Manchu alphabet

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Manchu script
Alphabet mandchou (Encyclopédie).jpg
Languages Manchu language
Xibe language
Parent systems
Chinese (left) and Manchu (right) writing in the Forbidden City

The Manchu alphabet is the alphabet used to write the now nearly-extinct Manchu language; a similar script is used today by the Xibe people, who speak a language variably considered as either a dialect of Manchu or a closely related, mutually intelligible, language. It is written vertically from top to bottom, with columns proceeding from left to right.


According to the Veritable Records (Manchu: Manju-i yargiyan kooli.png manju-i yargiyan kooli; Chinese: 滿洲實錄; pinyin: Mǎnzhōu Shílù), in 1599 the Manchu leader Nurhaci decided to convert the Mongolian alphabet to make it suitable for the Manchu people. He decried the fact that while illiterate Han Chinese and Mongolians could understand their respective languages when read aloud, that was not the case for the Manchus, whose documents were recorded by Mongolian scribes. Overriding the objections of two advisors named Erdeni and G'ag'ai, he is credited with adapting the Mongolian script to Manchu. The resulting script was known as tongki fuka akū hergen ("script without dots and circles").

In 1632, Dahai added diacritical marks to clear up a lot of the ambiguity present in the original Mongolian script; for instance, a leading k, g, and h are distinguished by the placement of no diacritical mark, a dot, and a circle respectively. This revision created the Standard script, known as tongki fuka sindaha hergen ("script with dots and circles"). As a result, the Manchu alphabet contains little ambiguity. Recently discovered manuscripts from the 1620s make clear, however, that the addition of dots and circles to Manchu script began before their supposed introduction by Dahai.

Dahai also added ten graphemes (tulergi hergen: "foreign (outer) letters"), to allow Manchu to be used to write Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan loanwords. Previously, these words contained sounds that did not have corresponding letters in Manchu.[1] Sounds that were transliterated included the aspirated sounds kʰ (Chinese pinyin: k, ᠺ), k (g, ᡬ), x (h, ᡭ); ts' (c, ᡮ); ts (ci, ᡮ᠊ᡟ); sy (si, ᠰ᠊ᡟ); dz (z, ᡯ); c'y (chi, ᡱᡟ); j'y (zhi, ᡷᡟ); and ž (r, ᡰ).[2]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were three styles of writing Manchu in use: standard script (ginggulere hergen), semi-cursive script (gidara hergen), and cursive script (lasihire hergen). Semicursive script had less spacing between the letters, and cursive script had rounded tails.[3]

The Manchu alphabet was also used to write Chinese. Manchu: a textbook for reading documents, by Gertraude Roth Li, contains a list comparing a romanization of Chinese syllables written in Manchu compared to pinyin and Wade Giles.[4] Using the Manchu script to transliterate Chinese words is a source of loanwords for the Xibe language.[5] Several Chinese-Manchu dictionaries contain Chinese characters transliterated with Manchu script and the Manchu version of the Thousand Character Classic is actually the Manchu transcription of all the Chinese characters. Also existing as a transliteration was the Manchu version of the Hong Loumeng (紅樓夢).[6]

In the "Imperial Liao-Jin-Yuan Three Histories National Language Explanation" (欽定遼金元三史國語解 Qinding Liao Jin Yuan sanshi guoyujie) commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, the Manchu alphabet is used to write Evenki words. In the Pentaglot Dictionary, also commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, the Manchu alphabet is used to transcribe Tibetan and Chagatai words.

Method of teaching[edit]

The word “Manju” (Manchu) written in Manchu script.

The Mongols learned their script as a syllabary, dividing the syllables into twelve different classes, based on the final phonemes of the syllables, all of which ended in vowels.[7] The Manchus followed the same syllabic method when learning Manchu script, also with syllables divided into twelve different classes based on the finals phonemes of the syllables.

Manchus learned their script also like a syllabary, with syllables divided into twelve different classes based on their finals' phonemes. Today, the opinion on whether it is alphabet or syllabic in nature is still split between different experts. In China, it is considered syllabic and Manchu is still taught in this manner, while in the West it is treated like an alphabet. The alphabetic approach is used mainly by foreigners who want to learn the language, as studying the Manchu script as a syllabary takes a longer time.[8][9]

The Manchus, like the Mongolians, taught their script as a syllabary and divided them into twelve classes of syllables, based on the ending phoneme of each syllable. Foreigners on the other hand learn Manchu script like an alphabet.

Despite the alphabetic nature of its script, Manchu was not taught phoneme by phoneme per letter like western languages are, rather, Manchu children were taught to memorize all the syllables in the Manchu language separately as they learned to write, like Chinese characters. Manchus when learning, instead of saying I, a---la; I, o---lo; &c., were taught at once to say la, lo, &c. Many more syllables than are contained in their syllabary might have been formed with their letters, but they were not accustomed to arrange them otherwise than as they there stand. They made, for instance, no such use of the consonants I, m, n, and r, as westerners do when they called them liquid; hence if the Manchu letters s, m, a, r, t, be joined in that order as a Manchu would not able to pronounce them as English speaking people pronounce the word smart.[10] Manchu children were taught the language via the syllabic method.[11]


Characters Transliteration Unicode Notes
isolated initial medial final
Vowels [12]
ᠠ᠊ ᠊ᠠ᠊ ᠊ᠠ a [a] 1820
ᡝ᠊ ᠊ᡝ᠊ ᠊ᡝ e [ə] 185D Second final form is used after k, g, h ([qʰ], [q], [χ]). [13]
(Mongol a tail 2.jpg)
ᡳ᠊ ᠊ᡳ᠊ ᠊ᡳ i [i] 1873
᠊ᡳ᠍᠊ ᠊ᡳ᠋
ᠣ᠊ ᠊ᠣ᠊ ᠊ᠣ o [ɔ] 1823
ᡠ᠊ ᠊ᡠ᠊ ᠊ᡠ u [u] 1860
ᡡ᠊ ᠊ᡡ᠊ ᠊ᡡ ū/uu/v [ʊ]
(Mongol y1 head.jpg) ᠊ᡟ᠊ ᠊ᡟ y/y/i' [ɨ] 185F Used in Chinese loan words.
Consonants [14]
ᠨ᠊ ᠊ᠨ᠋᠊ ᠊ᠨ ??? n [n] 1828 First medial form is used before vowels; second is used before consonants
᠊ᠩ᠊ ᠊ᠩ ng [ŋ] 1829 First medial form is used before i o u ū; second is used before e i
ᡴ᠊ ᠊ᡴ᠊ ᠊ᡴ k [kʰ] 1874 First medial form is used before a o ū; second is used before consonants
(Mongol k head.jpg) ᠊ᡴ᠌᠊ ᠊ᡴ᠋ k [qʰ] 1874 This form is used before e, i, u.
ᡤ᠊ ᠊ᡤ᠊ g [k] 1864 This form is used after a, o, ū.
g [q] 1864 This form is used after e, i, u.
ᡥ᠊ ᠊ᡥ᠊ h [x] 1865 This form is used after a, o, ū.
h [χ] 1865 This form is used after e, i, u.
ᠪ᠊ ᠊ᠪ᠊ ᠊ᠪ b [p] 182A
ᡦ᠊ ᠊ᡦ᠊ p [pʰ] 1866
ᠰ᠊ ᠊ᠰ᠊ ᠊ᠰ s [s], [ɕ] before [i] 1867
ᡧ᠊ ᠊ᡧ᠊ ᠊ᡧ š [ʃ], [ɕ] before [i] 1867
ᡨ᠋᠊ ᠊ᡨ᠋᠊ t [tʰ] 1868 First initial and medial forms are used before a o i;

second initial and medial forms are used before e u ū;
third medial form is used before consonants

ᡨ᠊ ᠊ᡨ᠊
ᡩ᠊ ᠊ᡩ᠊ d [t] 1869 First initial and medial forms are used before a o i;

second initial and medial forms are used before e u ū

ᡩ᠋᠊ ᠊ᡩ᠋᠊
ᠯ᠊ ᠊ᠯ᠊ ᠊ᠯ l [l] 182F Initial and final forms usually exist in foreign words.
ᠮ᠊ ᠊ᠮ᠊ ᠊ᠮ m [m] 182E
ᠴ᠊ ᠊ᠴ᠊ c/ch/č/q [t͡ʃʰ], [t͡ɕʰ] before [i] 1834
ᠵ᠊ ᠊ᠵ᠊ j/zh/ž [t͡ʃ], [t͡ɕ] before [i] 1835
ᠶ᠊ ᠊ᠶ᠊ y [j] 1836
ᡵ᠊ ᠊ᡵ᠊ ᠊ᡵ r [r] 1875 Initial and final forms exist mostly in foreign words.
ᡶ᠊ ᠊ᡶ᠊ f [f] 1876 First initial and medial forms are used before a e;

second initial and medial forms are used before i o u ū

ᡶ‍᠋ ᠊‍ᡶ‍
ᠸ᠊ ᠊ᠸ᠊ v (w) [w], [v-] 1838
ᠺ᠊ ᠊ᠺ᠊ k'/kk/k῾/k’ [kʰ] 183A Used for Chinese k [kʰ]. Used before a, o.
ᡬ᠊ ᠊ᡬ᠊ g'/gg/ǵ/g’ [k] 186C Used for Chinese g [k]. Used before a, o.
ᡭ᠊ ᠊ᡭ᠊ h'/hh/h́/h’ [x] 186D Used in Chinese h [x]. Used before a, o.
ᡮ᠊ ᠊ᡮ᠊ ts'/c/ts῾/c [tʂʰ] 186E Used in Chinese c [t͡ʂʰ].
ᡯ᠊ ᠊ᡯ᠊ dz/z/dz/z [t͡s] 186F Used in Chinese z [t͡s].
ᡰ᠊ ᠊ᡰ᠊ ž/rr/ž/r’ [ʐ] 1870 Used in Chinese r [ʐ].
ᡱ᠊ ᠊ᡱ᠊ c'/ch/c῾/c’ [tʂʰ] 1871 Used in Chinese ch [tʂʰ] and chi/c'y [tʂʰɨ]
ᡷ᠊ ᠊ᡷ᠊ j/zh/j̊/j’ [tʂ] 1877 Used in Chinese zh [tʂ] and zhi/j'y [tʂɨ]
ᡀ᠊ ᠊ᡀ᠊ lh/l"/l̊ [lx] 18AA Used in Tibetan lh ལྷ [lh].


The Manchu alphabet has two kinds of punctuation: two dots (), analogous to a period; and one dot (), analogous to a comma. However, with the exception of lists of nouns being reliably punctuated by single dots, punctuation in Manchu is inconsistent, and therefore not of much use as an aid to readability.[15]

The equivalent of the question mark in Manchu script consists of some special particles, written at the end of the question.[16]

Jurchen script[edit]

The Jurchens of a millennium ago became the ancestors of the Manchus when Nurhaci united the Jianzhou Jurchens (1593-1618) and his son subsequently renamed the consolidated tribes as the "Manchu". Throughout this period, the Jurchen language evolved into what we know as the Manchu language. Its script has no relation to the Manchu alphabet, however, as their script was derived from the Khitan script, which was in turn derived from Chinese characters.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", page 50. Brill, 2002.
  2. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", pages 71-72. Brill, 2002.
  3. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", page 72. Brill, 2002.
  4. ^ Gertraude Roth Li (2000). Manchu: a textbook for reading documents. Hawaii, USA: University of Hawaii Press. p. 370. ISBN 0824822064. Retrieved 25 March 2012. Manchu transliteration of Chinese syllables Some Chinese syllables are transliterated in different ways. There may be additional versions to those listed below. *W-G stands for Wade-Giles 
  5. ^ Gertraude Roth Li (2000). Manchu: a textbook for reading documents. Hawaii, USA: University of Hawaii Press. p. 294. ISBN 0824822064. Retrieved 25 March 2012. f) Transliteration of Chinese words and compounds. Though most Chinese words in Manchu are easily recognizable to students familiar with Chinese, it is helpful to remember the most important rules that govern the transliteration of Chinese words into Manchu. 
  6. ^ Salmon, Claudine, ed. (2013). Literary Migrations: Traditional Chinese Fiction in Asia (17th-20th Centuries). Volume 19 of Nalanda-Sriwijaya series (reprint ed.). Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 102. ISBN 9814414328. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  7. ^ Chinggeltei. (1963) A Grammar of the Mongol Language. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. p. 15.
  8. ^ Gertraude Roth Li (2000). Manchu: a textbook for reading documents. University of Hawaii Press. p. 16. ISBN 0824822064. Retrieved 25 March 2012. Alphabet: Some scholars consider the Manchu script to be a syllabic one. 
  9. ^ Gertraude Roth Li (2010). Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents (Second Edition) (2 ed.). Natl Foreign Lg Resource Ctr. p. 16. ISBN 0980045959. Retrieved 1 March 2012. Alphabet: Some scholars consider the Manchu script to be a syllabic one. Others see it as having an alphabet with individual letters, some of which differ according to their position within a word. Thus, whereas Denis Sinor aruged in favor of a syllabic theory,30 Louis Ligeti preferred to consider the Manchu script and alphabetical one.31 ()
  10. ^ Meadows 1849, p. 3.
  11. ^ Saarela 2014, p. 169.
  12. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", page 59. Brill, 2002.
  13. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", page 53. Brill, 2002.
  14. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", page 70. Brill, 2002.
  15. ^ Li, G: "Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents", page 21. University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.
  16. ^ Gorelova, L: "Manchu Grammar", page 74. Brill, 2002.

External links[edit]