The Illyrian alphabet that wasn’t: how two centuries of European printers circulated an imaginary Balkan script
One of the joys of historical research is finding unusual things in old books.
One of the joys of social media once you link a whole lot of historians, linguists and literature people up with each other is finding the unusual things people have found in a lot of old books.
Like these pages from Josiah Ricraft’s The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, published in London in or around 1645, that Heather Froehlich encountered while looking at texts in languages other than English in the Early English Books Online collection:
(Make that The Peculier Characters of the Orientall Languages and Sundry Others, Exactly Delineated for the Benifit of All Such as Are Studious in the Languages, and the Choice Rarities Thereof, and for the Advancement of Language Learning in These Latter Dayes. That claim to precision with its millenarian twist at the end – the same combination that introduced readers of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens to an occult text called The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – is exactly what you want in your early-modern-English-book-title aesthetic.)
Two of these scripts – the ‘Alphabet of the Slavs’ and ‘Alphabet of the Croats’ – are forms of Glagolitic, one of the scripts devised for writing down Old Church Slavonic by the early medieval Byzantine missionaries who spread Orthodox Christianity in eastern Europe. Cyrillic (named after one of the two most famous missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius) endured and became the basis of alphabets for eastern Slavonic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian, and for south Slavonic languages in nations with strong Orthodox traditions (Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian).
Glagolitic (somehow, it never got called ‘Methodian’) didn’t become the basis of any modern-day national language’s literary script, but as a liturgical and monumental script lasted longest in Croatia. For 19th- and 20th-century Croatian national movements, the 12th-century Baška tablet, discovered by a Croatian priest in 1851 when Croatian (and many other) national ‘awakenings’ were in full swing, has both symbolised the continuity of Croatian statehood and connected to layers of Croatian national myth.
The inscription acknowledges the historic King Zvonimir, who ruled the medieval Croatian kingdom until being betrayed by his own noblemen; moreover, it provides the first reference to ‘the national Croatian name […] in the Croatian language’. And it does it in Glagolitic. (In the words of one of the most famous new patriotic songs that emerged in 1991 at the beginning of the Croatian war of independence, resonant with the karst landscapes of the Dalmatian hinterland, history is quite literally ‘written on a firm stone’.)
(Today, narratives and iconography of the Croatian national past that play on the ‘primordialism’ of ethnicity and tradition in the landscape continue to make Glagolitic script a symbol of Croatian ethnic continuity on the land, immediately distinguishable for a Croatian onlooker from the Cyrillic script which in the region’s late 20th/early 21st century language politics connotes Orthodoxy and Serbdom. It’s not uncommon on patriotic t-shirts and tattoos; some monuments commemorating 20th-century Croatian national ‘martyrs’ are inscribed in Glagolitic; and the Zagreb-based designers Vesna and Marija Miljkovic have used the script as detail for an entire clothing and accessories line.)
Ricraft’s fourth script, a version of Cyrillic, is the ‘Alphabet of the Muscovites’, inverting the balance of power between Russian and South Slav languages that most inhabitants of Slavonic languages departments will be used to these days.
It’s the first script, the ‘Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs’, that looks hardest to place. Glagolitic-but-not-quite, Greek-but-not-quite, serpentine tails where you don’t expect them to go – tipping its ‘peculier characters’ into the uncanny valley between historic typography, modern-day invention and contemporaneous alchemical esoterica to which several decades’ worth of films and book covers have tied the aesthetic of early modern printing for a contemporary eye.
(Take a novel like Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, filmed as The Ninth Gate, about an antiquarian book dealer hunting a 17th-century treatise that can supposedly summon the Devil; just put up a woodcut on screen and the viewer should start to be smelling brimstone.)
Indeed, as a place-name Illyria itself is in much the same valley – the name of a historic tribe in south-east Europe who pre-date the migration of the Slavs, attached to a Roman province, Napoleon’s Adriatic satellite state and the first wave of the South Slav national ‘revival’ in the Habsburg Empire; part of an Albanian myth of national origin; and, as Vesna Goldsworthy records in her history of fictional Balkan countries, one of literature’s most popular go-to names for imagining the Balkans behind the one that gave her book its title, Inventing Ruritania. And then there was that time Joss Whedon named an ancient warrior demon after it.
To paraphrase Kieron Gillen’s line from The Wicked + The Divine about the mysteriously reincarnated goddess Tara (‘We don’t know if she’s Buddhist, Hindu or Tara from fucking Buffy‘), semidetached from its historic moorings the name has permeated literature so far that ‘we’ might be forgiven for not knowing if it’s from Shakespeare, Greater Albania or Illyria from fucking Angel.
Except the background to the Alphabet of Illyrian Slavs is less Ninth Gate, more in the equally time-honoured bibliographic tradition of printers messing about – with something to reveal about how north-west European typographers thought about foreign languages in the 16th to 18th centuries.
Ricraft’s was far from the only handbook to include the Alphabet of the Illyrian Slavs, according to the Slavonic linguist Sebastian Kempgen, collector of Slavic alphabet tables from 1538 to 1824. It’s there in Richard Daniels’s Copy-Book of 1664, also from London, and a Leipzig printing manual in 1740; it surfaces in France in 1766, in Pierre Simon Fournier’s Manuel typographique, and in Edmund Fry’s 1799 Pantographia. De Bry’s Alphabeta et characteres, printed in Frankfurt in 1596, contains several Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets, the Illyrian script and a Cyrillic ‘Moscovitian’, putting it into the same lineage as Ricraft. Several Italian handbooks, meanwhile, don’t have the script at all. Finally, Kempgen traces it back to Zurich: Urban Wyss’s Libellus valde doctus, elegans, & utilis, published for the edification of calligraphers in 1549, where Kempgen notes no other Slavonic languages were printed at all.
‘Illyrian’ alphabets in the later books, compared to the greater variations of Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts, resemble the Wyss models much more:
These later copies reproduced the alphabet very faithfully, but it is obvious that, for 250 years, none of the authors of these copybooks had a “living” alphabet to check his engravings against, that there actually were no texts that could be used to sample these letters from, no speakers to correct anything etc. Whereas in all these typographic books the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets do exhibit certain changes over time as they changed naturally, this one alphabet seems to be frozen in time, as if it had been photocopied by one author after the other. (Kempgen 2015: 6)
Kempgen speculates that Wyss invented the alphabet himself, using Glagolitic as a model but adding embellishments of his own that matched the codes of what he perceived as exotic (something he also seemed to have done to his book’s ‘Egyptian’ alphabet):
Having no idea which parts of the Glagolitic letters were distinctive and which weren’t, he transformed the Glagolitic letters into fanciful designs that fit the rest of the exotic alphabets that he cut for his book […] In Zurich at the time, there would have been no one who could have given him advice on how to interpret the Glagolitic letters best – which parts were important and which of his ornamental additions or re-interpretations made them unrecognizable as Glagolitic letters. (Kempgen 2015: 11)
The ‘mysterious’ Illyrian script, in other words, belongs somewhere between the chain of early-modern biblical typos, litanies of unfortunately transcribed script tattoos, and the comedies of errors through which Google Translate error messages and out-of-office emails end up written on signs.
Moreover, it’s missing several important sounds that the alphabet of any Slavonic language would be likely to contain; and the Italian manuals, printed closest to the Adriatic where their readership was likely to be in most contact with the script, have no trace of the Wyss alphabet whatsoever. Esteemed typographers in north-west Europe, for two and a half centuries, still reprinted the ‘Illyrian’ alphabet as fact. As Kempgen concludes:
Due to lack of better knowledge, it has been faithfully reprinted for 250 years – but never anywhere near Slavic-speaking countries. (Kempgen 2015: 11)
Wyss’s alphabet circulated because it looked plausible; other Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts were and had been in use, ‘Illyria’ already existed as a designation, the Illyrian alphabet looked like its neighbours, why shouldn’t it be there? It’s as if the Dothraki language, knowingly constructed by George R R Martin and David Peterson for Game of Thrones in evocation of the horse-nomads of Eurasian steppes, were actually to appear in a handbook on the languages of Central Asia.
Two centuries before the Venetian traveller Alberto Fortis was romanticising the nomads and bandits of the Dalmatian hinterland as ‘Morlachs’, a generation before Shakespeare was imagining his shipwrecked twins making landfall in Illyria, Wyss was playing his own part in the European imagination of the Balkans. Whether Ricraft regarded the Illyrian Slavs as speakers of one of his ‘orientall languages’ or ‘sundry others’, his woodcut contributed a small node to the network of representations that south-east European cultural theorists such as Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden have often compared to orientalism, or the politics of imperialist Europe representing and exoticising the Middle East.
Similar fabrications, in the age of national ‘awakenings’, could sometimes inspire nationalist imaginations anyway; the poems of Ossian, a third-century Gaelic bard, were part of a cultural movement that moved not only some Scots but romantic nationalists in other countries to imagine a folkloric national past even when they turned out to have been written by a contemporaneous Scottish poet, James MacPherson, in the 1760s.
If the Illyrian alphabet has never lent itself to an invention-of-tradition move, it might be because the chain of transmission ends abruptly, according to Kempgen, with Pantographia; linguists active in the 19th-century national ‘awakenings’ put enough new material into circulation about their languages’ scripts that they stopped depending on handbooks in the Wyss lineage and the error did not persist into the 20th century. Its lack of the full complement of South Slavonic letters means it would be hard to adapt to revivalist purposes in the same way that Glagolitic itself, though out of daily use, lives on in contemporary Croatian patriotic iconography.
Benifit or not to any such as were studious in the languages, Ricraft’s perpetuation of the alphabet-that-wasn’t certainly stands as a choice rarity thereof; an insight, even if not the one he might have wished for, into the advancement of language learning in his own latter dayes.