Educational materials (Turkic), Other Turkic languages » The Origin of Turkic Runic Alphabet

26.02.09 by T_Moor


The Origin of Turkic Runic Alphabet
Author: Gerard Clauson
Keywords: Turk runik yazisi; eski turk dili
Format / Quality: Pdf
Size: 11,6 Mb
The Old Turkic script (also Göktürk script, Orkhon script, Orkhon-Yenisey script; Turkish: Orhun Yazıtları, traditional Chinese: 鄂爾渾文字; pinyin: È'ěrhún Wénzì) is the alphabet used by the Göktürk and other early Turkic groups from at least the 8th century to record the Old Turkic language. It was later used by the Uyghur Empire. Additionally, a Yenisei variant is known from 9th-century Kyrgyz inscriptions, and it has likely cousins in the Talas Valley of Turkestan and the Old Hungarian script of the 10th century. The alphabet was usually written from right to left.

The script is named after the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia, where early 8th century inscriptions were discovered in an 1889 expedition by Nikolay Yadrintsev. These Orkhon inscriptions were published by Vasily Radlov and deciphered by the Danish philologist Vilhelm Thomsen in 1893. These inscriptions are the earliest known texts in any Altaic language.

Because of similarities to the angular shapes of the runic alphabet, the letters of the Orkhon script have been referred to as "Turkic runes" or described as "runiform". This similarity is superficial, however. All alphabetic scripts used for incision in hard surfaces show this tendency (see Old Italic alphabets for other examples).


Mainstream opinion derives the Orkhon script from variants of the Aramaic alphabet, in particular via the Pahlavi and Sogdian alphabets, as suggested by V.Thomsen, or possibly via Karosthi (cf., Issyk inscription).

Alternative possibilities include derivation from tamgas, suggested by W. Thomsen in 1893, from the Chinese script. Turkish inscriptions dated earlier than the Orkhon inscriptions used about 150 symbols, which may suggest tamgas at first imitating the Chinese script and then gradually refined into an alphabet.

The Danish hypothesis connects the script to the reports of Chinese account, from a 2nd century BC Chinese Yan renegade and dignitary named Zhonghang Yue (中行说) who "taught the Shanyu (rulers of the Xiongnu) to write official letters to the Chinese court on a wooden tablet (牍) 31 cm long, and to use a seal and large-sized folder".

The same sources tell that when the Xiongnu noted down something or transmitted a message, they made cuts on a piece of wood (ko-mu), and they also mention a "Hu script". At Noin-Ula and other Hun burial sites in Mongolia and region north of Lake Baikal, the artifacts displayed over twenty carved characters. Most of these characters are either identical or very similar to the letters of the Turkic Orkhon script.


The inscription corpus consists of two monuments which were erected in the Orkhon Valley between 732 and 735 in honour of the two Kokturk prince Kul Tigin and his brother the emperor Bilge Kağan, as well as inscriptions on slabs scattered in the wider area.

The Orkhon monuments are the oldest known examples of Turkic writings; they are inscribed on obelisks and have been dated to 720 (for the obelisk relating to Tonyukuk), to 732 (for that relating to Kültigin), and to 735 (for that relating to Bilge Kağan). They are carved in a script used also for inscriptions found in Mongolia, Siberia, and Eastern Turkistan and called by Thomsen "Turkish runes". They relate in epic language the legendary origins of the Turks, the golden age of their history, their subjugation by the Chinese, and their liberation by Bilge. The polished style of the writings suggests considerable earlier development of the Turkish language.

Sir Gerard Leslie Makins Clauson (18911974) was an English civil servant, businessman, and Orientalist best known for his studies of the Turkish language.

Clauson attended Eton College, where he was Captain of School, and where, at age 15 or 16, he published a critical edition of a short Pali text, "A New Kammavācā" in the Journal of the Pali Text Society. In 1906, when his father was named Chief Secretary for Cyprus, he taught himself Turkish to complement his school Greek. He studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in classics, receiving his degree in Greats, then became Boden Sanskrit Scholar, 1911; Hall-Houghtman Syriac Prizeman, 1913; and James Mew Arabic Scholar, 1920. During World War I, he fought in the battle of Gallipoli but spent the majority of his effort in signals intelligence concerned with German and Ottoman army codes.

These were the years in which the great Central Asian expeditions of Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, etc., were unearthing new texts in a variety of languages including Tokharian, Khotanese, and Tumshuqese, and Clauson actively engaged in unraveling their philologies, as well as Chinese Buddhist texts in the Tibetan script.

In 1919 he began work in the British Civil Service, which was to culminate in serving as the Assistant Under-Secretary of State in the Colonial Office, 1940-1951, in which capacity he chaired the International Wheat Conference, 1947, and International Rubber Conference, 1951. After his mandatory retirement at age 60, he switched to a business career and in time served as chairman of Pirelli, 1960-1969.