'Phags-pa Script
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Yang Wengshe 1314.jpg
Christian tombstone from Quanzhou dated 1314, with inscription in the ʼPhags-pa script ?ung sh? yang shi mu taw 'tomb memorial of Yang Wengshe'
Script type
CreatorDrogön Chögyal Phagpa
Time period
1269 - c. 1360
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
Horizontal square script
Sister systems
Lepcha, Meitei. Marchen
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Phag, 331 , ​Phags-pa
Unicode alias
[a] The Semitic origin of the Brahmic scripts is not universally agreed upon.
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

The ʼPhags-pa script is an alphabet designed by the Tibetan monk and State Preceptor (later Imperial Preceptor) Drogön Chögyal Phagpa for Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty, as a unified script for the written languages within the Yuan. The actual use of this script was limited to about a hundred years during the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, and it fell out of use with the advent of the Ming dynasty.[]

It was used to write and transcribe varieties of Chinese, the Tibetic languages, Mongolian, the Uyghur language, Sanskrit, Persian,[1][2] and other neighboring languages during the Yuan era.[3][4] For historical linguists, the documentation of its use provides clues about the changes in these languages.

Its descendant systems include Horizontal square script, used to write Tibetan and Sanskrit. There is a theory that the Korean Hangul alphabet had very limited influence from ʼPhags-pa (see Origin of Hangul). During the Pax Mongolica the script has even made numerous appearances in western medieval art.


ʼPhags-pa script: mongxol tshi, "Mongolian script";

Mongolian: ? dörvöljin üseg, "square script";

Tibetan: , Wylie: hor yig gsar ba "new Mongolian script";

Yuan dynasty Chinese: ?; pinyin: m?ngg? x?nzì "new Mongolian script";

Modern Chinese: ?; pinyin: b?s?b? wén "ʼPhags-pa script"


During the Mongol Empire, the Mongols wanted a universal script to write down the languages of the people they subjugated. The Uyghur-based Mongolian alphabet is not a perfect fit for the Middle Mongol language, and it would be impractical to extend it to a language with a very different phonology like Chinese.[] Therefore, during the Yuan dynasty (c. 1269), Kublai Khan asked the Tibetan monk ʼPhags-pa to design a new alphabet for use by the whole empire. ʼPhags-pa extended his native Tibetan alphabet[2] to encompass Mongol and Chinese, evidently Central Plains Mandarin.[5] The resulting 38 letters have been known by several descriptive names, such as "square script" based on their shape, but today are primarily known as the ʼPhags-pa alphabet.[]

Descending from Tibetan script it is part of the Brahmic family of scripts, which includes Devanagari and scripts used throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia.[2] It is unique among Brahmic scripts in that it is written top bottom,[2] like how Chinese used to be written; and like the Manchu alphabet or later Mongolian alphabet.

Despite its origin, the script was written vertically (top to bottom) like the previous Mongolian scripts. It did not receive wide acceptance and was not a popular script even among the elite Mongols themselves, although it was used as an official script of the Yuan dynasty until the early 1350s[6] when the Red Turban Rebellion started. After this it was mainly used as a phonetic gloss for Mongols learning Chinese characters. It was also used as one of the scripts on Tibetan currency in the twentieth century, as script for Tibetan seal inscriptions from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century and for inscriptions on the entrance doors of Tibetan monasteries.[]

Syllable formation

Although it is an alphabet, phagspa is written like a syllabary or abugida, with letters forming a single syllable glued or 'ligated' together.[2]

An imperial edict in ʼPhags-pa
The ʼPhags-pa script, with consonants arranged according to Chinese phonology. At the far left are vowels and medial consonants.

Top: Approximate values in Middle Chinese. (Values in parentheses were not used for Chinese.)
Second: Standard letter forms.
Third: Seal script forms. (A few letters, marked by hyphens, are not distinct from the preceding letter.)

Bottom: The "Tibetan" forms. (Several letters have alternate forms, separated here by a o bullet.)

Unlike the ancestral Tibetan script, all ʼPhags-pa letters are written in temporal order (that is, /CV/ is written in the order C-V for all vowels) and in-line (that is, the vowels are not diacritics). However, vowel letters retain distinct initial forms, and short /a/ is not written except initially, making ʼPhags-pa transitional between an abugida, a syllabary, and a full alphabet. The letters of a ʼPhags-pa syllable are linked together so that they form syllabic blocks.[2]

Typographic forms

ʼPhags-pa was written in a variety of graphic forms. The standard form (top, at right) was blocky, but a "Tibetan" form (bottom) was even more so, consisting almost entirely of straight orthogonal lines and right angles. A "seal script" form (Chinese ? m?ngg? zhuànzì "Mongolian Seal Script"), used for imperial seals and the like, was more elaborate, with squared sinusoidal lines and spirals.[]

Korean records state that hangul was based on an "Old Seal Script" (), which may be ʼPhags-pa and a reference to its Chinese name ? m?ngg? zhuànzì (see origin of hangul). However, it is the simpler standard form of ʼPhags-pa that is the closer graphic match to hangul.


Basic Letters

The following 41 are the basic ʼPhags-pa letters.

Letters 1-30 and 35-38 are base consonants. The order of Letters 1-30 is the same as the traditional order of the thirty basic letters of the Tibetan script, to which they correspond. Letters 35-38 represent sounds that do not occur in Tibetan, and are either derived from an existing Tibetan base consonant (e.g. Letters 2 and 35 are both derived from the simple Tibetan letter KHA, but are graphically distinct from each other) or from a combination of an existing Tibetan base consonant and the semi-vowel (subjoined) letter WA (e.g. Letter 36 is derived from the complex Tibetan letter KHWA).

As is the case with Tibetan, these letters have an inherant [a] vowel sound attached to them in non-final positions when no other vowel sign is present (e.g. the letter KA with no attached vowel represents the syllable ka, but with an appended vowel i represents the syllable ki).

Letters 31-34 and 39 are vowels. Letters 31-34 follow the traditional order of the corresponding Tibetan vowels. Letter 39 represents a vowel quality that does not occur in Tibetan, and may be derived from the Tibetan double-E vowel sign.

Unlike Tibetan, in which vowels signs may not occur in isolation but must always be attached to a base consonant to form a valid syllable, in the ʼPhags-pa script initial vowels other than a may occur without a base consonant when they are not the first element in a diphthong (e.g. ue) or a digraph (e.g. eeu and eeo). Thus in Chinese ʼPhags-pa texts the syllables u ? wú, on ? wán and o ? é occur, and in Mongolian ʼPhags-pa texts the words ong qo chas "boats", u su nu (gen.) "water", e du -ee "now" and i hee -een "protection" occur. These are all examples of where 'o, 'u, 'e, 'i etc. would be expected if the Tibetan model had been followed exactly. An exception to this rule is the Mongolian word 'er di nis "jewels", where a single vowel sign is attached to a null base consonant. Note that the letter EE is never found in an initial position in any language written in the ʼPhags-pa script (for example, in Tao Zongyi's description of the Old Uighur script, he glosses all instances of Uighur e with the ʼPhags-pa letter EE, except for when it is found in the initial position, when he glosses it with the ʼPhags-pa letter E instead).

However, initial semi-vowels, diphthongs and digraphs must be attached to the null base consonant 'A (Letter 30). So in Chinese ʼPhags-pa texts the syllables 'wen ? yuán, 'ue ? w?i and 'eeu ? yú occur; and in Mongolian ʼPhags-pa texts the words 'eeu lu "not" and 'eeog bee.e "gave" occur. As there is no sign for the vowel a, which is implicit in an initial base consonant with no attached vowel sign, then words that start with an a vowel must also use the null base consonant letter 'A (e.g. Mongolian 'a mi than "living beings"). In Chinese, and rarely Mongolian, another null base consonant -A (Letter 23) may be found before initial vowels (see "Letter 23" below).

No. ʼPhags-pa
Derivation Letter Name Transcription Mongolian Examples Chinese Examples
1 ? TIBETAN LETTER KA ? [U+0F40] KA k Only used for words of foreign origin, such as kal bu dun (gen. pl.) from Sanskrit kalpa "aeon" [cf. Mongolian galab ], with the single exception of the common Mongolian word ye kee "large, great" [cf. Mongolian yeke ?] kiw ? qiú

kue ? kuí

2 ? TIBETAN LETTER KHA ? [U+0F41] KHA kh kheen "who" [cf. Mongolian ken ] khang ? k?ng

kheeu ? q?

3 ? TIBETAN LETTER GA ? [U+0F42] GA g bi chig "written document, book" [cf. Mongolian bi?ig ] ging ? j?ng

gu ? g?

4 ? TIBETAN LETTER NGA ? [U+0F44] NGA ng deng ri "heaven" [cf. Mongolian tengri ] ngiw ? niú

ngem ? yán ding ? d?ng

5 ? TIBETAN LETTER CA ? [U+0F45] CA c cay ? chái

ci ? chí

6 ? TIBETAN LETTER CHA ? [U+0F46] CHA ch cha q-an "white" [cf. Mongolian ?a?an ] chang ? ch?ng

cheeu ? ch?

7 ? TIBETAN LETTER JA ? [U+0F47] JA j jil "year" [cf. Mongolian ?il ] jim ? zh?n
8 ? TIBETAN LETTER NYA ? [U+0F49] NYA ny nyiw ? ni?
9 ? TIBETAN LETTER TA ? [U+0F4F] TA t Mostly used in words of foreign origin, such as 'er ti nis (also 'er di nis) "jewels" [cf. Mongolian erdenis ?] and ta layi "sea, ocean" [cf. Mongolian dalai ] ten ? tián

tung ? tóng

10 ? TIBETAN LETTER THA ? [U+0F50] THA th thu thum "each, all" [cf. Mongolian tutum ] thang ? t?ng

thung ? t?ng

11 ? TIBETAN LETTER DA ? [U+0F51] DA d u ri da nu (gen.) "former, previous" [cf. Mongolian urida ] dung ? d?ng

du ? d?

12 ? TIBETAN LETTER NA ? [U+0F53] NA n ma nu "our" [cf. Mongolian manu ?] nee ? niè

nung ? nóng gon ? gu?n

13 ? TIBETAN LETTER PA ? [U+0F54] PA p Only used in words of foreign origin, such as pur xan "Buddha" [cf. Mongolian burqan ] pang ? páng

pay ? bái

14 ? TIBETAN LETTER PHA ? [U+0F55] PHA ph phon ? p?n

phu ? p?

15 ? TIBETAN LETTER BA ? [U+0F56] BA b ba sa "then, still, also" [cf. Mongolian basa ?] ban ? b?n

been ? bi?n

16 ? TIBETAN LETTER MA ? [U+0F58] MA m 'a mi than "living beings" [cf. Mongolian amitan ] min ? m?n

mew ? miáo gim ? j?n

17 ? TIBETAN LETTER TSA ? [U+0F59] TSA ts tsaw ? cáo

tsin ? qín

18 ? TIBETAN LETTER TSHA ? [U+0F5A] TSHA tsh Only used in words of foreign origin, such as sha tshin "religion" tshay ? cài

tshiw ? qi?

19 ? TIBETAN LETTER DZA ? [U+0F5B] DZA dz dzam ? z?n

dzew ? ji?o

20 ? TIBETAN LETTER WA ? [U+0F5D] WA w Only used in words of foreign origin, such as wa chi ra ba ni "Vajrapi" wan ? wàn

wu ? w? xiw ? hóu gaw ? g?o

21 ? TIBETAN LETTER ZHA ? [U+0F5E] ZHA zh zheeu ? rú

zhew ? ráo

22 ? TIBETAN LETTER ZA ? [U+0F5F] ZA z Only found in the single word za ra "month" [cf. Mongolian sara ?] zeeu ? xú

zi ? xí

23 ? TIBETAN LETTER -A ? [U+0F60] -A - This letter is found rarely initially, e.g. -ir gee nee (dat./loc.) "people" [cf. Mongolian irgen ], but frequently medially between vowels where it serves to separate a syllable that starts with a vowel from a preceding syllable that ends in a vowel, e.g. er khee -ud "Christians" and q-an "emperor, khan" [cf. Mongolian qa?an ] (where q-an is a contraction for the hypothetical qa -an) -an ? ?n

-ing ? y?ng -eeu ? yù

24 ? TIBETAN LETTER YA ? [U+0F61] YA y na yan "eighty" [cf. Mongolian nayan ] yi ? y?

yang ? yáng day ? dài hyay ? xiè

25 ? TIBETAN LETTER RA ? [U+0F62] RA r chee rig "army" [cf. Mongolian ?erig ]
26 ? TIBETAN LETTER LA ? [U+0F63] LA l al ba "tax, tribute" [cf. Mongolian alba ?] leeu ? l?

lim ? lín

27 ? TIBETAN LETTER SHA ? [U+0F64] SHA sh shi nee "new" [cf. Mongolian ?ine ?] shi ? shí

shwang ? shu?ng

28 ? TIBETAN LETTER SA ? [U+0F66] SA s hee chus "end, goal" [cf. Mongolian e?üs ?] su ? s?

syang ? xiàng

29 ? TIBETAN LETTER HA ? [U+0F67] HA h Initially in words that now have null initials, such as har ban "ten" [cf. Mongolian arban ], and medially only in the single word -i hee -een (or -i h-een) "protector, guardian" hwa ? hu?

sh.hi ? sh? l.hing ? l?ng j.hang ? zhu?ng

30 ? TIBETAN LETTER A ? [U+0F68] 'A ' 'eeu lu "not" [cf. Mongolian ülü ] 'wang ? wáng

'eeu ? yú

31 ? TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN I ? [U+0F72] I i -i hee -een (or -i h-een) "protection" li ? l?

n.hing ? néng heei ? x?

32 ? TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN U ? [U+0F74] U u u su nu (gen.) "water" [cf. Mongolian usun ?] u ? wú

mue ? méi

33 ? TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN E ? [U+0F7A] E e e du -ee "now" [cf. Mongolian edüge ] ze ? xiè

jem ? zh?n gue ? guó

34 ? TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN O ? [U+0F7C] O o ong qo chas "boats" [cf. Mongolian ong?o?as ?] no ? n?

mon ? m?n

35 ? TIBETAN LETTER KHA ? [U+0F41] QA q qa muq "all" [cf. Mongolian qamu? ]
36 ? TIBETAN LETTER KHA [U+0F41] plus TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER WA [U+0FAD] XA x Only used in words of foreign origin, such as pur xan "Buddha" [cf. Mongolian burqan ] xu ? hú

xong ? huáng


fi ? fèi

39 ? TIBETAN VOWEL SIGN EE ? [U+0F7B] EE ee el deeb "various" [cf. Mongolian eldeb ] (Poppe reads this word as eel deeb, as the only example of an initial letter EE, but I think that it is clear from the rubbing of the inscription that the initial letter is a slightly deformeed letter E) chee ? ch?

seeu ? x? geeing ? j?ng


jwaw ? zhu? gwang ? gu?ng


gya ? ji? dzyang ? ji?ng

Additional Letters

No. ʼPhags-pa
Derivation Letter Name Transcription Sanskrit or Tibetan Examples
42 ? TIBETAN LETTER TTA ? [U+0F4A] TTA tt sha tt-a pa ... i ta (Sanskrit ?a? p?ramit?) [Ill.3 Line 6]
43 ? TIBETAN LETTER TTHA ? [U+0F4B] TTHA tth pra tish tthi te (Sanskrit pratihite) [Ill.3 Line 8] (TTHA plus unreversed I)

dhish tthi te (Sanskrit dhihite) [Tath?gatah?daya-dh?ra Line 16] (TTHA plus reversed I) nish tthe (Sanskrit nihe) [Tath?gatah?daya-dh?ra Line 10] (TTHA plus reversed E)

44 ? TIBETAN LETTER DDA ? [U+0F4C] DDA dd dann dde (Sanskrit daaya) [Tath?gatah?daya-dh?ra Line 14]

'-a kad ddha ya (Sanskrit ?kahaya) [Ill.4 Line 7] (DDA plus reversed HA)

45 ? TIBETAN LETTER NNA ? [U+0F4E] NNA nn sb-a ra nna (Sanskrit sphara?a) [Ill.3 Line 3]

ush nni ... (Sanskrit u?a) [Ill.3 Line 6] (NNA plus reversed I) kshu nnu (Sanskrit k?u?u) [Tath?gatah?daya-dh?ra Line 2] (NNA plus reversed U)

ha ra nne (Sanskrit hara?e) [Ill.4 Line 5] (NNA plus reversed E) pu nn.ya (Sanskrit pu?ya) [Tath?gatah?daya-dh?ra Line 13] (NNA plus reversed subjoined Y)

46 ? TIBETAN SUBJOINED LETTER RA ? [U+0FB2] Subjoined RA r bh-ru^ (Sanskrit bhr) [Ill.3 Line 2]

mu dre (Sanskrit mudre) [Ill.3 Line 9] ba dzra (Sanskrit vajra) [Ill.3 Line 9]

bkra shis (Tibetan bkra-shis "prosperity, good fortune") [Ill.5]

47 ? TIBETAN LETTER RA ? [U+0F62] Superfixed RA sangs rgyas (Tibetan sangs-rgyas "Buddha") [Ill.6]


Candrabindu ^ o^ bh-ru^ bh-ru^ (Sanskrit o? bhr bhr) [Ill.3 Line 2]

sa^ ha ... (Sanskrit sa?hatana) [Ill.3 Line 9]

Menggu Ziyun

Following are the initials of the ʼPhags-pa script as presented in Menggu Ziyun. They are ordered according to the Chinese philological tradition of the 36 initials.[]

36 initials in ? Menggu Ziyun
No. Name Phonetic
1 ? jiàn *[k] ? g-
2 ? q? *[k?] ? kh-
3 ? qún *[?] ? k-
4 ? *[?] ? ng-
5 ? du?n *[t] ? d-
6 ? tòu *[t?] ? th-
7 ? dìng *[d] ? t-
8 ? *[n] ? n-
9 ? zh? *[?] ? j-
10 ? chè *[] ? ch-
11 ? chéng *[?] ? c-
12 ? niáng *[?] ? ny-
13 ? b?ng *[p] ? b-
14 ? p?ng *[p?] ? ph-
15 ? bìng *[b] ? p-
16 ? míng *[m] ? m-
17 ? f?i *[p?] ? f- Normal form of the letter fa
18 ? f? *[p] ? f¹- Variant form of the letter fa
19 ? fèng *[b?] ? f- Normal form of the letter fa
20 ? w?i *[?] ? w- Letter wa represents [v]
21 ? j?ng *[ts] ? dz-
22 ? q?ng *[ts?] ? tsh-
23 ? cóng *[dz] ? ts-
24 ? x?n *[s] ? s-
25 ? xié *[z] ? z-
26 ? zhào *[t?] ? j-
27 ? chu?n *[t] ? ch-
28 ? chuáng *[d?] ? c-
29 ? sh?n *[?] ? sh¹- Variant form of the letter sha
30 ? chán *[?] ? sh- Normal form of the letter sha
31 ? xi?o *[x] ? h- Normal form of the letter ha
32 ? xiá *[?] ? x-
? h¹- Variant form of the letter ha
33 ? y?ng *[?] ? ʼ- glottal stop
? y- Normal form of the letter ya
34 ? *[j] ? - null initial
? y¹- Variant form of the letter ya
35 ? lái *[l] ? l-
36 ? *[?] ? zh-


ʼPhags-pa script was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0.

The Unicode block for ʼPhags-pa is U+A840-U+A877:[]

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 13.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

U+A856 ? PHAGS-PA LETTER SMALL A is transliterated using LATIN LETTER SINOLOGICAL DOT from the Latin Extended-D Unicode block.[7]

See also


  1. ^ "CHINESE-IRANIAN RELATIONS viii. Persian Lang. - Encyclopaedia Iranica". www.iranicaonline.org. Retrieved .
  2. ^ a b c d e f "BabelStone : ʼPhags-pa Script : Description". www.babelstone.co.uk. Retrieved .
  3. ^ Theobald, Ulrich. "The ʼPhags-pa Script (www.chinaknowledge.de)". www.chinaknowledge.de. Retrieved .
  4. ^ "BabelStone : Phags-pa Script : Overview". www.babelstone.co.uk. Retrieved .
  5. ^ Coblin, W. South (2002). "Reflections on the Study of Post-Medieval Chinese Historical Phonology". In (ed.). : . ?  [Papers from the Third International Conference on Sinology, Linguistics Section. Dialect Variations in Chinese]. Taipei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica. pp. 23-50. ISBN 978-957-671-936-3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-05-16. Retrieved 2011. p. 31.
  6. ^ Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Responses to Matteo Ricci's "Shangti" in Late Ming China, 1583-1644, by Sangkeun Kim, p139
  7. ^ West, Andrew (2009-04-04). "L2/09-031R: Proposal to encode a Middle Dot letter for Phags-pa transliteration" (PDF).

Further reading

  • Coblin, W. South (2006). A Handbook of ʼPhags-pa Chinese. ABC Dictionary Series. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3000-7. Retrieved 2014.
  • Denlinger, Paul. B. (1963). Chinese in Hp'ags-pa Script. Retrieved 2014.
  • Everding, Karl-Heinz (2006). Herrscherurkunden aus der Zeit des mongolischen Großreiches für tibetische Adelshäuser, Geistliche und Klöster. Teil 1: Diplomata Mongolica. Mittelmongolische Urkunden in ʼPhags-pa-Schrift. Eidtion, Übersetzung, Analyse. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. ISBN 978-3-88280-074-6.
  • Poppe, Nicholas (1957). The Mongolian Monuments in hP´ags-pa Script (Second ed.). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1985). Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Great Britain: Anchor Brenton Ltd. ISBN 978-0-09-156980-8.
  • Schuh, Dieter (1981). Grundlagen tibetischer Siegelkunde. Eine Untersuchung über tibetische Siegelaufschriften in ʼPhags-pa-Schrift. Sankt Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag. ISBN 978-3-88280-011-1.

External links

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