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Review of  Scripts Beyond Borders

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Scripts Beyond Borders
Book Author: J. Den Heijer T. Pataridze A. Schmidt
Publisher: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Writing Systems
Issue Number: 26.3115

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry
Book's Publisher: Peeters Publishers (Leuven, Belgium)
Book’s North American Distributor: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books


This book is about cases where a language which is standardly written in one script has instead been written by some group of its users in another script normally associated with other language(s). An example is the writing of Turkish in the Greek alphabet, as practised by Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians living in Anatolia from the 15th century until the population exchanges between Turkey and Greece which occurred in the 1920s. After an introductory chapter by the editors, 23 chapters by various contributors examine diverse examples of this phenomenon. The chapters are not numbered, so I shall identify them by author; the Greek/Turkish case is described in the last chapter, by Xavier Luffin. For conciseness I shall represent these relationships between languages and scripts by placing a solidus after the respective script name and before the language name, as I have just done with ''Greek/Turkish''.

A term which looms large in the book is 'garshuni' (variant spellings such as 'karshuni' are also used; there are many theories about its etymology, which are discussed here by Joseph Moukarzel). After the Christian inhabitants of Mesopotamia, who spoke a dialect of Aramaic called Syriac, were invaded and conquered by Mohammedan Arabs in the 7th century, they gradually gave up speaking Syriac for Arabic, but they retained their own Syriac alphabet when writing Arabic. 'Garshuni' refers, originally, to this Syriac/Arabic writing. (Moukarzel draws attention to a startling claim by Christoph Luxenberg (2000) that the Koran began as a Christian lectionary written in garshuni which was subsequently misinterpreted. The balance of scholarly reactions has been less dismissive of this idea than one might have imagined – see the appendix to King 2009.) Later the term 'garshuni' came to be extended to other cases where one language was written in a script proper to a different language. The word has been used sufficiently widely that George Kiraz uses the term ''garshunography'' for the overall topic of the book, though the editors prefer ''allography''.

Many instances of allography derive from the evangelizing activities of the Syriac-speaking Nestorian Church, which during the European Dark and Middle Ages sent missions over a remarkably far-flung area, ranging through Central Asia as far east as metropolitan China and as far south-east as South India. Many of the resulting Christian communities wrote their own languages in the Nestorians' Syriac alphabet even if those languages had scripts of their own. Conversely in China, where the local script had immense cultural prestige, Hidemi Takahashi describes cases of Syriac being written in Chinese script. (Incidentally, by ''Nestorian Church'' I refer, as is usual in English, to the Christian church based in Upper Mesopotamia which was cut off from Byzantine and Latin churches after its home territory came under Arab rule, and I imply nothing about how far its doctrines were related to those of the 5th-century Bishop Nestorius. Chiara Barbati suggests that this term should be avoided, quoting Brock (1996) who urged that it was potentially insulting to present-day members of that church; yet on her next page she uses the term herself. Scholarly communication would risk becoming impossibly confusing, if long-established terms are avoided for fear of offending those who choose to interpret them etymologically.)

The book covers many other allographic script/language pairings. Some were used relatively widely over extended periods, such as the Hebrew/Spanish script used by Sephardic Jews in Spain and in the diaspora which followed the 15th-century Reconquista, as discussed here by Paloma Díaz-Mas. Others were on a smaller scale, for instance: Armenian/Kipchak-Turkish and Armenian/Polish writing used in the 16th and 17th centuries by small Kipchak-speaking Armenian immigrant communities in two towns then in Poland (one is now in the Ukraine), discussed in two chapters by Krzysztof Stopka and Piruza Mnacakanian; a set of Hebrew/Persian epitaphs found on 11th–13th century tombstones in Afghanistan, discussed by Erica Hunter; or a 14th-century Georgian/Greek manuscript discovered in a Lebanese monastery in 1953, described here by Néli Makharadze.

Many chapters in the book give detailed information about how the symbols of one script were adapted to write some other, often unrelated, language. Allographic writing might reflect the orthographic norms of the script ''native'' to the language written, or it might simply spell out the surface pronunciation of that language, taking no account of morphophonemics or the like. According to Joachim Yeshaya, Hebrew/Arabic writing evolved during the 10th century away from the latter towards the former – this is interesting to me, since I believe it parallels developments which typically occur as scripts for newly-written languages mature when no other script or language is involved (Sampson 2015: 258–60). Many instances of allography faced the problem that the phonological inventory of the ''borrowing'' language differed from that of the ''lending'' language, an extreme case here being the Syriac/Malayalam script described by Johns Abraham Konat, where Malayalam has a rich vowel system and a ''native'' alphabet with 51 letters whereas the Syriac alphabet has only 22 letters, none of which stand for vowels.

Other chapters are less concerned with the specifically linguistic aspects of allography. Some consist largely of detailed catalogues of manuscripts: a valuable contribution to scholarship, but perhaps not to linguistic scholarship. Other chapters again focus mainly on historical, ethnographic, and sociological aspects of the communities which used particular allographic scripts. These contain a great deal of information relevant to sociolinguistic topics, such as language contact and code-switching, which may be rather different in kind from the data that sociolinguists have been accustomed to thinking about.

An obvious question is why a community would choose to write its language in the ''wrong'' script. One reason might be that they have adopted a new spoken language but simply have not learned the script which traditionally goes with it; Moukarzel suggests that this may have been the case with the original 'garshuni'. But it does not seem to be the usual case. A commoner reason, evidently, is that a minority group who feel themselves to be separate, ethnically and/or confessionally, from the population they live among, prefer to use a distinct script as an icon of that separateness – whether this is the script of their forebears which they retained while failing to maintain the spoken language associated with it, or a new script adopted by converts to a new religion. In some cases there are practical reasons. Several authors mention the desire for secrecy, and one can see that a different alphabet would protect the writings of a minority group from casual scanning by hostile neighbours. One would not think it could offer much defence against determined authorities, yet the editors explicitly state that the Arabic/Spanish script used by Spanish Moors who retained their Moslem faith in secret after the Reconquista was ''unintelligible for the Spanish Inquisition''. If true, this perhaps casts a new light on the ruthless cunning which is popularly attributed to the Inquisition nowadays. (But I believe the editors may have misunderstood remarks in Mohamed Abdelsamie's chapter on this case of allography.) In 17th-century Poland, on the other hand, Krzysztof Stopka tells us that there was a movement in favour of using Polish rather than Latin or German in official documents, and this development among the host society encouraged the Kipchak-speaking Armenian minorities to write in their own vernacular speech and ancestral script (even if these happened not to be a traditional match for one another).

In view of the circumstances which typically led to allographic writing, it is natural that a high proportion of examples are liturgical or other religious documents. Many others are administrative, for instance wills or marriage contracts. But some allographic traditions produced other genres of document too. The oldest extant example of garshuni (in the original sense), a folio now in the British Library and believed to be a circa-ninth-century rendering of an older text, is a recipe for making ink. Erich Renhard lists a Hebrew/Arabic document comprising instructions for getting an egg into a bottle without cracking it. The Arabic/Spanish script mentioned in the preceding paragraph was used for novels, among many other genres.

This is a deeply learned book, and does not wear its learning particularly lightly. Each chapter is written in a modern Western European language (some are translated out of Polish or Georgian into French to make them accessible to a wider readership), but when contributors quote passages in Latin, or Arabic, they do not offer translations. Several contributors assume that the reader is familiar with Syriac and Armenian alphabets. Occasionally I felt that the fairly arcane discourse in the book risked lapsing into pedantry. I could not see that much was gained when Rainer Voigt offered three alternative German forms of the country-name Kyrgyzstan, together with the Kirghiz name in Cyrillic script – all four forms are quite similar, and the place is well-known. (On the other hand it would have been useful to be told that Voigt's place-name ''Siebenstromland'' is a translation of the 19th-century Russian name ''Semirechye'', i.e. ''seven rivers'', for the area between Lake Balkhash and the Tian Shan.) After Voigt had said that a certain line of text on a gravestone, in order to be read normally, requires the stone to be turned 90 degrees to the right, it seemed redundant to be told that one can alternatively swivel one's head 90 degrees to the left. But in general the complexities in this book reflect true complexities in the subject-matter. A single language or script will commonly involve a range of philological intricacies, so when unrelated languages and scripts are made to pair off with one another it is vain for readers to expect the going always to be easy.


It may be unfair for a linguist to evaluate this book. It was offered for review to the Linguist List, but we have already seen that the interests of its editors and contributors overlap only to a certain extent with the usual interests of professional linguists. The accounts it contains of historical episodes (such as the emigration of Armenian groups to Poland in the 14th century) look reliable, but if any of them are not, critiquing them would be outside my province.

From a linguistic point of view, one problem with the book is that not all the cases of ''allography'' discussed seem to be the same kind of phenomenon as one another. In many cases the language written in an allographic script was the writers' mother tongue. But consider, on the other hand, a document discussed by Erich Renhart, written in Venice in the 16th century, which contained the Latin version of the Lord's Prayer in Armenian letters. The Latin phonemes are spelled in surprising ways which look inconsistent (admittedly I am not sure of the details of how 16th-century Venetians pronounced Latin); the word for ''not'' is omitted from ''lead us not into temptation''; the phrases for ''hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come'' (which both end in the same Latin word 'tuum') are replaced by two repetitions of the former phrase. It looks as though the writer did not himself understand Latin, but was recording, imperfectly, the sounds of what was to him a meaningless though sacred incantation, rather as English ''hocus-pocus'' is said to derive from the phrase 'hoc est corpus' in the Latin Mass. Renhart (who shares this conclusion) calls the document ''allography'', but I question whether it can usefully be seen as ''writing one language in the script of another''.

Or consider Hidemi Takahashi's discussion of Tang-dynasty Chinese/Syriac writing. Almost every example given is a rendition in Chinese script of a Christian concept or proper name, e.g. ''gospel'', ''Messiah'', ''Paul'', in documents that were otherwise worded in Chinese. Writing individual loanwords or names in a script where they are not ''native'' is a very different matter, it seems to me, from writing extended passages in an alien script. Furthermore, the way that Syriac words were written in Chinese was no different from the way that numerous Sanskrit terms had been written when Buddhism came to China, or indeed from the way that non-Chinese terms are written in Chinese today. There are differences in individual cases: meaningful terms are nowadays more often calqued rather than imitated phonetically, for instance ''gospel'' in modern Chinese is 'fu2 yin1' ''happy-tidings'', whereas the Nestorian documents used Chinese words resembling the pronunciation of Syriac 'ewangeliyon' (itself a loan from Greek 'euangelion', ''good news''). And when meaningless names are rendered by phonetic imitation, the Chinese words now used to represent a particular name are different from those the Nestorians used, because the pronunciation of Chinese has changed enormously since the Tang period. But the general system used in the Nestorian Chinese documents is in no way ''special''.

Takahashi does quote one example where an entire Syriac-language hymn (Manichaean rather than Christian) was written in Chinese script. But this is probably a ''hocus-pocus'' sort of case, rather than one where the scribe understood the words he was writing.

So the examples covered in the book are a very mixed bag. Conversely, there are other cases which would seem to fall squarely under the ''allography'' heading but are excluded. The editors explicitly exclude Yiddish, yet this is a kind of German written in Hebrew rather than Roman letters. There would be plenty of linguistic interest in an examination of how the vowel-less Hebrew alphabet was adapted to write an Indo-European language in which, unlike in Semitic languages, vowels are ''first-class members'' of the phoneme inventory, and Yiddish might be a particularly favourable case for study since it was a flourishing language-variety within living memory, used in many printed books and newspapers (it still is a living language, though much less widespread since the Nazi catastrophe), whereas some examples of allography covered in the book under review are extant only in a few brief and/or damaged manuscripts. The reason given by the editors for excluding Yiddish is that it is regarded as a distinct language rather than a dialect of German, and Yiddish as such was never written in Roman script: the Hebrew alphabet is its ''native script''. But linguists know how vague the language/dialect distinction is. If we follow the definition made famous by Uriel Weinreich which says that ''a language is a dialect with an army and a navy'', Yiddish falls clearly on the dialect side of the divide. Many cases of allography which are covered involved dialects peculiar to the speech-communities in question, including much vocabulary borrowed from the language supplying the script.

For that matter, in principle the script I am using now might be classed as ''allography''. English orthography is an adaptation of an alphabet developed for Latin, and it is not a case where the ''borrowing'' language was previously unwritten – English and other Germanic languages were written in runes before they were first written in Roman letters. But it would be absurd to class our script together with those surveyed in this book, since it has long been the standard script of a major language. That is perhaps the key to the choice of examples covered in the book. The aims of those responsible for the volume are to preserve knowledge of a range of script practices which were always minoritarian and might be in danger of being lost altogether from the scholarly record, rather than to analyse well-established and well-documented scripts.

It is impossible when reading this book not to be vividly conscious of the fact that, even as the book is published, present-day survivals from many of the cultures described – both physical monuments, and human communities which have maintained continuity with those cultures – are being brutally liquidated by 21st-century Islamist counterparts of the Nazis. Set in a balance against the horrors unfolding in the Middle East, a scholarly work like this might seem inadequate in the extreme, but it is not nothing: people everywhere want to feel that their distinctive cultural heritage will not simply disappear from the historical record. This book does a very solid job of preserving the memory of a little-discussed category of literary activity, and in doing so it offers linguists a number of perspectives that will be quite novel for many of us.

The book has been produced to a high standard, with many well-reproduced plates (very desirable in a book on this topic). Publication was sponsored by the European Union; without subsidy, it is difficult to imagine how such a typographically-challenging and specialist volume could ever see print.

Few of the contributors or editors are native speakers of the languages in which they write (and the publisher is based in Dutch-speaking Flanders), so it is not surprising that the book contains a fair number of language errors or misprints. Many are obvious and easily corrected, but not all: I suspect that on p. 56 ''words of phrases that are borrowed'' should be ''words or phrases ...'', and that on p. 271 ''literary translation'' should be ''literal translation'', but I am not certain (and the alternatives mean different things). On p. 136, ''aux le Xe siècle'' is obviously wrong and I suspect it may be a misreading of a handwritten ''au IXe siècle'' – quite different. (A better fit to the letters as printed might be ''au XIXe siècle'', but the context excludes that reading.) When I encountered a reference on p. 231 to a Chinese town ''Quangzhou'' my first thought was that this should read ''Guangzhou'', the city better known to English-speakers as Canton; but in fact I believe it refers to Amoy, the port now called ''Xiamen'' in Chinese but once called ''Quanzhou''. One contributor's name is written differently at the head of his chapter and in the list of contributors' affiliations and contact details; and some contributors are missing altogether from that list. Many English-speaking readers will find it infuriating that a book as long and as fact-filled as this has no index. But Continental publishers do not accept the need for indexes; strange, but true.

However, these shortcomings do not destroy the value of what is a weighty addition to the scholarly literature.


Brock, S.P. 1996. The ''Nestorian'' Church: a lamentable misnomer. Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 78.23–35.

King, Daniel. 2009. A Christian Qur'an? Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture 3.44–71.

Luxenberg, Christoph. 2000. Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2015. Writing Systems (2nd edn). Sheffield: Equinox.
Geoffrey Sampson has contributed to most areas of linguistics, and to certain areas of computer science. Since retiring from his British university chair, he has worked as research fellow in linguistics at the University of South Africa. A new edition of his book ''Writing Systems'' was published in Britain and the USA by Equinox in 2015.

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