Tangut: The Most Inconvenient Writing System?

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A thousand years old in East Asia, the greatest power in the region, China, had an overwhelming influence on the surrounding lands and people. They had also been the most powerful and influential since the first cities began appearing in Asia. Another group of people known as the Khitan, nomads originally from Mongolia, were in control of a huge territory in Manchuria (Northeast China). These Khitan spoke a language vastly different from the Chinese languages, but since their neighbors to the south had a system of writing which had been invented thousands of years before and the Chinese were known for the literary culture, the Khitan copied them.

A hundred or so years later in the Western Xia Dynasty, a group of people called the Tanguts, who are of the Tibetan-Burmese ethnicity, heard of the Khitan and there Chinese-influenced way of writing and took to create their own, being influenced by not only Chinese but the artificial Khitan script. And although, this new system looks Chinese, it is only related in that way.

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The Tangut script is, according to Gerard Clauson, an Orientalist, “remarkable for being… one of the most inconvenient of all scripts, collection of nearly 5,800 characters of the same kind as Chinese characters but rather more complicated.” All the things that make the Chinese characters intuitive, representation of pictures, ideas, or the use of characters phonetically, are not present in “Tangraphs”. One extra dot or line could change the meaning and reading of the character greatly. Another feature in Chinese that is lacking in Tangut are radicals (small pieces used to building characters). There are parts used in many of the characters but the don’t carry as much information as in Chinese, in other words you can’t guess the meaning of the character as a whole by the radicals. And finally the Tangraphs on average have many more strokes than in the Chinese characters. A block of text in Tangut looks like just that, a block. Very few characters have less than around 8 strokes.

For all the confusing, and irritating features of the Tangut script, I think there’s a beauty in it’s complexity. There is still a lot left that is not translated and if you want to learn more about this Chinese-like writing system check out the Wikipedia, Omniglot (a great website for writing systems and languages), and this article.

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