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Old Turkic alphabet

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Old Turkic alphabet

Old Turkic script
Languages Old Turkic
Time period
8th to 10th centuries
Parent systems
Child systems
Old Hungarian
ISO 15924 Orkh, 175
Direction Right-to-left
Unicode alias
Old Turkic
Inscription in Kyzyl using Orkhon script
Transcription of part of Bilge Kağan's inscription (lines 36-40)
Location of the Orkhon Valley.

The Old Turkic script (also known as variously Göktürk script, Orkhon script, Orkhon-Yenisey script) is the alphabet used by the Göktürk and other early Turkic Khanates during the 8th to 10th centuries to record the Old Turkic language.[1]

The script is named after the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia where early 8th-century inscriptions were discovered in an 1889 expedition by Nikolay Yadrintsev.[2] These Orkhon inscriptions were published by Vasily Radlov and deciphered by the Danish philologist Vilhelm Thomsen in 1893.

The discovery of short runic inscriptions on a great number of articles for common personal use proves that the knowledge and use of the runic script was generally spread among the old Turkic tribes.[3]

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.

Further Turkic Nestorian manuscripts, which have the same "rune-like" duct[4] as the Old Turkic script, have been found, especially in the oasis of Turfan and in the fortress of Miran.[5][6][7]

Thomsen described the script as "Turkish runes", and it is still occasionally described as "runic" or "runiform" by comparison to the Old Germanic alphabet used for epigraphy during roughly the same period.


The origins of the Turkic scripts are uncertain. The initial guesses were based on visual, external resemblances of the Turkic runiform letters with the Gothic runes or with Greek, Etruscan and Anatolian letters, suggesting an Indo-European alphabet resembling Semitic Phoenician, Gothic, Phoenician-based Greek, etc., letters.[8] According to V. Thomsen, derives the Orkhon script from variants of the Aramaic alphabet, in particular via the Pahlavi and Sogdian alphabets or possibly via Kharosthi, as suggested by János Harmatta.[9]

The oldest inscription whose characters resemble the Old Turkic script, possibly representing an intermediate step in the evolution of the script from Aramaic, was found near the Issyk River in Kazakhstan and is known as the Issyk inscription.[10][11] According to Kazakh archaeologist Kimal Akishev, the inscription found in Issyk Kurgan could be an archaic version of Göktürk alphabet.[12][13] The inscription itself could be written in an Iranian language, reflecting a Saka dialect spoken by the Kushans.[9]

Aside from derivation from tamgas, an alternate possible derivation from Chinese script was suggested by V. Thomsen in 1893. Turkic inscriptions dated earlier than the Orkhon inscriptions used about 150 symbols, which may suggest that tamgas first imitated Chinese script and then gradually refined into an alphabet.

It is also very probable that some prototypes of Ancient Turkic runes descend from primeval Turkic graphic logograms.[14][15] At the same time, the Turkic runic alphabet represents a very rich and expressly developed independent graphic system. However, the paleographic analysis of the Ancient Turkic runes, in turn, leads to a very early forming date for the Turkic runic alphabet in Southern Siberia and Jeti-Su, not later than the middle of the 1st millennium BC.[15]

Thomsen (1893) connected the script to the reports of Chinese account (Shiji, vol. 110) from a 2nd-century BC Chinese Yan renegade and dignitary named Zhonghang Yue (Chinese: 中行说; pinyin: Zhōngháng Yuè) who

"taught the Shanyu (rulers of the Xiongnu) to write official letters to the Chinese court on a wooden tablet (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ) 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); they also mention a "Hu script". At Noin-Ula and other Hun burial sites in Mongolia and regions 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.[16]

Part of the Zhou Shu, dating to the 5th century, mentions that the Turks did not have a way to keep records, implying that the Old Turkic alphabet may not have existed yet.


The inscription corpus consists of two monuments which were erected in the Orkhon Valley between 732 and 735 in honour of the Göktürk prince Kül Tigin and his brother the emperor Bilge Kağan, as well as inscriptions on slabs scattered in the wider area. The script was also used to write down the epic poetry of the Turkic people.[3]

The website of the Language Committee of Ministry of Culture and Information of the Republic of Kazakhstan lists 54 inscriptions from the Orkhon area, 106 from the Yenisei area, 15 from the Talas area, and 78 from the Altai area. There are also a handful of short inscriptions found on archaeological artefacts, including a number of bronze mirrors.

The Orkhon monuments are the oldest known examples of Turkic writing; they are inscribed on obelisks and have been dated to 732 (for that relating to Kül Tigin), and to 735 (for that relating to Bilge Kağan. The Tonyukuk inscription, a monument situated somewhat further east, is slightly earlier, dating to c. 722.

Other inscriptions using the same script are found in Mongolia, Siberia, and Xinjiang. 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.

Table of characters

Table of characters as published by Thomsen (1893)

Old Turkic being a synharmonic language, a number of consonant signs are divided into two "synharmonic sets", one for front vowels and the other for back vowels. Such vowels can be taken as intrinsic to the consonant sign, giving the Old Turkic alphabet an aspect of an abugida script. In these cases, it is customary to use superscript numerals ¹ and ² to mark consonant signs used with back and front vowels, respectively. This convention was introduced by Thomsen (1893), and followed by Gabain (1941), Malov (1951) and Tekin (1968).


Orkhon Yenisei
Transliteration / transcription
ఁ ం a, ä
ఄ అ y, i (e)
o, u
ö, ü


Synharmonic sets
Back vowel Front vowel
Orkhon Yenisei
Transliteration Orkhon Yenisei
γ (g¹) g (g²)
q (k¹) k (k²)
oq, uq, qo, qu ök, ük, kö, kü,
ł (l¹) l (l²)
Other consonantal signs
Orkhon Yenisei
yq, qy
ič, či
ṅ (ng, ŋ)
ń,[17] nj[18]
ot, ut[19]

A word separator : () is sometimes used.

A reading example (right to left): transliterated t²ṅr²i, this spells the name of the Turkic sky god, Tengri (/teŋri/).


Examples of the Orhon-Yenisei alphabet are depicted on the reverse of the Azerbaijani 5 manat banknote issued since 2006.[21]

Variants of the script were found from Mongolia and Xinjiang in the east to the Balkans in the west. The preserved inscriptions were dated to between the 8th and 10th centuries.

These alphabets are divided into four groups by Kyzlasov (1994)[22]

The Asiatic group is further divided into three related alphabets:

  • Orkhon alphabet, Göktürk, 8th to 10th centuries
  • Yenisei alphabet,
    • Talas alphabet, a derivative of the Yenisei alphabet, [23]

The Eurasiatic group is further divided into five related alphabets:

  • Achiktash, used in Sogdiana 8th to 10th centuries.
  • South-Yenisei, used by the Göktürk 8th to 10th centuries AD.
  • Two especially similar alphabets: the Don alphabet, used by the Khazar Khaganate, 8th to 10th centuries; and the Kuban alphabet, used by the Bulgars, 8th to 13th centuries. Inscriptions in both alphabets are found in the Pontic steppe and on the banks of the Kama river.
  • Tisza, used by the Badjanaks (Pechenegs) 8th to 10th centuries.

A number of alphabets are incompletely collected due to the limitations of the extant inscriptions. Evidence in the study of the Turkic scripts includes Turkic-Chinese bilingual inscriptions, contemporaneous Turkic inscriptions in the Greek alphabet, literal translations into Slavic languages, and paper fragments with Turkic cursive writing from religion, Manichaeism, Buddhist, and legal subjects of the 8th to 10th centuries found in Xinjiang.


The Unicode block for Old Turkic is U+10C00–U+10C4F. It was added to the Unicode standard in October 2009, with the release of version 5.2. It includes separate "Orkhon" and "Yenisei" variants of individual characters.

Since Windows 8 Unicode Old Turkic writing support was added in the Segoe UI Symbol font.

Old Turkic[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+10C3x ి
1.^ As of Unicode version 7.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also


  1. ^ Scharlipp, Wolfgang (2000). An Introduction to the Old Turkish Runic Inscriptions. Verlag auf dem Ruffel, Engelschoff. ISBN 3-933847-00-X.
  2. ^ Sinor, Denis (2002). "Old Turkic". History of Civilizations of Central Asia 4. Paris:  
  3. ^ a b History of Humanity: From the Seventh Century BC to the Seventh Century AD, Sigfried J. de Laet, page 478, 1996
  4. ^ Georg Stadtmüller, Saeculum, Band 1, K. Alber Publishing, 1950, p. 302
  5. ^ Ural-Altaic Yearbooks, volumes 42-43, published by O. Harrassowitz, 1970, p. 180
  6. ^ Volker Adam, Jens Peter Loud, Andrew White, Bibliography old Turkish Studies, published by Otto Harrassowitz, 2000, p. 40
  7. ^ University of Bonn, Department of Linguistics and Cultural Studies of Central Asia, Issue 37, published by VGH Wissenschaftsverlag, 2008, p. 107
  8. ^ Amanjolov, A. S., History and Theory of the Ancient Turkic Script, p. 286
  9. ^ a b Ahmet Kanlidere, in: M. Ocak, H. C. Güzel, C. Oğuz, O. Karatay: The Turks: Early ages. Yeni Türkiye 2002, p. 417:
    • "Harmatta [Harmatta 1999, p.421] appears as he has accomplished to solve the mystery of this "unknown language and alphabet" which covers a wide are from Alma-Ata to Merv, to Dest-i Navur and to Ay Hanum. According to Harmatta and Fussman, the alphabet can be traced back to the Karoshti alphabet; and the language written with this alphabet could have been a Saka dialect spoken by the Kushans. Harmatta who remarks on the resemblance of the letters to those in Orkhon-Yenisey states that due to some letters [...]. [...]. Fussman states that this Inscription is based on syllables, and notes its similarity to the Kharosthi alphabet, but he could not read it. Livsits asks whether this alphabet he calls as the "third official alphabet of the Kushan State" is the Saka alphabet or not. [...]. Livsits, on the other hand says that, further to the Issyk-kol alphabet, this alphabet is related not with the Kharosthi alphabet, but rather with the Aramaic alphabet [...]."
  10. ^ Wilfried Menghin, Im Zeichen des goldenen Greifen: Königsgräber der Skythen, Prestel, 2007, p. 299:
    • "Zwar existiert eine Inschrift auf einem kleinen Silbergefäß aus dem Kurgan Issyk im südöstlichen Kasachstan (50 km östlich von Almaty), allerdings in einer den türkischen Runen ähnlichen, nicht entzifferten Schrift, die in diesem Raum sonst unbekannt ist, aber in Nordafghanistan und Tadschikistan Entsprechungen findet."
  11. ^ M. Khasenov in: Radio Liberty Research Bulletin, vol. 3241-3257, published by the University of Virginia, RFL/RL 1983, p. DLXIV/5516:
    • "(...) rune- like Turkic inscriptions found on the silver bowl mentioned above and conclude that these inscriptions date from the Scythian period about 1,000 years before the erection of the Orkhon and Enisei inscriptions. Khasenov concludes that „the Issyk writings are the oldest known Turkic writings” and that they demonstrate that „Turkic- speaking tribes settled in Jetisul5 [Semirech'e] twenty-five to twenty-six centuries ago.”"
  12. ^ R. Rolle: Neue Ausgrabungen skythischer und sakischer Grabanlagen in der Ukraine und in Kazachstan - In: Prähistorische Zeitschrift, vol. 47, Berlin, 1972, pp. 47-77.
  13. ^ K. Akishev, "Issyk Kurgan", Moscow, 1978, Tracing, p. 55
  14. ^ Franz Altheim: Geschichte der Hunnen, vol. 1, p. 118
  15. ^ a b A. S. Amanjolov, History of Ancient Turkic Script, Almaty, 2003, p. 307
  16. ^ N. Ishjatms, "Nomads In Eastern Central Asia", in the "History of civilizations of Central Asia", volume 2, figure 6, p. 166, UNESCO Publishing, 1996, p. 165
  17. ^ According to Tekin (1968)
  18. ^ According to Gabain (1941)
  19. ^ According to Gabain (1941), not listed in Thomsen (1893)
  20. ^ According to Tekin (1968); not listed in Thomsen (1893) or Gabain (1941) ; Malov (1951) lists the sign but gives no sound value.
  21. ^ Central Bank of Azerbaijan. National currency: 5 manat. – Retrieved on 25 February 2010.
  22. ^ Kyzlasov I. L.; “Writings Of Eurasian Steppes”, Eastern Literature, Moscow, 1994, 327 pp. 321-323
  23. ^ Kyzlasov I. L.; “Writings Of Eurasian Steppes”, Eastern Literature, Moscow, 1994, pp. 98-100


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