A Study of B. B. Radlov’s Uighur Alphabet

Liu Ge

A Study of B.B. Radlov’s Uighur Alphabet

(66th Annual Meeting of the PIAC Göttingen, 2024)

1. B.B. Radlov’s Research Basis of the Uighur Alphabet

B.B. Radlov, born in 1837 in Berlin, Germany, was attracted by Orientalism and became interested in the history and culture of the Turkic-speaking peoples of the Altai language family in Siberia, Russia when he studied in University of Berlin. After graduating in 1858, he went to Barnaul on the recommendation of his teachers including Wilhelm Schott, to teach in a mining school. He then became a Russian citizen.

There were neither electric lights or telephones, nor modern comfortable daily necessities more than 160 years ago in Siberia. Nor were any convenient communication facilities or transportation. None of these conveniences existed back then. In such harsh environment, B.B. Radlov have lived there for 12 years. During the time he went into the settlements of the Turkic peoples, collecting information on their language, literature and other aspects, and participated in the excavation of about 150 ancient Turkic tombs.

He took great care to organize and study the collected materials and published them in a timely manner. His representative works include Selected Folk Literature of Turkic Tribes (1866-1907), Kutadgu Bilig (1890-1891), Dictionary of Ancient Turkic Dialects (1893-1911), Ancient Turkic Inscriptions (1895), Uighur Literature Collection (1928) and so on. In 1911, The Ancient Turkic Grammar was published, from which the Uighur Alphabet studied in this paper was derived.

Although the Alphabet is only one page long, it is the crystallization of his comprehensive research on ancient and modern Turkic languages, including some ancient Indo-European languages, after conducting in-depth investigations. This alphabet reveals a lot of research information and is the key to open the door to the field of the dead Uighur literature research.

2. Information Revealed by the Uighur Alphabet

The Uighur alphabet reveals the cultural links between the Uighurs and the outside world.

2.1 B.B. Radlov put in the same alphabet table the languages of Uighur, Sogdian, and Syriacusing in their respective forms with the Slavic alphabet as phonetic symbols to show the cultural connection among the three families. Namely, the Uighur script of the Turkic group of Altaic language family is originated from the Sogdian script of the Iranian group, the Indo-European language family while Sogdian is closely related to the evangelical Syriac of the Semitic language family.

2.2 Uighur and Sogdian are more similar. They share a common structure–a tripartite word-formation with the initial, middle, and end parts, which supports some scholars’ inference that Uighur is derived from Sogdian; In writing, they are characterized by the distinction between cursive and non-cursive writing styles. In the alphabet tables, there is written columns which distinguish Uighur, Sogdian, and evangelical Syriac. This is the earliest evidence for the Uighur script theory that I have seen so far.

2.3 The alphabet shows that there are thirty-two letters in the Uighur script. The seventeen lines of the alphabet show that certain sounds of different nature have the same morph. For example, front vowel “ä” and back vowel “a”; Some vowels have the same form as consonants, for example, ы i (e) j, that is, ï i e and y, where the former is a vowel and the latter is a consonant.

3. Problems to be Solved

3.1 The number of letters remains to be studied

As we have said, Radlov’s alphabet shows the thirty-two letters of the Uighur script. After a close look at the letters in the phonetic line, there is something wrong with the number. In”лl” of the 14th line, “л” is the Slavic letter but “l” is not. In C. E. Malof’s alphabet, l is marked in the ranks of the Latin alphabet.

In Radlov’s alphabet, the sixth phonetic alphabet is “т(д)”, the seventh is “д (т)” , the ninth alphabet is “c(з)”, and the eleventh alphabet is “з(с)”, which are “td”, “dt”, “sz”, “zs” respectively in the Latin transliterations. The author believes that these four groups of characters can not be counted as eight letters. Actually they are only four. There is phonetic alternations between ” td ” and ” sz “, which was under a specific discussion in the writings of Annearie von Gabain and others. The sounds were changed as the writing was changed but the number of words did not change. Such a phenomenon is now dealt with a dot under the alternating letter, i.e., “td”, “sz”. As a result, Radlov’s alphabet includes twenty-seven letters. So, how many symbols are there in the Uighur text to represent its thirty-two sounds? This is worth exploring further.

3.2 The parentheses in the alphabet are worth noting

3.2.1 Of the seventeen lines of phonetic symbols in B.B. Radlov’s alphabet, parentheses appear in nine lines. It shows that the letters inside and outside the brackets share the same shape. For example, “т(д)” is “t, d “. As I said above, this represents a phonological alternation.
The problem is that there are also phonetic groups without brackets between the letters, but the pictures in the alphabet show that they are homomorphs. For example, there are also phonetic alternations in the ” a ä “group of the first line of the phonetic alphabet column, influenced by the harmony of vowels. Why are there no brackets between this group of letters?

3.2.2 In the phonetic line of the alphabet, “ш”(namely “š”) is listed alone. However, as what can be seen from the picture: the beginning and the middle part of “c” and “ш” (namely”s”and “š”) are the same; There is no ending shape of “ш” in the alphabet, which, however, appears frequently in loan documents, such as, “tüš” meaning “Interest”; There should be a bracketed letter between “c” and “ш” (that is, “s”and “š”), for they also have phonetic alternations. Actually there is no bracket in the alphabet.

3.2.3 In the documentary photographs of Yamada Nobuo’s work, the other form of “šqγ” is” ” , with dots. The location of the dots was the arrangement of later scholars. However, these images with dots do not appear in B.B. Radlov’s alphabet.

3.3 About the chirography

B.B. Radlov created a chirography column in the alphabet. He divided Uighur scripts into cursive and non-cursive types. The pictures in the alphabet show that there are no structural differences between the morphology of the two types.

4. the Chronology of Phonological Alternations

At present, in the works of scholars such as V. Clark, Peter Zieme, Moriyasu Takao, and Geng Shimin, one can find such a point of view that certain patterns of the four pairs of letters are of chronological characteristics. That is, the forms of “t/d “, “s/z “, “s /š “, “q/γ ” after the phonetic alternations, namely,”t d “, “s z” and ” ” in transliteration would appear in the documents belonging to the Mongolian Yuan era.

The author argues whether the letters inside and outside the pairs of parentheses, to be exact, “a ä “,”o(ö)”, “y(ÿ)”(namely “u ü”) ,”k(г)”(also “k g”), “п(б)”(also “p b”) etc., are also chronologically specific if other phonetic alternations in the phonetic script line of Radlov’s alphabet appear in Uighur documents containing words such as Zhongtongbao banknote, Ogodei, and Daru flower? What do they imply?

5. The Impact of B.B. Radlov’s Uighur Alphabet

The impact of B.B. Radlov’s alphabet is profound. It has been highly valued by relevant scholars. In 1951, C.E. Malov’s Ancient Turkic Literature was published, with a revised Uighur alphabet. From the design of the table, it is the improvement and development of B.B. Radlov’s alphabet. Later, a number of Uighur alphabet appeared, in terms of content and structure, they are basically evolved from the above two Uighur alphabets.