The Writing Peace exhibition forms part of the global effort by UNESCO to promote the emergence of a sense of belonging to a shared and plural humanity while giving prominence to the wealth of cultures, mutual respect between them and the resulting intercultural dialogue.
The objective of this exhibition is to raise awareness on the various forms of transmission of culture and heritage down the ages, and the convergence of values conducive to peace, through a number of alphabets and other writing systems used in various parts of the world that transcend time and space.
The scripts portrayed here and presented chronologically have been chosen for this exhibition because they are part of the mosaic of writing systems existing in today’s world. They represent only a small fraction of the vast wealth of which they form a part. Each of them shows the word for “peace” and its first letter or character, and they have been combined in the logo of the exhibition.
The exhibition, opened on the occasion of the International Day of Peace, 21 September 2012, at United Nations Headquarters in New York and it constitutes one of the major activities of the Programme of Action for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO at its thirty-sixth session, in November 2011.
When Cāngjié invented the characters, the sky rained millet seeds and evil spirits wept in the night. From the Huainanzi, a philosophical classic of the second” century B.C.
Fitting into a perfect square – this is the equilibrium to which any Chinese character, whether traditional or simplified, conforms with infinite grace. The pages in children’s exercise books contain large squares to help them to form their first characters and give them a certain understanding of Chinese script which they will always retain. One by one, each character is learnt in this manner, combining form and meaning in a system whose long-term continuity is unequalled in human history.
Indeed, if there is a civilization whose longevity is proportional to the history of writing systems, it is that of China. Its 4,000 years of uninterrupted progress are extremely impressive. The history of Chinese script, from early inscriptions on animal bones and tortoiseshells to characters in bronze, from the unification decreed by the first Emperor of China (in the late third century B.C.) to the simplification of characters undertaken in the twentieth century, is a fascinating epic story. The number of Chinese characters is estimated at tens of thousands, although knowledge of the most frequently-used 3,000 is sufficient for reading a newspaper.
Two characters make up the word for “peace”: 平, which is pronounced hépíng (its transliteration in the pinyin system). The first of these two characters, 和 hé, denotes “harmony”, and the second, 平 píng means – among other things – “flat”, “calm” and “soothing”. The two characters are combined by the skilful gestures of the calligrapher and the use of the Four Treasures of the Study. This Chinese concept comprises the faithful companions of the literate: the brush, which is made from animal hairs of varying cost and rarity and whose use requires a very advanced technique; ink, whose manufacture has been known for millennia; the inkstone, used for grinding the ink stick into a powder which is then mixed with water; and, lastly, paper, for which we have to thank the great Cài Lún, who perfected the paper-making process in the first century A.D.
Hebrew is a very ancient Semitic language. The oldest trace of ancient Hebrew is now believed to be the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon, dating back to the time of King David. There is also the Gezer calendar, with its agricultural indications, and the Mesha stele of the Moabite king Mesha, dating back to the ninth century B.C. The most ancient script of the Hebrews, which is known as palaeo-Hebrew, appeared 3,000 years ago, was derived from the Phoenician alphabet and gave rise to the Samaritan alphabet.
Their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. under Nebuchadnezzar II brought the Hebrews into direct contact with the Aramaic language and culture. At that time, and particularly a few decades later after they were liberated by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, a major change took place: under Aramaic influence, another alphabet developed, known as the square script Hebrew alphabet. It was in that script that the text of the Tanakh was first written and rules of calligraphy, form, orthography and reading were imposed.
Like the Phoenician script, the Hebrew alphabet comprises 22 letters and is written from right to left. Vowels are not written: this is what is known as an abjad. There have, however, been a number of systems for adding the vowels: for example, a system of diacritical marks known as niqqud was devised by Masorete scholars more than 1,000 years ago. It is used for special purposes such as language learning, scriptural study and books for children or foreigners.
As a result of the diaspora of the Jewish people and their settlement in a great variety of countries as from the first century A.D., the Hebrew language ceased to be used in everyday speech – hence the major role played by script in maintaining the unity of the language beyond frontiers and down the centuries. Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did the Hebrew language experience a recovery and one person, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), who devoted much of his life to it, was particularly prominent in that process. There was also a revival of the Hebrew alphabet.
“Peace” is pronounced shalom and written שלום. The word is used as a traditional greeting, and shalom alekhem (“peace be with you”) is used in more formal settings. The word is also found in the expression shabbat shalom, used to wish someone a peaceful shabbat (day of rest).
Greece is a cradle of European cultures. Its exceptional achievements in the philosophical, scientific and political fields have driven the progress of human thought Greece is a cradle of European cultures. Its exceptional achievements in the philosophical, scientific and political fields have driven the progress of human thought. Of course, the Greek language played a key role in that process, but its alphabet has proven even more important through its impact on a number of other scripts. The Etruscan, Roman, Coptic and Cyrillic alphabets are derived from it directly, as is the Gothic alphabet, created in the fourth century A.D. by Bishop Wulfila. This has even been reflected in mythology.
Legend has it that Europa, a Phoenician woman, was loved by Zeus, who abducted her from a beach. Her father Agenor then commanded everyone at his court to find her or not to return. During his quest, her brother Kadmos consulted the oracle at Delphi and was told to follow a cow and to found a city wherever the cow stopped. He followed those instructions exactly, but his companions were soon massacred by a dragon, and Kadmos killed the dragon in his anger. The glorious city of Thebes, or rather, one of its forerunners, was then founded. This episode would have other consequences, since it is said to have resulted in the creation of the Greek alphabet. This is an apt reminder of its Phoenician origins.
From the historical viewpoint, it should be noted that not one, but several Greek alphabets came into being, in the early eighth century B.C. In 403 B.C. the version used in Miletus (the Ionian version) was the most successful and became standardized. Greek script has taken various directions during its history: initially, it was written from right to left, as was its Phoenician model; then for some time the boustrophedon form was used (from bous, “ox”, and strophê which denotes the act of turning). This was a system in which the writer would alternate between writing from left to right and from right to left, as would an ox following the furrows back and forth while ploughing. Ultimately, Greek script adopted its current left-to-right form.
One of the major advantages of the Greek alphabet is that it was the first that systematically included vowels. Small wonder, then, that the word “alphabet” is derived from the first two letters, alpha and beta, of the Greek alphabet. “Peace” is Ειρήνη (iríni), a reference to Eirene, the goddess of peace, since she was said to be the daughter of Zeus and Themis (“divine law”), the sister of Eunomia (“Rule of law”) and Diké (“Justice”). Furthermore, Ploutos, the god of prosperity and abundance, is often represented as a young figure in the arms of Eirene; this is no surprise, since prosperity is a gift that is given by peace.
Tügkülen is a word for “peace” in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina; the prefix mapu means “earth”. “Peace” is rahu in Estonian, kapayapaan in Tagalog (Philippines), mír in Czech and amani in Kiswahili. It is fred in Danish, rangimārie or rongo in Māori, jàmm in Wolof (Senegal, in which the equivalent of “goodbye” is ba suba ak jàmm, meaning I will see you tomorrow in peace), and barış in Turkish. These are all ways of saying “peace”; what is more, they all use the same alphabet, the Roman alphabet. The most extraordinary characteristic of the Roman alphabet is its worldwide use, as it has spread to all continents.
This epic story began in Italy in the seventh century B.C., when the Etruscans adopted a writing system based directly on the Greek alphabet. Etruscan script was, however, not the only writing system in use in the region; the others included Faliscan, Umbrian, Oscan, Picene, Sicel, Messapian … Latin was itself directly influenced in the sixth century B.C. by a regional variant of Etruscan writing.
The Roman alphabet was initially monocameral, meaning that only one category of letters was in use, in this case capital letters. Successive changes brought about increases in the number of letters, and usage naturally grew as the power of Rome increased. This was particularly true during the time of Pax Romana (the first and second centuries A.D.). In addition to the imposition of the authority and laws of the empire, a huge network of Roman roads was built and the written Latin language was widely disseminated. The following centuries saw considerable inventiveness, with Roman capitals being replaced by Rustic capitals, and the appearance of cursive and Uncial scripts. In the time of Charles the Great (742-814), a scholarly elite led by Alcuin of York (730-804) promoted the use of Carolingian minuscule or “caroline” (lower-case) letters, which are more or less those in use today.
The expansion of European powers led to the dissemination of this alphabet, bringing it into contact with considerable numbers of languages. A wide variety of diacritical signs or diacritics was used in an endeavour to adapt to them (more or less faithfully). Some examples of these are ó, ő, ò, ŏ, ō, o̊ and õ.
Known as anbani after its first two letters, there are various theories about the origins of Georgian writing. National history, for instance, attributes it to the priests of Mithra, who lived in the fifth century BCE. To be even more precise, the King of Iberia, Parnavaz I (-309/-234) is said to have reformed it during his reign. Other approaches connect it to the Armenian script through a development by the monk Mesrop Mashtots in the fifth century CE.
A number of styles succeeded each other. For instance Asomtavruli, also called Mrgvlovani which means “round”, gave way from the ninth century to Nuskhuri (“minuscule, lower-case”), also known as Kutkhovani, which means “square”. At the time then, capitals were written in Asomtavruli and lower case in Nuskhuri. The combination of the two produced Khutsuri, or ecclesiastical writing, in the ninth century. Then, towards the eleventh century, Mkhedruli which means “secular” or “soldier, warrior” took over, marking a difference with another style of writing kept for religious documents. The script mainly in use today is Mkhedruli.
Georgian writing was for some time bicameral, but has gradually become essentially unicase. As well as being used to write Georgian, the alphabet is used for Kartvelian languages such as Svan and Mingrelian, and other Caucasian languages, such as Abkhaz and Ossetian. It today has 33 letters (eight of the original letters having been abandoned) and “peace” is written მშვიდობა (mšvidoba).
Vijayadashami is more than an Indian festival; it is a symbol. Also known as Dasara, Dussehra and Navratri, the festival commemorates the victory of Lord Rāma over the demon king Rāvana and that of the goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. It is therefore a very auspicious time for beginning any activity, particularly the learning of writing. Thus, a parent or grandparent sits a child on his or her lap and a few handfuls of dry rice are poured into a dish. Assisted by the adult’s expert hand, the child is then taught to trace one letter after another by moving a fingertip through the rice. This is Vijayadashami in India and its sphere of cultural influence, a time of year which augurs the greatest success, drawing our attention to the mosaic of India’s languages and scripts.
The situation in India is indeed unique: in addition to its great diversity of languages, it has a wide variety of official writing systems from the north to the south. This is something of a paradox; after the script (undeciphered as yet) used by the Indus civilization around 2,500 B.C., it was not seen again until the time of Emperor Ashoka (304-232 B.C.) and his conversion to Buddhism. One reason for that long interval was the primacy of the spoken language in relation to the sacred language Sanskrit and the duty to preserve it. The revived written language was expressed through two systems, namely kharosthi script, which was used for writing the Gāndhārī and Sanskrit languages but did not give rise to any variants, and the Brāhmī script, which gave rise to many new forms. Indeed, all the Indian scripts are descended from it, whether they relate to the languages of the north, which mostly belong to the Indo-European family, or those of the south, comprising the Dravidian languages. These scripts include Gupta (which took its name from a major Indian dynasty and has given rise to a number of other scripts) and Devanāgarī (whose name means “urban script of the gods”), which is used for writing in Hindi, Sanskrit and Marathi, but also in Nepali, Bengali (spoken in the state of Bengal), Gujarati (state of Gujarat), Gurmukhi (used for writing in the Punjabi language), Tamil (Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu), Telugu (state of Andhra Pradesh) and Malayalam (state of Kerala). Devanāgarī has also given rise to scripts used in non-Indian languages, such as the Tibetan and Khmer scripts.
“Peace” is pronounced śānti in Hindi.
The Imazighen people (Berbers) live in North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, including the Sahara. Present in about twelve countries, they are a diversified group, and this is reflected in their languages of the Hamito-Semitic family, which include Kabyle, Chleuh, Rifian, Chaoui amid others. In 2011, the new constitution of Morocco recognized Tamazight as an official language.
Over the centuries, there has been much debate regarding the origin of the Imazighen. Sallust (86-35 B.C.), Flavius Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-100) and Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) sought to clarify the issue. The latter wrote that “the Berbers were children of Canaan, son of Shem, son of Noah”, and that “they had an ancestor named Mazigh”. Other hypotheses were produced by Herodotus (fifth century B.C.), Plutarch (ca. 46-125) and Nordic, Iberian and even Sumerian scholars. Anthropologists have studied local skeletal remains, some dating back to the Capsian civilization of 8,000 years ago, whose artistic characteristics have much in common with the Imazighen.
These numerous hypotheses extend to discussions of their script. The Imazighen have a magnificent writing system, tifinagh script, which characterizes their identity, but where does it come from? Like the various theories discussed above, tifinagh script has also given rise to conflicting arguments. Some have argued that tifinagh comes from the word tafniqt, which means “the Phoenician (letters)”. Others believe that the origin of tifinagh is tifi, “inspiration”, and nagh, “ours”, therefore “our inspiration”! The Tuaregs believe that the script was created by the extraordinary Anigouran, a person of great intelligence and supposedly the author of the most ancient petroglyphs. Historically, there are traces at the time of the Numidian king Masinissa (ca. 238-148 B.C.) and his son and successor, Micipsa, in a form known as palaeo-Berber, B.C. It survived more or less during the various invasions and occupations of North Africa, and then attracted some attention in the 1970s.
This script may be written vertically upwards, but also from right to left or from left to right. It has surprising stylistic features, with forms and letters resembling geometric shapes, and no separation between words. What of its poetic ability to be carved on a rock or erased in the sand? “
Peace” is afra in Tamazight
”Dove, give my best wishes of peace”.
Al-Rouqui, 8th Century”
The growth of the Nabatean civilization began in the second century B.C. around Petra (in present-day Jordan). It was on the basis of Nabatean script, derived from Aramaic, that the Arabic alphabet came into being. The earliest traces of Arabic script date back to the fourth century A.D., but it featured more widely from the sixth century onwards. It was naturally on the advent of Islam in 622 and the vital importance of the text of the Koran that the Arabic alphabet took on an extremely important role, which was all the more crucial because the prohibition of figurative representations meant that the script was of the ultimate significance, beautifully reflected in calligraphy.
This resulted in the invention of many styles of calligraphy throughout the history of Arabic alphabet, including Kufic script, characterized by angular and geometric shapes, whose name is derived from the school of Kufa (in present-day Iraq). Naskh script is softer and more rounded; other examples include the highly ornamental Thuluth script and the elegant Nastaʿlīq or Farsi script, used in poetry, and also Ruq`ah script, intermediate between Naskh and Thuluth.
Behind these calligraphic styles are the men who dedicated their lives to them, including the great Persian calligrapher Ibn Muqlah (Abu ‘ali Muhammad Ibn ‘ali Ibn Muqlah), who lived in the tenth century in prestigious Baghdad, Madīnat as-Salām (the “City of Peace”). Ibn Muqlah authored a magnificent Précis in which, for example, he teaches the proportions and energy to be used in calligraphic letters. He called for letters to fit, not in a perfect square as with Chinese characters, but within a circle whose diameter was determined by writing a calligraphic alif (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) and “measuring it mentally”.
The Arabic alphabet is an abjad, in which vowels are written only by means of complementary signs. It is also characterized by the way in which the shapes of letters change according to their position within a word (initial, medial, final or isolated). It became widespread owing to the spread of Islam; as a result, it has been used to transcribe many other languages, including Persian (an Indo-European language spoken in Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan), Urdu (an official language in Pakistan) and Kurdish which in different places and at different times has also been transcribed by means of the Roman and even the Cyrillic alphabet. Other languages have ceased to use the Arabic alphabet; one example is Turkish, which opted for the Roman alphabet in 1928 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In Arabic, “peace” is written سلام and pronounced salām. The word is heard in the customary greeting As-salâmou ‘alaykoum (“peace be with you”), the correct response being Wa ‘alaykoum as-salâm.
”Makeda and Solomon exchanged visits frequently, and the more she saw of him the more she appreciated his wisdom.
The birds and the beasts also came to hear his wisdom and Solomon talked to them, each in his own language, and they went back to their native lands and told their fellow creatures what they had seen and heard” Book of Kings – Kebra Nagast ”
The ancient Semitic language that was once spoken by Ethiopians is called Ge’ez. It was initially written down by means of an abjad related to a southern Arabian script called Himyarite, but this gave way to a syllabary, the completed version of which dates back to the fourth century A.D., the time of the Kingdom of Aksum. Having used a boustrophedon format (see Greek script), it eventually came to be written from left to right.
Ge’ez was a living language until 1270, when a Solomonic dynasty (claiming descent from Solomon) came to power. Amharic, a modern language derived from Ge’ez, came into standard use while Ge’ez remained the classical or sacred tongue. A legend entitled Kebra Nagast (“Book of Kings”), written in the fourteenth century, tells the story of Makeda, Queen of Sheba, and that of King Solomon and his legendary son Menelik I, but also includes the creation story and many other things, such as explanations of Ethiopian proverbs and symbols.
The syllabary is based on 26 consonants, with the form of the letter changing according to the following vowel, with no less than seven forms for each consonant. This type of script is called an abugida (or syllabary), from the names of the first four letters, and the term abugida has come to be used for any system of this type, including the Indian syllabaries.
This Ethiopian script is now used for writing both in the modern spoken language, Amharic, and in the classical language Ge’ez. The word for “peace” in Amharic is pronounced sälam. Other languages use or have used this writing system. They include Harari, the language of the Muslim community of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, and Tigrinya, which is also spoken in Eritrea; both are Semitic languages. The Oromo people (the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, also present in Kenya) previously used this system for writing their language, also called Oromo, a member of the Cushitic family of languages, but in 1991 they changed over to the Roman alphabet.
“To know wisdom and counsel
To understand the words of intelligence... Book of Proverbs”
In Armenian, matenadaran means “library”. More specifically, this word denotes a place in Yerevan which is well known to all children in Armenia, since it pays tribute to the creator of Armenian script, Mesrop Mashtots (362-440), a pillar of Armenian cultural identity. In the fourth century A.D., the Armenian language (a member of the Indo-European family) had no written form. Believing that this situation was harmful to national identity and was slowing the spread of Christianity (adopted in 301 A.D.), King Vramshapuh, of the Arshakuni dynasty, entrusted to the monk Mesrop Mashtots the task of creating an alphabet.
Mesrop Mashtots went on a journey to find those who had performed the same task before him. Tirelessly pursuing his quest in the lands of Mesopotamia and Syria, he searched, enquired, and debated the evolution of languages and scripts. The Greek alphabet was a strong source of inspiration in the area. Returning from his enthusiastic but exhausting quest, Mesrop perceived (according to the Armenian historian Moses of Chorene) “in the workshop of his heart, appearing to the eyes of his soul, the wrist of a right hand writing on a stone”. The Armenian alphabet was devised in 405 A.D., and the first book, a translation of the Proverbs, was soon published. The alphabet, initially comprising 36 letters, was subsequently expanded to 38. It was used mostly for writing Eastern Armenian, the language spoken in Armenia, and Western Armenian, spoken by the Armenian diaspora. To commemorate these important events, 1 October is Alphabet Day in Armenia.
“Peace” is written խաղաղութիւն and pronounced xałałutʿiwn in Armenian. The language has an upper-case script called erkat’agir, or “ironclad letters” (the first to be created) and lower-case letters known as bolorgir. A third form, cursive writing, is called notrgir (meaning “notary’s script”). Furthermore, the creation of the written language gave rise to a written form called grabar, which was abandoned in the nineteenth century except for liturgical purposes.
Cambodia is reputed to have been born of the union between an Indian Brahmin named Kaudinya and Princess Sima, daughter of the dragon king. The country was entirely flooded at the time, so Kaudinya arrived by boat, following inspiration from a dream. Hardly had he arrived, however, when Princess Sima and her people attacked his junk. Unconcerned, Kaudinya took out his magic bow and pierced the hull of his enemies’ boat with an arrow. Seeing this feat, Sima abandoned her hostility and even introduced the noble hero to her father who, hearing their betrothal vow, consented fully. As a wedding gift, he dried up the waters covering that beautiful country, Cambodia. The lineage born of that sacred union would reign for many years. Although the story is clearly a legend, it also reveals the influence of India on that part of the world, which is visible in its religion, architecture and writing.
The City of Angkor is undoubtedly the most majestic relic of the Khmer heritage at the peak of its splendour. It was developed under the reign of Jayavarman II, combining Hindu and Buddhist influences, but was abandoned in 1431. Centuries later, however, it remains an unequalled monument to the greatness of the Khmer soul. The Khmer empire had a writing system worthy of its greatness, the Khmer alphasyllabary, derived from Brahmi script through the southern Indian Pallava writing system. The oldest known example of Khmer script dates back to 611.
This Indian influence caused some difficulties, owing to the fundamental differences between languages. For example, the Khmer language has many vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs (the latter two being combinations of two or three vowels, respectively, within a syllable), which is not true of Indian languages; the question was whether new letters should be created or whether two or more characters should be used or combined? Many ingenious solutions were considered such as the doubling of series of consonants (known as heavy and light sounds), the creation of consonant-dependent or independent vowels or the creation of numerous ligatures (joining letters together to form new characters). All of this is an art demanding great skill.
The word “peace” is pronounced santepheap in Khmer. The two main styles of writing are âksâr chriĕng (oblique or italic script) and âksâr mul (round script).
Four writing systems in one: this is the unusual situation of writing in Japan. First, the word “peace” can be written in Chinese characters, known as kanji: 平和, pronounced heiwa (with the two characters used in the Chinese version, but in reverse order). Kanji were borrowed directly from Chinese as early as the sixth century A.D. and are today learnt gradually, particularly those included in a list of 1945 characters that are taught at school. Nonetheless, before learning kanji, all Japanese children are taught a system of 46 written syllables called hiragana, which are simplified characters derived from the Chinese ideograms. They are reputed to have been created by the monk Kūkai (774-835). Also pronounced heiwa, the word for “peace” comprises three syllables in hiragana: he へ, i い and wa わ, which are combined as へいわ.
Since the eleventh century (the Heian period), hiragana had been taught by means of a poem which included all of the syllables, each appearing once, which began: “I ro ha ni ho he to / Chi ri nu ru wo…” (“Even the blossoming flowers / Will eventually scatter…”) The poem has now been replaced by a more “ordered” teaching method, with the syllables recited as follows: a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, and so on. Some 1,000 years ago a court lady named Sei Shōnagon, the author of The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi), and her rival Murasaki Shikibu, authoress of The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), produced two major works of world literature using hiragana, which was known for some time as “women’s writing” and was widely used in Japan.
A second syllabary, which is therefore a third system, also comprises 46 characters: katakana, which is used primarily for transcription into Japanese of foreign-language words and for onomatopoeic words. They date back to the eighth century, when they were derived from fragments of Chinese characters. They are more angular than hiragana. The English word “peace” is transliterated as ピース in katakana and pronounced pîsu. There is also a fourth and last system, known as rōmaji, which transcribes Japanese into the Roman alphabet, for example kanji, heiwa, and pîsu.
“Aware that possessions are transient and without substance.
Practise generosity with respect... There is no better friend than giving”
Letter to a friend – Nāgārjuna (second century)
Songtsän Gampo, a seventh-century king of Tibet, was a very decisive sovereign. He is reputed to have founded Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and to have constructed the first buildings of what would become the seventeenth-century Potala Palace. He is believed to have played a major role in introducing Buddhism to Tibet. He is seen as the incarnation of a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has decided to help others while still following his own path. Two of his wives, the Nepali princess Bhrikuti Devi and the Chinese princess Wencheng, were fervent Buddhists, to such a degree that they are seen as two earthly representations of the goddess Tara, in two forms, green and white. Songtsän Gampo also played a role in the creation of the Tibetan syllabary, a task which he entrusted to Thönmi Sambhota, one of his ministers.
At his King’s request, Sambhota went to study in India. That country had great prestige at the time, and important people made pilgrimages there to seek knowledge, particularly Buddhist wisdom. The Chinese monk Xuánzàng (602- 664) is well known because his writings were the source of inspiration for the epic novel Journey to the West. While in India, Sambhota studied religion, languages and writing, drawing inspiration from Indian influences. As to the sounds that exist in the Tibetan language but not in Indian languages (Tibetan is not an Indo-European language, but belongs to the Tibeto-Burman), Sambhota is reputed to have seen in a dream a white man in metallic sandals who suggested the necessary letters.
“Peace” is pronounced zhi-bde in Tibetan. In the written form, syllables are separated by a tseg. The script has two forms, one called uchen, or “with a head”, reserved for printed documents, and the other umê, “without a head”, which is handwritten and cursive; it can be distinguished easily as there is no horizontal line above each letter. The Tibetan script is also used for Dzongkha (the national language of Bhutan) and Ladakhi (spoken in the province of Ladakh, in India).
Persian is an Indo-Iranian language which is part of the Indo-European family. Its evolution has mirrored the history of the vast and powerful empire of Persia, and then Iran as the language and culture spread throughout a large basin extending from Central Asia to the Middle East. In Afghanistan, it took the name of Dari, and in Tajikistan it is called Tajik. Its sphere of influence also includes Hazaragi, the language spoken by the Hazara, and Aimāq, both of which have been strongly marked by Mongolian. Owing to this lengthy history, Persian is at the crossroads of a rich vocabulary stemming from Arabic, Turkish, French, English, and other languages, just as it has enriched those languages itself.
With roots stretching back into the distant past and with such diverse horizons, Persian and its derivatives have used different writing systems. They include, in particular, a cuneiform system at the time of the Achaemenid empire and the Avestan alphabet, the Pahlavi script derived from the Aramaic script and which emerged during the Sassanid era, and more recently the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Tajik, for instance, is itself transcribed in Cyrillic.
With the Arab Muslim conquest of the seventh century, the move to the Arabic alphabet was decisive. It occurred gradually over the following two centuries. However, given the difference between the languages, the Persian alphabet added four letters to the Arabic alphabet, and uses diacritics.
Persian, like Arabic, fostered a major calligraphical current. A particular style was born of the meeting of two pre-existing forms, Nash and Ta‘līq, which was therefore called Nasta‘līq. This style has been perfected over thousands of years and, despite other creations, still embodies today the exceptional art of Persian calligraphy. There are twelve principles underpinning its use, including (1) base line, (2) combination, (3) proportion, and so on.
Peace is written صلح (solh) in Persian.
“Peace” in Russian is Мир, pronounced mir (a homonym of the word for “world”). Like Belarusian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, Kyrgyz and Mongolian, the Russian language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. What is the origin of the name “Cyrillic”? Whom does the name commemorate? To answer that question, two brothers who lived in the ninth century, Cyril (also known as Constantine the Philosopher) and Methodius, must be remembered. They were both monks, originally from Thessaloniki, Greece, and they were entrusted with a mission to evangelize the Slavic peoples. To that end, they worked to devise a suitable writing system for Slavonic (an ancient Slavic language). They invented an alphabet called Glagolitic, from the Slavic word glagol which meant “a word”.
They visited many regions, including Moravia, Pannonia and Bulgaria. Strictly speaking, although this is still disputed, the Cyrillic alphabet is said to have been developed by their successors, beginning with Clement of Ohrid in the tenth century, who is reputed to have adapted the alphabet to the Bulgarian language at the request of King Boris I, who had been converted to Christianity. At that time, it was not permitted to transcribe holy scriptures into any alphabet other than Hebrew, Greek and Latin. It was therefore necessary to go to Rome and argue convincingly in favour of an additional script that would be better adapted to the Slavic languages.
Today’s division of Slavic languages between the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets mostly reflects the dominant religions in the countries concerned. Bulgaria, the Russian Federation and Serbia, where the Byzantine Orthodox Church has been predominant, chose Cyrillic, whereas the Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats and Slovenes, who followed the Roman Catholic Church, chose the Roman alphabet. Each situation has its particularities, and some cases are complex, such as that of the Romanian language, previously written in Cyrillic, which changed over to the Roman alphabet under the influence of the Transylvanian School in the nineteenth century.
The work of Cyril and Methodius has been so crucial and decisive to the development of Slavic societies that many celebratory days have been created in their honour. These include 27 July, when the two brothers and their five disciples are celebrated, and 24 May, a holiday in honour of education, communication, culture and, naturally, writing. In Sofia (Bulgaria), religious icons are carried in long processions celebrating the merits of the two brothers and the letters of the alphabet.
The history of the Bangla (or Bengali) language is inextricably linked to the terrible events of 21 February 1952. On that day, a demonstration for the use of Bangla in Bangladesh, which did not at that time have official status, ended in tragedy. In tribute to it, 47 years later in 1999, 21 February was chosen as International Mother Language Day.
Bangla is an Indo-Aryan language and its area of use covers Bangladesh, the States of West Bengal and Tripura (India) and, for instance, Assam.
There is an alphasyllabary specific to Bengali, which bears the same name. Derived from the Brāhmī script, it is close to Devanāgarī and started to deviate from it in the eleventh century. Like Devanāgarī, it has a horizontal line along the tops of the letters.
The Bangla writing system is used for Bengali and Assamese, which are members of the Indo-Aryan family, as well as for Manipuri, or Meitei, and Garo (Tibeto-Burman languages) and Mundari, a Munda language (of the Austroasiatic family) spoken in the State of Jharkhand.
Bangla has given rise to a prestigious literature which is divided into Shadhu bhasha and Cholito bhasha. The first, Shadhu bhasha, is a literary language, highly sanskritized, which was dominant especially in the nineteenth century, but which disappeared almost completely from common use after 1950. The second, Cholito bhasha, is the written version of the colloquial Bengali of the educated classes. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Thakur, or Tagore (1861-1941), did much to establish it in literature so as to bridge the gap between the “literary language” and colloquial language.
Peace is written শান্তি (śānti) in Bengali.
Although Bangkok (or Krung Thep, which means “city of angels”) became the capital of Siam (present-day Thailand) in the eighteenth century, it should be remembered that in their time, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were highly prestigious cities. The beginning of the kingdom of Sukhothai in 1238 marked its independence from its powerful Khmer neighbour. Subsequently, Pho Khun Ram Khamhaeng (1239-1317), also known as Rama the Bold, became its king. He was emblematic in many ways, particularly in the political and philosophical fields. He is said to have been an enlightened king, close to his subjects, and a fervent Buddhist. “In the time of King Ram Khamhaeng, the city of Sukhothai prospers. There are fishes in the water; there is rice in the paddies (…) This city has four gates. Huge crowds throng to enter and to see the king light candles and play with fire, and the city is full to bursting with people.”
Ram Khamhaeng is also known for a crucial invention, that of the Thai script, which he devised in 1283, drawing inspiration from the neighbouring Khmer script and from the writing systems of India. These facts are inscribed on a stele dated 1292, discovered in 1834 by Mongkut, the future King Rama IV, who is also known to have inspired the musical comedy The King and I.
The Thai language belongs to a family of languages which extends to southern China, Laos, northern Viet Nam and northern Myanmar. Thai is a tonal language, with five distinct tones. The Thai script is an alphasyllabary, combining rounded and straight forms, like a series of sticks playing with loops of great elegance. Words are not separated by spaces, and the script makes no distinction between upper- and lower-case characters.
In Thai, “peace” is written สันติภาพ and pronounced santiphāp.
At its apogee, the Mongol Empire was the largest in history. It saw many battles, power struggles and disputed successions. Amid efforts to administer such a vast empire and impose the form of peace known as Pax Mongolica, successive attempts were made to create writing systems. During the reign of Genghis Khan, the founder of the empire, a scribe devised an initial system adapted to the Mongolian language (known as khalkha), basing it on the alphabet of the Uyghur people, who had joined the Empire. The first known text in this new script was the Secret History of the Mongols, published following Genghis Khan’s death in 1227. This script is written from top to bottom and from right to left, and letters change their shapes depending on their position within a word.
The Mongol Empire subsequently held sway over most of Asia, particularly China, where its emperors were established for a century under the name of the Yuan Dynasty. A second writing system then came into being, inspired by Tibetan and known as 'phags-pa script, attributed to the Tibetan lama Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235-1280), who devised it at the request of the Mongolian emperor Kubilai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, in order to unify writing systems throughout the empire.
Another Mongolian script, soyombo, was created in the late seventeenth century; it is attributed to Undur Geghen Zanabazar (1635-1723), the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. The current national symbol of Mongolia is derived from it directly although this script is now hardly ever used.
Mongolia then came under Soviet influence, and the writing of the language was once again affected by power politics. The Roman alphabet was adopted for some time, followed in 1941 by an adapted version of the Cyrillic alphabet. The use of all other scripts was then prohibited. This stage ended when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, and the regime changed. Classical Mongolian script was reintroduced in 1990.
In the Mongolian language, “peace” can be written in the classical script, but also in Cyrillic as Энх тайван and in the Roman alphabet as ènx tajvan.
“A tree whose roots are deep: in the wind does not shake; its flowers have luminance; its fruit, fragrance.”
“The water from a deep spring, because a drought dries it not, becomes a stream and flows to the sea. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (Yongbieocheonga), Chapter 2
In Korean, “peace” is written 평화 and pronounced pyonghwa. This alphabet, comprising 14 consonants and 10 vowels, is widely recognized as having an exceptional capacity to reflect the spoken language of Korea. To attain such perfection, it is said that the creator of this alphabet studied the movements of the tongue, lips and teeth in order to design new letters. This was consistent with the wishes of King Sejong, who acted to have it devised in 1443. Why did he undertake such a task?
The answer is to be found a few years earlier, when Korea was still using only Chinese script. As Korean and Chinese do not belong to the same language family, so many difficulties were involved in using Chinese script to transcribe Korean that the general population could not read the written language. King Sejong summoned a group of scholars and decreed that an alphabet better adapted to the Korean language should be created. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven was the first text published in the new alphabet.
Many men of letters who had been accustomed to the use of Chinese characters were against the new idea. How could this king, who was himself a scholar, imagine that the new script would have any success? Was it not the “script of one morning”? From their viewpoint, the difficulty of learning Chinese was a guarantee of reliability which could not be provided by a script that could be learnt in the space of a morning. King Sejong did not give way, however, and the Korean alphabet ultimately became universal in the country. In the early twentieth century it was given the name hangul (ou hangeul), meaning “great script”, and holidays were dedicated to it on 9 October in South Korea and on 15 January in North Korea (where the script is known as Chosŏn'gŭl). It was announced in 1989 that the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize would be awarded yearly, thus perpetuating the King’s memory.
The Nakhi people are one of the 55 national minorities in China. They live in Yunnan, preserving their ancient matriarchal culture, which has developed a particular spirituality, that of the Dongba (the name of its priests), but also a pictographic script which is unique in the world. The Nakhi use it to write down their knowledge, rites and legends.
One such legend tells of a man who found a marvelous stone on the Jade Dragon Mountain and decided to take it home. Breaking his journey for rest and refreshment, he put the stone on the ground, but when he tried to pick it up he suddenly found that he could not lift it: the stone had become too heavy. He ultimately understood that it was the residence of the god Sanduo, and a temple was built at the place where the stone had decided to stay.
Nakhi script, a magnificent reflection of that people’s cultural particularities, shows the potential of writing in preserving cultural identity. To enter that world is to touch the people’s soul; this is exactly what was done by a United States botanist and linguist called Joseph Rock (1884/1962), the author of the first Nakhi dictionary.
Some of the characters are written in black, others in colour. The script is generally written into rectangular notebooks, from left to right, breaking the page into uneven spaces. Some have theorized that the Nakhi script is 1,000 years old; others say several centuries. Dongba priests believe that the glyphs were formed by the trace which is left when a tree root is removed or a stone is picked up. This is, of course, provided that the stone is not inhabited by the god Sanduo!
The written form of “peace” in this script involves several glyphs. The Earth is represented by the base, the sky by a horizontal brace; between them are two armed men fighting, with negation denoted by a glyph on the left.
The Vietnamese language belongs to the Austro-Asiatic language family, which also includes Khmer and some languages in India, Bangladesh and Laos. The written language initially used Chinese characters before the changeover to the Roman alphabet. In the first century A.D., Viet Nam began, as had Korea and Japan, to use Chinese script, which was referred to as chữ Hán (or chữ nho or hán tự). The country’s independence, achieved in 939, would also have consequences in these areas, for the country soon developed a system known as quốc âm (subsequently chữ nôm). The principle was to adapt Chinese script to the Vietnamese language; new ideograms were introduced. Major literary works have used chữ nôm, for example Kim Vân Kiều (or Truyện Kiều, “Kiều Story”), an epic poem, widely considered to be the expression of the Vietnamese soul, written in the early nineteenth century by Nguyễn Du (1766-1820).
The advent of Christianity and the Roman alphabet in the seventeenth century marked a turning-point. On the basis of the Roman alphabet, the Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660) devised chữ quốc ngữ (more commonly known as quốc ngữ), which means “written national language”. He made the most of the work of Francesco de Pina and is thought to have drawn inspiration from the rōmaji system devised by a fellow-Jesuit for the transliteration of Japanese. After quốc ngữ became the official written form of the language in 1918, its popularity soared at the expense of chữ nôm. Its official status was confirmed in 1954.
The most marked characteristic of quốc ngữ is due to a distinctive feature of the Vietnamese language, namely its six tones, there being four in Mandarin Chinese and five in Thai. As a tonal change transforms the meaning of a word, a specific system of notation was devised, entailing the use of diacritical signs or diacritics in a variety of combinations.
“Peace” is pronounced hòa bình in Vietnamese.
The name “sequoia”, denoting a remarkable conifer that can grow to more than 100 metres in height, is well known. That name was chosen by the Austrian botanist and linguist Stephan Ladislaus Endlicher (1804-1849). To what, or to whom, was he referring? The answer is to be found in the United States of America, where a certain George Guess, known by the Cherokee name Sequoyah (1760/1776?-1863), the distinguished creator of the Cherokee script, lived. Originally comprising 86 characters, this was the first writing system of its kind designed to transcribe an indigenous language in the Americas. The circumstances of its creation are surprising: Sequoyah took characters already used in printing and transformed them in various ways. Initially, he attempted to create a character for each word (morphemographic system) but he ultimately created a syllabary, which was better adapted to the Cherokee language.
After some hesitation, Sequoyah’s strength of conviction (and some help from his daughter) led to the wholesale adoption of this system by the Cherokee people in 1825. This was a few years before the tragic events of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, when the Indian Removal Act led to the forced displacement of several indigenous groups including the Cherokee, Muscogee and Seminole peoples.
Sequoyah’s creation is wholly admirable, reflecting his determination to provide a people, his people, with a means of access to knowledge while preserving the vitality and continuity of their language. It is no coincidence that Cherokee has survived the erosion of recent centuries better than many other indigenous languages of the Americas. As to the adoption of the name “sequoia” for the tree, it is clear that Endlicher rightly equated its strength and resilience with the image of the exceptional man who had devoted 12 years of his life to the transcription of his language. Lastly, some have suggested that the Cherokee syllabary may have inspired the Vai syllabary in Liberia, through a Cherokee named Curtis who lived in Liberia and married a woman of the Vai people.
In the Cherokee language, “peace” is written and pronounced dohiyi.
The Inuit languages, which belong to the Eskimo-Aleut family, include Inupiat, spoken in Alaska, and Inuktitut in Canada. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a syllabary was adopted for the Inuktitut language, adapted from a system which had previously been used by other peoples and had originated among the Ojibwe people. The Ojibwe language belongs to a different family, the Algonquian languages, and its speakers had traditionally used a mnemonic system to record events and rituals on birchbark rolls. In the1830s, a British missionary named James Evans (1801-1846), drawing inspiration from a system invented by Isaac Pitman, devised a very convenient syllabary based on an initial set of nine symbols, each of which could be turned in any one of four directions to form syllables. This syllabary is based on a stenographic model (from the Greek graphein “to write” and stenos “narrow”). A triangle pointing upwards represents “i”, but pointing to the right it represents “u” and to the left, “a”.
Evans initially taught this system by writing in soot on birchbark and was therefore dubbed “man who made birchbark speak”. Nonetheless, his superiors did not share his views or his enthusiasm, and he was transferred to the territory of the Cree people, where he adapted his system to their language. Subsequently, John Horden and E. A. Watkins brought the writing system into the territory of the Inuit people, where Edmund Peck (1850-1924) sought to have it adopted. Dubbed Uqammaq, “he who speaks well”, by the Inuit, he worked hard and became the author of an Inuktitut-English dictionary.
Currently, two writing systems are used in Inuktitut, as some communities (in Greenland, for example) prefer the Roman alphabet. “Peace” is pronounced saimmasimaniq in Inuktitut. With the same root, saimu means “goodbye” or “may peace be with you”.
How can those who cannot see have access to the world of reading and writing, which might be regarded as crucial to their future? Owing to human inventiveness, various solutions have been found such as the invention in the fourteenth century by a blind Arab scholar named Zayn al-Din 'Ali ibn Ahmad al-Amidi, of a method based on the use of fruit stones. This enabled him to identify books and even to summarize certain information. There were further initiatives in the succeeding centuries, but they were unsuccessful because of their complexity or their lack of dissemination.
The issue was considered again in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a key period in terms of people’s perception of the blind. In 1749, Denis Diderot, the future editor of the Encyclopédie, wrote his “Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See”, laying emphasis on the sense of touch, which he believed should be developed. Similarly, in 1771, Valentin Haüy (1744-1822) was deeply shocked when, visiting a street festival called "Saint Ovid's Fair" in Paris, he witnessed unbearable scenes in which blind people took part in a “burlesque concert”. Outraged by what he had seen, he devoted himself to combating such injustice; 13 years later, he founded the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles (Institute for Blind Children). In a similar vein and during the same period, Charles-Michel de L'Épée (1712-1789), achieving great progress, devised a system of hand signs for deaf-mutes.
Louis Braille (1809-1852) took this liberating process a step further. Having lost one eye in an accident, he became completely blind at the age of five years and was therefore highly sensitive to the communication needs of the visually impaired. His aim was to devise a system to enable them to read. On the basis of a more complex system for nocturnal communication among soldiers invented by Charles Barbier de la Serre (1767-1841), he devised a notation based on the positions of six raised dots. Although his work was published in 1829, it was not until 1854 that it was more widely adopted. The Braille system has gradually been adapted to the world’s languages; there are now Braille systems for Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Thai…
The Braille transcription of the word “paix” (peace) in French, the mother tongue of Louis Braille, involves four separate signs.
Africa is a land of writing. Apart from the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Ethiopian syllabary and the tifinagh script, another outstanding example is the Vai language of Liberia, for which a syllabary was devised by Momolu Duwalu Bukele in the first half of the nineteenth century. Equally noteworthy are Mohammed Turay and his pupil Kisimi Kamara (Sierra Leone), whose names are associated with Mende script (also known as kikakui), the fascinating adventure of the Ivorian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, the inventor of the alphabet used to transcribe the language of his people, the Bété, and the work of the Malian Woyo Couloubayi, who created masaba script in 1930. The Nsibidi script (Nigeria) and the Mandombe script invented in 1978 by Wabeladio Payi (Democratic Republic of the Congo) are similarly remarkable.
Another interesting example is Bamum script. The Bamum people, together with the Bamileke and the Tikar, are one of the three ethnic groups in western Cameroon. The Kingdom of Bamum had been a precolonial state for several centuries; its capital, Fumban, featured a royal palace. The writing system devised in the late nineteenth century by King Ibrahim Njoya is a magnificent example of awareness of ethnic identity. Wishing to perpetuate his people’s knowledge and traditions, Njoya devised the Bamum script, which originally comprised 510 signs. Successive revisions reduced this number to 70. From the beginning, Bamum script was used in order to affirm the people’s identity through the compilation of the Histoire des Bamoun (History of the Bamum People) and its dissemination in schools.
Although Njoya died in exile in 1933, owing to his multifaceted changes, he has left a unique and prestigious legacy, to which there was an intellectual aspect because Njoya also invented a secret language, Shümom, which was used in Ba- mum rituals. Another major cultural feature is the biennial ceremony of Nguon, a solemn and highly symbolic festivity that reflects the close relations between the king and his people.
In Bamum, “peace” is pronounced fueshe and written. This word evokes calm, coolth and silence and return to normalcy such as after dousing with cold water or healing after illness. A return to peace, in other words.
It all started with stones on the ground in the village of Bekora, in Côte d’Ivoire, stones bearing strange symbols. It was the middle of the twentieth century, and the discovery changed a man’s life. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was born 30 years earlier, in 1919, and he had a flash of insight. What if the stones were bearing a message? And what if the signs were the premises of an African writing system? He thought of his father’s name, Gbeuly, gbeu, the “axe” and ly, the “spear”, and identified them among the signs. Then he went on to compose a syllabary of 448 signs. The Bété alphabet was born.
What happened next was a modern-day fairy tale. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré devoted his whole life to it. Armed with ballpoint pens and small cards, or writing his thoughts in chalk on a blackboard, he worked without interruption, starting with texts from Bété tradition and then moving on to poets and legends. Gradually, an encyclopaedia emerged, inspired in part by Dante´s Divine Comedy. He was now called Cheik Nadro, “he who does not forget”, because he said: “The alphabet is the undisputed pillar of human language. It is the crucible where the memory of humanity lives on. It is a highly effective cure for forgetfulness, which is a formidable factor of ignorance. The alphabet works to preserve human knowledge”.
In 1958, Théodore Monod publicized his work, and then art galleries around the world took an interest in it. This then was the extraordinary path of a man with an unusual destiny and his universal testimony.
The Mandombe script was created in 1978 in Mbanza-Ngungu (in what used to be Zaire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) by Wabeladio Payi (1957-2013), a mechanic. He claimed to have seen Simon Kimbangu (1887-1951), the founder of the Kimbanguist Church, in a dream together with two numbers, 5 and 2. Kimbangu said to him “You have seen the numbers of material activities. It is with these two numbers that you will do everything you need for your material well-being”. A series of dreams and transcriptions followed which lead to the development of a whole writing system: Mandombe, which means “that which is black”.
The idea behind this creation was to serve African language systems, so that any language could “reproduce its sounds without difficulty”. However, for its creators and for most of its users, Mandombe is not actually only a script, it is the preparation for Kimbangula, that is, “the aptitude to make discoveries and inventions using elements of Mandombe as a basis for work”.
Peace is amani in Swahili, kimia (or boboto) in Lingala, bupole in Tshiluba and luvuvamu (or ngemba) in Kikongo, which are the main languages of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.