Monthly Archives: May 2011

Firmin Didot’s Mongolian fount

The punches of the first European metal printing type for the traditional Mongolian script were cut by the Parisian punchcutter, typefounder and printer Firmin Didot  (1764 – 1836), second son of François Ambroise Didot l’aîné (1730–1804). [1]

The manufacture of the typeface was requested by the French orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763–1824), to print the Mongolian characters in the second edition of his lexicographical work on the Alphabet Tartare-Mantchou in 1787. Over the years, Langlès had collected a large library, known for its Eastern works, and was acquainted with the fine printing work of the Didot family. His collection also included “sheets of works, more or less advanced in printing”. [2] Lyrus Redding, a British writer who published his encounters with Langlés of 1816, believed these extraordinary and richly produced historical and military works, were executed primarily by Didot. [3].

Firmin Didot presumably learned the craft of cutting punches from Pierre-Louis Wafflard, the punchcutter in his father’s printing office, which Firmin succeeded to in 1789. A set of original punches of the caractères mandjous –as this type was referred to–  are preserved in the archives of the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris. The type was cast on 15 Didot point. [4]

[1] It is not certain whether other metal founts were produced in Asia earlier than Firmin Didot’s typeface.

[2] Redding, Lyrus. 1867. Personal reminiscences of eminent men. Volume 1: p 292

[3] Langlès also wrote works on Indian and Persian literature and culture.

[4] The Cabinet des poinçons of the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris also contained punches for two other Mongolian typefaces, amongst various other non-Latin founts. These were Mandjou Corps 9, cut by Firmin Didot in 1806, and Mandjou Corps 19, cut under Baron Shilling de Canstadt in St Petersburg in 1822. In 1963, the Parisian collection comprised 355 Mongolian punches and 14 woodcuts. [Also other punches for Mongolian and Uighur characters are preserved in the archives of the Imprimerie Nationale. These punches were cut by Renard in 1807, as mentioned in Le cabinet des poinçons (1963). Paul-Marie Grinevald writes in Les caractères de l’Imprimerie Nationale (1990, p 305) that their collection also preserves the punches for a fount called syro-ouïgour, which was cut in 1806 by Fouquet. These will be examined in greater depth at a later stage in the project.]


Uyghuro-Mongol script

Throughout the centuries a variation of different scripts was used to put the Mongolian language into writing. This research, however, will concentrate on the typefaces that were created for the Uyghuro-Mongol script, the writing system which the Mongols used for more than seven centuries.[1]

According to the Secret history of the Mongols, after defeating the last king of the Naiman tribe in 1204 and capturing his seal-bearer, the Uyghur scribe Tatatungga, Chinggis Khaan instructed the Mongol scholars in 1206 (the Mongolian year of the Tiger) to adapt the Uyghur script for their own use to codify the Mongol Law in ‘blue books’ written on ‘white paper’, and to write the History of the Mongol empire.[2] Tatatungga was ordered to educate the Mongol scholars and young nobels to read and write the Mongolian language with the Uyghur script.

Although researchers are still in debate about the origin and orthography of this ‘pre-Mongolian’ Uyghuro-Mongol written language, ‘it is clear that the Chinggis-era Mongols borrowed a foreign Uygur writing system’, which in turn derived from the writing system of the Iranian-speaking Sogdians, whose origin traces back to the Aramaic alphabet. [3]

The Uyguro-Mongol script is a phonemic writing system with vowels and consonants. Whereas Sodgian was written horizontally from right to left, the Uyghuro-Mongol script is written in vertical lines from left to right. The characters are connected to each other from top to bottom. Similar to the structure of the Arabic script, the shape of the Uyghuro-Mongol characters varies depending on their positioning in a word: either at the beginning (initial), in the middle (medial) or at the end (final). Apart from word spaces, the use of punctuation marks in Mongolian orthography is scarce. Different marks can be used at the beginning of a literary text to indicate the nature of its content (this was not used in monumental inscriptions). At various moments in history, different marks of punctuation were introduced to indicate the end of a line, the end of a verse, the end of a chapter, or the end of a text. Apart from the numerals, which originated from the Tibetan script, signs for abridgement were also included in Uyghuro-Mongol writing. Unlike the Latin alphabet, the Uyghuro-Mongol script is unicase, and thus makes no distinction between capital and lowercase letters.

The Uyghuro-Mongol script became the writing system of the Mongol Empire from the thirteenth century onwards. Specific Uyghuro-Mongol characters were introduced to transliterate foreign (like Tibetan, Russian or Chinese) words. It was used in everyday life in Mongolia until 1946, when a political decision introduced the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to write Mongolian and other minority languages in the USSR, and discouraged the use of the Uyghuro-Mongolian script. Two extra glyphs were created for the Cyrillic alphabet to represent the Mongolian sounds.

In the 1990s, the ‘traditional’ (or Uyghuro-Mongolian) script was revived in Mongolia and was re-introduced in classrooms and publishing. Variants of the Uyghuro-Mongol script are Oirat, Buryat, Galik, Kalmyk and Manchu.[4]

[1] Urgunge Onon uses the term Uighuro-Mongol or Uighurjin Mongol script, whereas György Kara refers to this script as Uygur-Mongolian.

[2] The secret history of the Mongols (2001): p 11.

[3] Books of the Mongolian nomads (2005): p 29-30. For more details on the origin and rise of the Uyghuro-Mongolian script, see Kara’s publication Books of the Mongolian nomads (2005).

[4] For a detailed description of the scripts that are based on the Uyghuro-Mongol writing system, see Kara’s chapter ‘Aramaic scripts for Altaic languages’ in The world’s writing systems (1996): pp 536–558.