Grammar of Orkhon Turkic

1.1. The Alphabet

The script used in the inscriptions consists of runelike characters mostly formed with vertical and oblique lines. There are also curved lines in some characters, but horizontal lines are very few.

orkhon old turkic alphabet
The old Turkic script is written horizontally from right to left. In some of the Yenisei inscriptions, however, it runs from left to right. In this case the characters are inscribed in the reverse direction.

1.11. The Characters

The old Turkic script used in the Orkhon inscriptions consists of 38 characters; combined with two syllabic characters, each of which has been used only once in the inscription of Tonyukuk, the total becomes 40.

Of the 38 characters generally used, 4 are vowel signs. Each vowel sign expresses two different vowels; more precisely, there is only one letter for the vowels a and a, one for i and i, one for and u, and finally one for o and u. The double consonant-characters system of the alphabet and the vocalic harmony prevent possible mistakes in reading the vowels a, a and i, i; but there is no criterion by which one could distinguish between the vowels o and u, and o and ü.

Of the remaining characters, 20 are double ‘conson-ant-characters1 (syllabic characters) which designate syllables beginning with a or a and ending in the characteristic consonant. They can also represent the consonants alone. These characters are: ab, ab; ad, ad; ay, ag; aq, ak; al, al; an, an; ar, ar; as, as, as; at, at; ay, ay.

There are two consonant characters designating syllables with rounded vowels: oq/uq, ok/iik, and two consonant characters representing syllables with! or i , respectively: i£, ic.

The consonant characters for the sounds m, n, n,

£, j[, and z are neutral in relation to vowels. In other words, they are used in both back- and front-vocalic words.

There are three compound consonant-characters: It, nc, and nt. The last two are neutral in relation to vowels, while the first is used only in back-vocalic words.

Finally, there are two syllabic characters, one representing the syllable a_s, and the other bas.

1. 12. Origin of the Alphabet

Various theories have so far been put forward on the origin of the Turkic ‘runic’ script. Otto Dormer, still before the script was deciphered, drew attention to the general conformity between the characters of the Yenisei script, that is, the Turkic ‘runic’ script, and the Lycian and Carian alphabets of Asia Minor of the antiquity, and assumed that the Yenisei script might have been derived from these alphabets. Thomsen, who deciphered the Turkic ‘runic’ script, did not accept this assumption and put forward the theory that the Turkic alphabet was derived from the late Semitic (Aramaic) alphabet, with or without an Iranian intermediary. Aristov and Mallitskiy suggested that the letters of the Turkic ‘runic’ script might have been developed from the Turkic tamgas. According to Polivanov, the Turkic script was mainly derived from the Turkic tamgas, but was slightly influenced by the Aramaic-Sog-dian and Pehlevi alphabets. He also suggested that certain letters of the alphabet are ideograms. Finally, A.

C. Emre put forward the theory that the Turkic ‘runes’ are ideographic in character and developed from the same source as the Sumerian linear s.

Of these theories, the one which has found more supporters than any other theory is that of Thomsen. Today it is generally accepted that the old Turkic alphabet  is mainly derived from the Aramaic alphabet, through one or more Iranian intermediaries.9 In fact, there is a fairly close resemblance between certain letters of the Turkic alphabet and those of the Aramaic/Iranian alphabets. Therefore, it is possible that the inventor of the Turkic alphabet took as his principal model some form of the Aramaic alphabet which had been adapted for writing some Iranian language; but, obviously, this was no more than a beginning. The inventor must have invented a number of letters for which no Aramaic/Iranian model can be found. Furthermore, he made at least two great innovations: (1) he invented special letters used only to designate vowels; (2) he invented a number of letters which could be used only to designate consonants occurring in back-vocalic words and a number of letters which could be used only to designate consonants occurring in front-vocalic words.

Thus, all unicons onantal and vocalic signs of the Turkic alphabet can be explained partly as reproductions of the letters of some Aramaic/Iranian alphabet and partly being the inventions of an inventor; but, this assumption still leaves quite a few, almost a dozen, signs unexplained. These are the so-called ‘di-graphs’ or ‘ligatures’. It has been suggested that these signs, too, were invented by the inventor who may have got this idea from the ligatures in Greek cursive script.  The fact that there is no resemblance between any of the “digraphs’ and the letters representing their constituent sounds refutes this theory. The signs for the sound combinations It, nc, nt, oq/uq/qo/ qu, Sk/iik/ko/ku, i£/<ji, ic, as, bas, up, and ot cannot be regarded as ligatures, because none of them seems to be a combination of two letters. There is no doubt that these signs are syllabic, not alphabetic. Therefore, it would be sensible to assume that they have an independent origin and developed from ideograms. It should be noted that even Thomsen, founder of the Aramaic origin theory, admitted that the letters ^ (back^), oq/uq and b2 might have been ideographic in character, e. g. , ay= moon, oq = arrow and ab= house.

Another difficulty in accepting the Aramaic/Iranian origin theory is that in Aramaic a given sign designates syllables consisting of a given consonant and any vowel, e. g. , beth means ba, bi, bu, etc. , while in the Turkic script consonantal signs represent syllables beginning with a or a and ending in the characteristic consonant, e. g. , ah, ab, a£, ak, al, al, etc. It must be for this reason that initial a and a are left unwritten, and that all final vowels are designated.

No matter how it was invented or came into being, there is no doubt that the Turkic ‘runic’ script is one of the most ingeniously devised alphabets of the first millenium. How early it was invented and began to be used is not known; but, it is certainly older than the Turkic inscriptions which date from the first half of the eighth century A. D. and are the earliest specimens of this script which have come down to us.  The Turkic ‘runic’ script probably began to be used as early as the middle of the sixth century, as the official alphabet of the Turkic Empire. After this empire had collapsed in the middle of the eighth century, it was retained for a time, probably for about a century, as the official alphabet of the first Uigur Empire (745-840). Finally, it was replaced by the Uigur alphabet.

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