CE, but their usage persisted in highly specialised contexts until the 19th century. The study of runes, known as runology, began in Scandinavia as early as the 16th century, albeit more within the realm of theology, the occult and mysticism than what we would conceive of as linguistics. The study took a more scientific turn throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as a number of collection items at the British Library demonstrate. These include Johan Göransson’s Bautil (143.g.19) or his Is Atlinga (4408.g.6) which seek to locate runes within the history of writing systems, including the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets.

As with so many other terms, runes have undergone a popular semantic widening. The word is also applied to other writing systems that bear a visual similarity to Germanic runes. One such system is Old Turkic writing, employed by communities in Siberia and eastern Eurasia in the first millennium CE. Also known as the Orkhon Script (after the Orkhon Valley  where Old Turkic stelae were found near the Yenisei River by Nikolai Yadrintsev in 1889), it has been claimed to be a descendent of Aramaic, Tamgas and Chinese ideographs. The oldest inscriptions in old Turkic script date from the 8th century CE. It was later used by Uighur scribes, prior to its replacement by the Old Uighur script (which is directly related to Sogdian and Aramaic).

OIF909049 Runic Turkic Alphabet

Runic Turkic alphabet from Hüseyin Namık Orkun, Eski Türk Yazıtları (Ankara, 1986) OIF 909.049

Old Turkic is unique for the manner in which some letters have various sounds, determined according to the rule of vowel harmony, a feature of Turkic, Mongolic and Finno-Ugric languages. In Turkey, the old Turkic alphabet found particular resonance with secularist nationalists interested in emphasizing the pre-Islamic culture of the Turks. Examples abound from the writer Hüseyin Namık Orkun, who wrote a number of nationalist-tinted histories of the Turks. His Eski Türk Yazıtları  provides extensive information on the origin and study of the inscriptions, as well as their transcription and contents. Not only does he call the alphabet in which these texts are written the Rünik Türk Alfabesi, the “Runic Turkish Alphabet”, but he also connected these to the “Pecheneg” inscriptions of Nagy Szent Miklos, establishing a pre-historic link between the Hungarians and the Turks.

OIF909049 Runic Kül Tegin Transcription

Runic Kül Tegin transcription from Eski Türk Yazıtları

Indeed, Hungarian studies of runes have proven to be the most durable and profitable. Commonly referred to as rovásírás in Hungarian, they are occasionally linked to the Szekler  communities in Transylvania, an ethnic sub-group of Hungarians. In recent years, rovásírás has experienced a resurgence, both popular and scholarly. On the one hand, academics have taken a new interest in the old Hungarian script, occasionally called runes as well. It is sometimes linked to the late Khazars, a Caucasian Turkic group of the 8th to 11th centuries, as explored in Gábor Hosszú’s Heritage of Scribes: The Relation of Rovas Scripts to Eurasian Writing Systems (Budapest, 2012; YD.2015.a.2560).

YF2016a4452 Cover Page
A Hungarian New Testament printed in runic script (Szolnok, 2012) YF.2016.a.4452

The old Hungarian script has also captured the imagination of many Hungarian nationalists, and has given rise to new publishing and typography ventures, such as the New Testament pictured above or of Géza Gárdonyi’s Egri Csillágok (Szolnok, 2011; YF.2015.a.25655), pictured below, a fictional account of Hungarian resistance to Ottoman rule.

YF2015a25655 Cover Page                     

The term rune has proven to be highly versatile in both popular and scholarly imaginations. From the study of northern Europe’s intellectual history, the term has been adopted and adapted to a myriad of other contexts and needs. Today, it fills a political as well as academic role, adding yet another building block to the construction of a Eurasian identity that refocuses the mythical origins of various modern nations in the heart of the Eurasian landmass.


Above: A wreath at Szeged University in the colours of the Hungarian flag with a banner in rovásírás; below: A handmade sign above an entrance in Miskolc, Hungary, with an inscription against the Treaty of Trianon (1919) in Hungarian in both Latin characters and rovásírás (Photos by Michael Erdman). 

Runic sign

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections

12 November 2014

“Cursed orthography”: Revolution, Language and Identity

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Writing in his diary in spring 1919, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Ivan Bunin bitterly condemned the Izvestia newspaper’s use of what he called “Bolshevik orthography”. Introduced after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian orthographic reform of 1917-1918 streamlined the written Russian language to its current form. Yet while the reform was introduced by the Bolsheviks, changes to the orthography had been discussed, and even endorsed, by leading academic authorities long before the revolution.

Russian WWI propaganda poster Russian First World War propaganda poster entitled “Wilhelm's Nightmare” (Moscow, 1914). British Library H.S.74/273.(24).

From the Bolsheviks’ perspective, the aim of the reform was to improve literacy among Russian speakers, including speakers of Russian as a second language, and thus foster a national and collective identity among its disparate peoples. The reform effectively simplified Russian orthography by replacing a number of letters with existing letters that had the same pronunciation. In addition, the changes also significantly economised the printing process by greatly restricting the use of ъ (tverdyi znak).

Red Army propaganda posterRed Army propaganda poster in the new orthography (Moscow, 1921). The caption reads “From Darkness into Light; From Battle to Books; From Misery to Happiness”.  Cup.645.a.6, plate 21

Despite its pre-revolution origins the reform became a focus of anti-Bolshevik sentiment among the Russian émigré community which emerged after the revolution. White propaganda and émigré publications across the world continued to be printed in the old orthography right up until the Second World War. Effectively, as Marc Raeff argues, “one’s stand on the issue of orthography became symbolic of one’s opinion on the Soviet system or to the revolution”.

White Army propaganda posterWhite Army propaganda poster in the pre-revolutionary orthography (date unknown). 1856.g. 8.

Similarly, a number of émigré writers insisted on their work being published in the pre-reform orthography, complaining that the new system tarnished the purity of the Russian language.  Bunin himself swore that he would “never accept the Bolshevik orthography. If only because the human hand has never written anything like what is being written now in this script”. This unapologetic disregard for the new orthography can be seen in the wider context of the relationship between language and identity. For the Russian émigré community, the pre-revolutionary orthography represented a tie with their homeland and life before emigration. For them, accepting the new orthography would in effect not only indicate their support of the Bolsheviks, but also a break with the past.

Bunin’s diary Cursed DaysBunin’s “Diary of the Revolution” published in 1935 in the pre-revolution orthography. Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, Okaiannye Dni (Berlin, 1935), YA.1989.a.15918

The new orthography was not fully adopted by the émigré community until after the Second World War and the corresponding “second wave” of Russian emigration. The new émigrés were familiar with the reformed orthography and attached far less cultural and political significance to it. Émigré publishers and editors did however begin to accept the new orthography prior to the new wave of emigration. The reform particularly found support among younger émigrés due to its simplified rules and the availability of books printed in Soviet Russia. Changes in the attitude among the older émigré generation can also be seen as early as the mid-1930s. Alexander Kerensky, the prominent pre-revolutionary politician, adopted the new orthography for his émigré publication Novaia Rossiia as early as 1936. Bunin, on the other hand, was still very much standing his ground against the “cursed orthography”.  

Émigré newspaper Novaia RossiaÉmigré newspaper Novaia Rossiia from April 1936 edited by Alexander Kerensky, NP000451448.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student, Collections Division


Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, Okaiannye Dni (Berlin, 1935), YA.1989.a.15918

Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, Cursed Days: Diary of a Revolution, trans. by Thomas Gaiton Marullo (London, 2000). YC.2001.a.5248

Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939 (New York; Oxford, 1990), YC.1991.b.4698

For more details about the reform see Marc L. Greenberg, The Writing on the Wall:
The Russian Orthographic Reform of 1917–1918