'Phags-pa Script - History

History

The Uyghur-based Mongolian alphabet is not a perfect fit for Middle Mongolian, and it would be impractical to extend it to a language with a very different phonology like Chinese. Therefore, during the Yuan Dynasty (ca. 1269), Kublai Khan asked ´Phags-pa to design a new alphabet for use by the whole empire. ´Phags-pa extended his native Tibetan script (an Indic script) to encompass Mongol and Chinese, evidently Central Plains standard. 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 'Phags-pa alphabet.

Despite its origin, the script was written vertically (top to bottom) like the previous Mongolian scripts. It did not receive wide acceptance and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368. After this it was mainly used as a phonetic gloss for Mongolians 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.

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