Phags-pa Script : The Forty-One Phags-pa Letters


Introduction

The biography of the 'Phags-pa lama in the History of the Yuan Dynasty (compiled 1369-1370) states that the Phags-pa script comprises 41 letters, but does not go into any further detail. Fortunately there are two contemporary Chinese works that describe the Phags-pa script and enumerate its forty-one original letters :


These two works both include descriptions of several non-Chinese scripts, including a short section on the Phags-pa script, with a table of the forty-one Phags-pa letters and corresponding Chinese ideographs used to represent the letters' phonetic values. Although there are some differences between the two works, the main description of the Phags-pa script and the table of letters is virtually identical, and they clearly derive from a common source. There is also some correspondence between these descriptions and the account of the creation of the New Mongolian Script in the biography of 'Phags-pa given in the History of the Yuan Dynasty. It would seem probable that the original source for the descriptions of the Phags-pa script given by Sheng Ximing and Tao Zongyi was the edict of 1269 that officially promulgated the new script.



Transcription of the Chinese Text

Transcriptions and translations of the Chinese text of descriptions of the Phags-pa text given in Fashu Kao and Shushi Huiyao are provided below, together with facsimiles of the tables of forty-one Phags-pa Letters.

The list of Phags-pa letters given in both works has neither been transcribed or translated, but has been made available in tabular form in Table 1.


Illustration 1 : Fashu Kao

 

Illustration 2 : Shushi Huiyao

 

Source : Lianting Shier Zhong 楝亭十二種 vol.2 folio 3a.

 

Source : Shushi Huiyao 書史會要 vol. 7 folio 22a.



Fashu Kao

惟我皇元兆基朔方,俗尚簡古,刻木為信,猶結繩也。既而頗用北庭字,書之羊革,猶竹簡也。蓋天將徼世以復古。奄有中夏,未遑於制作,乃詔國師拔思八采諸梵文創為國字,其母四十有三:

右借漢字釋音,並開口呼之。漢字母内則去三字,增入四字。切韻多本梵法,字勢方古嚴重。凡詔誥、表章、鴻文、大冊並以書焉。


Our Imperial Yuan dynasty was founded in the North, and in those times our customs were as yet ancient and uncomplicated. We carved notches in wood as a means of communication, in the same way that [the preliterate Chinese were supposed to have] tied knots in string [as a primitive means of communication]. Later we came to use the letters of the Beiting people (i.e. Uighurs), writing on sheep hides , which was analagous to the [ancient Chinese custom of writing on] bamboo slips. No doubt Heaven causes the world to return to the ancient ways. When we completely occupied China we had no time to create [our own script], and so I commanded the National Teacher 'Phags-pa to create a National Script after the model of the various Indic scripts. The number of letters [in the new script] are forty-three :

… [table of letters]

The letters listed above are glossed with Chinese ideographs to show their pronunciation. The letters should be pronounced with an "open mouth" (this is a technical linguistic term for syllables without a "u" vowel or semi-vowel).

When used for writing Chinese then the three letters RA, QA and GGA are removed, and the four letters FA, SHA, HA and YA are added.

The method of putting the letters together to spell words is mostly based on the method used in Indic scripts. The appearance of the letters is square and ancient, solemn and imposing.

All edicts, memorials, official letters and proclamations are to be written in [the Phags-pa script].



Shushi Huiyao

帝師巴思八土波國人,法號曰:「皇天之下、一人之上、開教宣文、輔治大聖、至德普覺、眞智祐國、如意大寶法王、西天佛子、大元帝師」,共三十有八字。且夫有元肇基朔方,俗尚簡古,刻木為信,猶結繩也。既而頗用北庭字,書之羊革,猶竹簡也。及奄有中夏,受命巴思八采諸梵文創為國字,其功豈小補哉。

字之母,凡四十一:

右借漢字釋音,並開口呼之。漢字母内則去三字,而增入四字。切韻多本梵法,或一母獨成一字,或二三母揍成一字,如 ꡉꡦꡋ(天)、ꡈꡞ(地)、ꡔꡞꡋ(人)、ꡊꡟꡃ(東)、ꡛꡞ(西)、ꡋꡏ(南)、ꡎꡟꡞ(北)之類是也。但只一字具平、上、去三聲,而無入聲。入聲輕呼則同平聲矣。凡詔、誥、宣、敕、表、牋並以書寫,其書右行,其字方古嚴重。

按,宋鄭樵《七畧》序云:

七音之韻起自西域,流入中夏。梵僧欲以其教傳之天下,故為此書。雖重百譯之遠,一字不通之處,而音韻可傳。華僧從而定之以三十六為之母,重濁輕清,不失其倫,天地萬物之音備於此矣。雖鶴唳、風聲、雞鳴、狗吠、雷霆、驚天、蟁蝱、過耳皆可譯也,況人言乎。初得七音韻鑑一唱三歎。胡僧有此妙義,而儒者未之聞及乎。研究制字、考證諧聲然後知皇頡史籕/籀之書已具七音之作,先儒不得其傳耳。

據此則巴思八之制創,其所由來遠矣。詳具外域天竺條下。


The Imperial Preceptor 'Phags-pa was a Tibetan. His Buddhist title was "Beneath the Imperial Heavens only One Person Stands above Him, Opener of Religion and Propagator of Writing, Aid to the Great Sage, Extreme Virtue and Universal Awakening, True Wisdom and Protector of the Nation, Wishes Come True Great Precious Dharma King, Buddha of the Western Heaven, Imperial Preceptor of the Great Yuan dynasty", written with a total of thirty-eight ideographs.

As to the Yuan dynasty, it was founded in the North, and in those times its customs were as yet ancient and uncomplicated. They carved notches in wood as a means of communication, in the same way that [the preliterate Chinese were supposed to have] tied knots in string [as a primitive means of communication]. Later they came to use the letters of the Beiting people (i.e. Uighurs), writing on sheep hides , which was analagous to the [ancient Chinese custom of writing on] bamboo slips. When they had completely occupied China, Phags-pa was invested with the task of creating a National Script after the model of the various Indic scripts. How could his accomplishments not be considered of great importance ?

The number of letters [in the new script] are forty-one :

… [table of letters]

The letters listed above are glossed with Chinese ideographs to show their pronunciation. The letters should be pronounced with an "open mouth" (this is a technical linguistic term for syllables without a "u" vowel or semi-vowel).

When used for writing Chinese then the three letters RA, QA and GGA are removed, and the four letters FA, SHA, HA and YA are added.

The method of putting the letters together to spell words is mostly based on the method used in Indic scripts. Either one letter by itself represents a syllable, or two or three letters are joined together to form a syllable. For example ten "Heaven", ti "Earth", zhin "Mankind", dung "East", si "West", nam "South" and bui "North" are such examples. However, only a single syllable is used to represent the Level, Rising and falling tones, whilst there is no Entering tone at all. If the [ancient] Entering tone is [now] pronounced lightly, then it is the same as the Level tone.

All edicts, mandates, announcements, orders, memorials and official letters are written in [the Phags-pa script]. The script is written in lines from left to right, and the appearance of the letters is square and ancient, solemn and imposing.



Table of the Forty-One Letters

The table of Phags-pa letters given in the two works is presented in Table 1 below.


Table 1 : The 41 Phags-pa Letters
Phags-pa Letter Letter Name Transcription [IPA] Chinese Gloss
(Sanskrit Letter)
Notes
KAk [k]葛 gé *kɑt (ka क) 
KHAkh [k']渴 kě *k'ɑt (kha ख) 
GAg [g]𠱥(⿰口卉) *ŋɑt (ga ग) 
NGAng [ŋ]誐 é *ŋɑ (ṅa ङ) 
CAc [tɕ]者 zhě *tɕǐa 
CHAch [tɕ']車 chē *tɕ'ǐaShushi Huiyao has a blank for this gloss.
JAj [dʑ]遮 zhē *tɕǐa 
NYAny [ȵ]倪 ní *ŋiei (ña ञ) 
TAt [t]怛 dá *tɑt (ta त) 
THAth [t']撻 tà *t'ɑt (tha थ) 
DAd [d]達 dá *dɑt (dha ध)The expected gloss would be 捺 nà *nɑt for the Sanskrit letter da द.
NAn [n]那 nà *nɑ (na न)Shushi Huiyao has a blank for this gloss.
PAp [p]鉢 bō *pɑt (pa प) 
PHAph [p']癹 bá *buɑt (pha फ) 
BAb [b]末 mò *muɑt (ba ब) 
MAm [m]麻 má *ma (ma भ) 
TSAts [ts]拶 zā *tsɑt (ca च) 
TSHAtsh [ts']捺 nà *nɑt (da द)Shushi Huiyao has a blank for this gloss.
捺 nà must be a mistake for 擦 cā *tʃ'æt, which is the gloss for the Sanskrit letter cha छ.
DZAdz [dz]惹 rě *ɽǐa (ja ज) 
WAw [v]嚩 pó *bak (va व) 
ZHAzh [ʑ]若 ruò *ɽǐak 
ZAz [z]薩 sà *sɑt (sa स) 
-A- [∅]阿 ā *ɑ (ā आ) 
YAy [j]耶 yé *jǐa (ya य) 
RAr [r]囉 luó *lɑ (ra र) 
LAl [l]羅 luó *lɑ (la ल) 
SHAsh [ɕ]設 shè *ɕǐɛt (śa श) 
SAs [s]沙 shā *ʃa (ṣa ष) 
HAh [h]訶 hē *xɑ (ha ह) 
'A' [∅]啞 yǎ *a 
Ii [i]伊 yī *i (e ए) 
Uu [u]鄔 wū *u (o ओ) 
Ee [ɛ]翳 yì *iei (ī ई) 
Oo [o]污 wū *u (ū ऊ) 
QAq [q]遐 xiá *ɣa
"breathe heavily" 重呼 (Fashu Kao)
"breathe lightly" 輕呼 (Shushi Huiyao)
 
XAx [x]霞 xiá *ɣa 
FAf [f]法 fǎ *pǐwɐp 
GGAgg [ʔ]惡 è *ɑk 
EEee [e]也 yě *jǐa 
Ww [w]咼 wāi *k'uɑ 
Yy [j]耶 yé *jǐa
"breathe lightly" 輕呼
 

Notes

  1. The Phags-pa letters in the original texts are in many cases badly formed, although still recognisable.
  2. The third column gives the ASCII transliterations of the Phags-pa letters used on these pages. The nominal IPA value of the letter is given in brackets. The phonetic values given in this column do not always accord with the reconstructed pronunciation of the Chinese glosses given in the dourth column, but have been verified from actual usage of the letters in Yuan dynasty Chinese and Mongolian Phags-pa texts.
  3. The Chinese glosses for the Phags-pa letters are given in the fourth column. The first reading after the Chinese ideograph is its modern pronunciation in pinyin transliteration, whilst the second reading after the Chinese ideograph is its reconstructed Tang/Song pronunciation based on the fǎnqiè 反切 pronunciations given in the Song dynasty Guǎng Yùn 廣韻 rhyming dictionary. The reconstructions are according to Hanzi Guyin Shouce 漢字古音手册. The tones have been omitted from the reconstructions given here, as tonal differences are not reflected in the Phags-pa spellings (as noted by Tao Zongyi in the extract from Shushi Huiyao translated above). It should be noted that these phonetic reconstructions represent Chinese spoken at least two hundred years before the creation of the Phags-pa script, and some major phonetic changes had taken place, especially in Northern Chinese, since then (see Chapter 7 of Wang Li's Hanyu Yuyin Shi 汉语语音史 for details of the phonetics of Yuan dynasty Chinese), in particular final p/t/k were no longer pronounced in the Northern Chinese spoken during the Yuan dynasty (viz Old Mandarin). The Sanskrit/Devanagari letter in backets is the letter which the Chinese ideograph is used to gloss in the description of Sanskrit given in Fashu Kao and Shushi Huiyao.


Observations on the Forty-One Letters

Number of Letters

Shushi Huiyao states that there are 41 letters, and gives 41 letters; whereas Fashu Kao states there are 43 letters, and actually gives 42 letters. However the extra 38th letter in Fashu Kao is identical in form to the following letter, and is glossed with same Chinese ideograph as the previous letter, and so would seem to be an erroneous interpolation. Forty-one would thus seem to be the correct number of Phags-pa letters.



The Chinese Glosses

The Chinese glosses to the Phags-pa letters are unfortunately not very useful, as all but a few of them are simply borrowed from the description of the Sanskrit script given elsewhere in Fashu Kao and Shushi Huiyao, where they are used to gloss the pronunciation of Sanskrit (Devanagari) letters (as shown in Table 1 above). This indirectly maps most of the forty-one Phags-pa letters to their corresponding Sanskrit letters, but does not necessarily tell us what the intended pronunciation of each letter was, especially as the glosses do not reflect Yuan dynasty Chinese. Indeed some of the glosses, such as those for the letters GA, DA and BA, do not seem to represent standard Chinese pronunciation from any period of time, and would be misleading at best if used as a guide to these letters' pronunciations.



The Completeness of the Forty-One Letters

All of the letters in this table are found in actual Yuan dynasty Phags-pa texts and inscriptions, except for the letter GGA alone, which is not used in either Chinese or Mongolian (see below).

From the evidence of the exatant Yuan dynasty Phags-pa texts and inscriptions, these forty-one letters are a comprehensive list of the original Phags-pa letters. Only one set of Phags-pa inscriptions dating from the Yuan dynasty include letters not given in Fashu Kao and Shushi Huiya. That is the transliteration of the Sanskrit texts Uṣṇīṣavijaya-dhāraṇī and Tathāgatahṛdaya-dhāraṇī engraved in large Phags-pa letters on the East and West walls respectively of the "Cloud Platform" 雲台 at Juyong Guan 居庸關 at the Great Wall north-west of Beijing, dated 1345. Uniquely these two inscriptions inlcude a set of reversed letters used for representing certain Sanskrit letters, as well as the Candrabindu sign, also used for transliterating Sanskrit. It may be assumed that these additional letters were only devised when they were found to be needed in order to write Sanskrit in the new script, and were not part of the original set of letters created by the Phags-pa lama.



The Letter GGA

The only problematic letter in this table is the letter GGA, which resembles a Tibetan letter GA, but is not found in any extant Phags-pa texts other than this list and the list of seal script forms given in Menggu Ziyun 蒙古字韻. This letter is grouped together with the three letters QA, XA and FA that supplement the thirty Tibetan consonants, and so presumably also represents a sound not represented by the original thirty Tibetan letters. It is my belief that the letter GGA represents a glotal stop for use in writing Persian (i.e. the letter 'ayn ع). As, to the best of my knowledge, no Persian Phags-pa texts still exist, this would explain why the letter GGA has not yet been found in use outside of this list.

That the list does include letters that would not be used in writing Chinese suggests that this list is a comprehensive and authentic list of the original Phags-pa letters.



The "Delete Three and Add Four" Rule

Both sources note that "when used for writing Chinese the three letters RA, QA and GGA are removed, and the four letters FA, SHA, HA and YA are added".

The first half of this statement is quite straight forward : the three letters RA, QA and GGA are not used in writing Chinese. This concurs with the evidence of extant Chinese Phags-pa texts and inscriptions, which do not use these three letters, but do use all of the other thirty-eight letters in the table. Obviously these three letters represent sounds that did not occur in Yuan dynasty Chinese.

However the second half of the statement is less easy to interpret, as of the four letters FA, SHA, HA and YA which are implied to be exclusive to Chinese use, only "FA" is not also found in Mongolian Phags-pa texts.

I think that the only explanation is that the four additonal letters actually refer to the variant forms of the letters FA, SHA, HA and YA that are found in the Chinese rhyming dictionary Menggu Ziyun 蒙古字韻 to represent historic differences between initial consonants that had merged together in the standard Yuan dynasty Northern Chinese dialect (Old Mandarin) :


As far as I can tell Menggu Ziyun is the only work that uses variant forms of the letters FA, SHA, HA and YA to represent historic phonetic values. No other Yuan dynasty Chinese Phags-pa inscription or text that I have examined seems to use variant forms of the letters FA, SHA, HA and YA to systematically differentiate historical phontic differences between initial consonants. That is to say, although the two variant forms of the letter HA, for example, may be found (sometimes one text uses one form and another text uses the other form, or they may be found together in the same text), they do not seem to be used in any way that suggests they represent different sounds, either modern or historical.

It is possible that variant forms of the letters FA, SHA, HA and YA were originally devised to represent historical phontic differences, but that they never caught on in practical use because :

  1. the variant forms of the letters were too similar to be easily differentiated;
  2. the Old Mandarin dialect spoken during the Yuan dynasty no longer differentiated the historical phonetic differences that these variant forms were supposed to represent, and so there was little point in using them.

Only in the rhyming dictionary Menggu Ziyun, which was probably originally compiled by official order at the time of the creation of the Phags-pa script or soon after (the only extant version was revised and edited by Zhu Zongwen 朱宗文 in 1308), were the variant forms of the letters FA, SHA, HA and YA ever actually used.



Date: 2006-12-21

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