Early transcription methods at the K.K. Akademie Orientalischer Sprachen in Vienna according to students’ exercise books

Lecture by Claudia Römer

University of Vienna, Department of Oriental Studies

The subject I am going to present here has, besides its Ottomanist approach, a Central European perspective, as it deals with the former “K.K. Akademie Orientalischer Sprachen” in Vienna, founded in 1754 by Maria Theresa, and its students from all over the Habsburg Empire. This institution, which later was known under the name of Konsularakademie, was closed down in 1945. Its library was divided between the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv (HHStA) and the Oriental Institute of Vienna University. The latter got a large portion of the printed books, whereas manuscripts and very valuable printed books went to the HHStA. However, in the collection at the Oriental Institute, there are fifteen hand-written exercise books of students at the Academy, dating from 1758-1831[1].

The subjects of these exercises range from special assignments, like the collection of Ottoman proverbs compiled and translated by Anton Steindl de Plessenet in 1830 (see picture no. 1)[2] or two books, each one containing one part of the 17th-century Ottoman historian Muṣṭafā Na‘īmā’s history, translated into Latin in 1796 by Joseph Hirnschall and Joseph Plenck respectively (see picture no 2).[3]


Picture no.1


Picture no. 2










Most students, however, especially those who were at an intermediate level of Ottoman language competence, copied and translated short Ottoman documents into Latin, French, Italian, and German. Often we find the same documents in exercise books of different students.

I will not talk here about the exercises of the very first students at the Academy of 1754/55, which are extant at the HHStA (Staatskanzlei Interiora 55, fol. 63ff., 69ff.; 15 + 6 fol.) Under the title of “Türckische Handschriften der acht Knaben”, each of the eight students of the first year copied, transliterated and translated the same Ottoman proverbs. The transliterations give both the pronunciation of Constantinople and Anatolia, as the headlines indicate. As my colleague Gisela Procházka-Eisl (Vienna) is planning to prepare an article on this subject, I won’t go into more details here (see picture no. 3[4]).


Picture no. 3 (HHStA Staatskanzlei Interiora 55, fol. 63, copy made by Ernst Petritsch, HHStA)

Within the translations of all kinds of texts, names and terms are of course rendered in Roman characters. One cannot really call these small bits of text transcription texts, i.e. Ottoman texts written with characters other than the Arabic ones.

Here, I have to insert some basic facts about the Ottoman Turkish language.

Ottoman Turkish was written with Arabic characters, a fact that caused some problems. If we do not count the so-called closed e, Turkish has eight vowels, as shown in table 1.


Table 1: Turkish vowels

Illabial                                                Labial

Back                           a          ı                                  o          u

Front                           e          i                                  ö          ü

However, Arabic possesses only three long and three short vowels, namely a/ā, i/ī, and u/ū. Of these, only the long vowels are always written, whereas the short ones are not indicated unless a text is vocalised, in which case special vowel signs are added to the letters of the words, either above or beneath them. The Ottoman orthographic tradition had introduced a system where at least the difference between labial and illabial vowels and some of the velar and palatal vowels could be shown with the help of the Arabic long vowel signs and the so-called emphatic consonants. Thus, for instance, it is possible to distinguish between t and ṭ, or k and q. Some examples are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: The Ottoman Orthographic Tradition

  • aq             اق                    ‘white’                        ek        اك                     ‘addition’
  • olmaq اولمق                ‘to be’             ölmek  اولمك                ‘to die’
  • qal             قال                    ‘stay!’             kel كل                          ‘bald’
  • qul/qol             قول                   ‘slave’/‘arm’  kül كول                        ‘ashes’

Note that despite these devices, qul and qol cannot be distinguished.

Within Ottoman Studies, transliteration systems of so-called transcription texts (i.e. Ottoman texts written in non-Arabic alphabets) have been analysed in order to discuss the way of rendering the inventory of phonemes, with a special focus on vowels in non-first syllables[5]. Ottoman Studies, like other languages of the Altaic group, feature vowel harmony, a special form of which is labial harmony. This means that depending on the last vowel of the stem, suffixes have to be added in a form possessing matching vowels, either front or back and/or rounded or unrounded.

In Ottoman Studies, the development of labial harmony as reflected in non-first syllables plays an important part in determining the period when a given text was written or copied – according to what Gerhard Doerfer defined as “Altertümlich­keitskoeffizient” – the coefficient of antiquity.[6]

In this paper, however, I will have a look at more technical aspects of transliteration. For little to no attention has been devoted to the rendering of the Arabic script in transcription texts, i.e. to graphematic issues. However, for students of the Ottoman language, it is vital to be able to transliterate a word in a way that corresponds as much as possible to its original in the Arabic script.

The known transcription texts usually are wordlists, phrasebooks, and grammatical sketches of the Ottoman language written by a number of authors from various European countries. One could say that today, research on transcription texts has developed into a branch of Ottoman Studies in its own right. The issue of how to render the Arabic script is of course present in all earlier romanized transcription texts – each author uses the Roman characters according to the writing tradition of his first language. Many grammars and wordlists of this kind were based on the spoken language, so that not all texts belonging to this category are “transcription” texts in the strict sense of the word.

Even if the above-mentioned transliterations of names and terms are only small pieces of texts, they reflect to a certain extent, though not consistently, a transcription method of the Arabic script current from the 17th century onward, especially in Meninski’s Ottoman dictionary (and grammar) of 1680, about which I will give more information later on (see picture no 4).[7]


Picture no. 4

In what follows I will try to show the consistencies and inconsistencies of these transcriptions, which also vary from one author to the other, comparing them to other early grammars and dictionaries. The background of my analysis will be theoretical discussions of transliteration methods, going on during a long period of time.

By the second half of the 17th century, there seems to have been a consciousness of the difficulties readers would encounter when using a given grammar or dictionary. This problem was largely dependent on the fact that readers’ first languages and their respective writing traditions could differ from orthographic rules and languages the author of a grammar was familiar with.

A nice example is the discussion of this problem in Vocabulario italiano turchesco, by the capuchin Bernard de Paris, which was translated into Italian by another capuchin Pierre d’Abbeville in 1665[8]. The author and his translator give words in a vocalised Arabic version only, arguing that although many are in favour of a transliteration of Ottoman in Roman characters, it would be a useless and impossible endeavour. For, they say, people from different countries write the same Arabic letters differently as can be seen with the word sevmiş (which I write here in its Modern Turkish orthography), which the Italians would transcribe as seumisc, the French seumich, the Poles seumiz, and each of the other nations in yet a different way (see picture no. 5).


Picture no. 5

Another argument in Vocuabulario italiano turchesco is that if given a transcription, people would get lazy and not bother to memorize the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet.

The first exhaustive dictionary-cum-grammar based on the literary language appeared in 1680. Its author was Franz de Mesgnien Meninski (1623-1698), a scholar of French origin who lived in Poland, Istanbul, and subsequently served in Vienna as a court interpreter[9].  A speciality of his work is that he introduced the first “academic” transliteration system with fairly consistent rules. E.g., he indicated long vowels in Arabic and Persian words by an overstrike. Quite correctly, he did not use an overstrike for vowels in Turkish words, even if they usually are written with the Arabic long vowels. As we know, Old Anatolian Turkish and Ottoman have lost the original Turkic primary vowels extant in some Turkic languages until today. He also quite consistently used special signs for some phonemes that each European language renders differently. However, he did not take into account the Arabic so-called emphatic consonants, except for the difference between q and k[10].


Picture no. 6

In his foreword to the Dictionary he gives a list of the signs he uses with ample explanations on how to pronounce them. Meninski also invented a special sign for the Arabic consonant ‘ayn. This list was expanded in the revised version of the Grammar (Meninski –Kollar 1756), where special mention is made of the fact that s stands for sin and sad and se, t for te and ty (= ṭā’), etc. Sometimes, however, in the 1680 first edition, the diacritics are absent, which may be due to printing errors[11].

Meninski advises people who want to learn Turkish to start with Arabic first (1680:2), a principle the Viennese tradition of teaching Ottoman is still keeping up today inasmuch as students have to learn Arabic at the beginning of their curriculum together with modern Turkish. This enables them to recognize Arabic words in Ottoman more easily and to be able to cope with the many Arabic elements. Interestingly enough, Meninski does not say the same about Persian, which is at least as important for mastering the intricacies of the Ottoman literary language and style.

Meninski adds the lower case letters a, p, and t to words in order to indicate which language a word is derived from. However, for Persian words he also sometimes gives an abbreviation of his source. Verbs can be recognized as Turkish by their being cited in the infinitive (see 1680:4). This etymological feature also is of practical use for transliteration – only if you know if a word is Arabic or Persian on the one hand or Turkish on the other, you can transcribe it correctly as far as vowel length is concerned. Although Meninski does not explicitly mention this aspect, his approach is definitely a very modern one[12].

Despite Meninski’s memorable achievement, later grammarians and compilers of dictionaries continued along the lines of using their own system each without taking into account vowel lengths in Arabic and Persian words. Nor did many of them use diacritics for phonemes, but reverted to presenting the consonants according to the way one would write them in their own respective languages. This is for instance the case with Holdermann’s grammar, which was published in 1730 in Istanbul and printed at the Müteferrika printing office, the first one in the Ottoman Empire (pictures no. 7a and b).[13]


Picture no. 7a



Picture no. 7b










Pianzola in his dictionary of 1781 (second edition 1789) uses for cīm like Meninski, although his renderings change a lot. E.g., the Persian word cān, ‘soul’, ‘life’ is given as ḡan, ḡian, and gan. Also, he does not indicate Arabic and Persian vowel lengths[14].

Pianzola’s contemporary, Thomas v. Chabert, in his Kurze Anleitung zur Erlernung der türkischen Sprache für Militär Personen (A Short Turkish Manual for the Military), Vienna 1789 transliterates according to German equivalents of Turkish phonemes. His grammar is based on Meninski, leaving out completely the Arabic script as well as Arabic and Persian elements[15]. In the copy from the Konsularakademie at the Oriental Institute, the Arabic script was added by Anton von Hammer-Nemesbány, who was a student at the Academy[16].


Picture no. 8


Even in the new 1780 edition of the dictionary, which was a large-scale project of the K.K. Akademie Orientalischer Sprachen, some of Meninski’s principles were not respected. As an example we can cite the use of long vowel signs in Turkish words, even in suffixes, e.g. ḡigier fesādi  > giḡer fesādī (with a misprint giḡer instead of ḡigier) “Lebersucht”, or ak ḡigier > āk ḡigier “Lunge” (Meninski 1680: I: 1630; Meninski 1780: II: 374).

This resulted in what is nothing else but a backward development.

However, the debate on transcription rules was not settled. In 1809, Hammer-Purgstall, together with others, started editing the first international orientalist journal, which was, however, short-lived – only a total of six volumes appeared. On pp. 463-464 of the first volume, there is a lengthy discussion in footnote ** within Hammer’s so-called “Schlussrede” about transliteration issues, where Hammer vehemently criticises v. Diez’s attacks against the transcription used in Fundgruben, which he thought to be too bookish – v. Diez would have preferred a transcription based on the utterances of the people (see picture no.9).


Picture no. 9

Even if this debate has to be seen against the background of the deep antipathy and constant disputes between the two men[17], it sheds light on the fact that two hundred years ago, the transcription issue was subject to very different approaches and aims.

Between brackets I have to mention that only in 1959, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft published a booklet on how to transliterate the major languages written in the Arabic script. Whereas German-speaking Arabists generally stick to the rules given for Arabic, Ottomanists have continued to adapt the rules for transliterating Ottoman Turkish according to their needs. Internationally, we have today three major transliteration systems, one for the German-speaking world, one for the English-speaking world, and the Turkish one based on the modern Turkish Roman characters, with special adaptations in France etc.

Let us now look at some examples from the above-mentioned students’ exercise books. Already in the first exercise book extant until today, we find attempts at systematic transliteration. This book was written in 1758 by Franz de Paula von Zigeiner, who entered the Academy in 1755. He therefore belonged to the second group of students after the first eight young men of 1754 (see above). However, for some unknown reason, this exercise book is half empty[18].

Hirnschall and Plenck, the authors of the translations of some chapters of Mustafa Naima’s history, both follow the same guidelines. All chapter headings are centred, underlined and have elaborate initial letters. Personal and place names are underlined, as are quotations of poems etc. Names of places known from the classical languages are often, but not always, given in this form, like the adjectives Tripolitanus (Hirnschall, p. 26), Rhodensis, Magnesiensis, Thessalonicensis against Kutahia (Hirnschall, p. 28). Personal names are sometimes rendered incorrectly, but this could rather be the result of inadvertance, e.g. Zekeja Effendi (Hirnschall, p. 14) against Zekeria Effendi (p.15), Pehadir Kerai (Plenck, p. 6) against Behadir Kerai (Plenck, p.11).

At the end of the 18th century, teachers at the Academy seem to have introduced a transcription system based on Meninski with the exception of rendering vowel length, but they appear not to have applied it in a consistent manner. Hirnschall and Plenck both fairly regularly use (a g with an overstrike) for cīm, ś for şīn. Plenck inconsistently writes z for both ṣād and se. (p. 2), and Hirnschall always renders ġ by the combination of g and h, whereas Plenck uses simple g more often. He is a little more inconsistant, e.g. once it is Sejavuś, and once it is Sejavusch. Some wrong vowels, however, seem to have persisted throughout the translations. E.g., in text no. 4 it is always Nusuh and never Nasuh.

In Steindl’s collection of proverbs, we find transcriptions without any special signs, not indicating the letter ‘ayn nor vowel length and lacking the hyphen introduced by Meninski after the Arabic definite article el-, here assimilated to es- according to Arabic phonological rules:

Selam-Aleykum …. Aleykum Esselam (p.28)

On the other hand, he uses , e.g. in ḡehennis (p.29)

Arafa; Bairam (p.60)

In all collections, proverbs are arranged alphabetically according to the first letter of their first words. Steindl gives a list of chapter headings, containing the Ottoman names of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. Here, there is no trace of any diacritics at all (see picture no. 10).


Picture no. 10


Picture no. 11








Two other students, Nadásdy and Anton Döry[19], copied Ottoman documents in 1799. In their book, one can discern several inconsistencies. It is especially interesting that the only diacritic sign they use is for cīm. Here are a few examples taken randomly from their exercises (see picture no. 11).



Rebiül = Evvel vs. Rebi=ül=evvel


Seid Ibrahim

Elhaḡ Ibrahim

Biḡak Salich

Yergöklensis (Yergögi = Giurgiu; Yergöklü = Yergökensis)

Elhaḡ Mustapha Janitscharius Legati Germanici

Kara Hissar


Furunli Zade

Mechmed Emin

Abdürachman Kachraman Bascha Zade

As it is difficult and time-consuming to collect and especially compare all the relevant material manually, it would be a great step forward and an immense help if one could glean the texts electronically. However, the forms of the letters of each of the students’ different hands will first have to be made accessible for searching. The handwritten materials in the exercise books are not degraded manuscripts – the paper and ink generally are in good condition. Nevertheless, in many cases, the ink of the back of pages shows through, which makes decipherment difficult. Moreover, not all students have a calligraphically aesthetic hand, so that reading their translations is not always easy.

Therefore, one would require an OCR method similar to the one applied by Heinz Miklas of the Institute of Slavonic Studies and his team from the Technical University of Vienna (image processing group CLV) the Glagolitic manuscripts Missale Sinaiticum from St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai (Sin.Slav. 5/N) and Euchologium Sinaiticum Pars nova (Sin. slav. 1/N).[20]Pictures[21]


[1] On these exercise books in general, see Römer 2002, and for some special ones, see Römer 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004.

[2] He entered the Academy in 1826 (Gołuchowski 1904: 95). – On his life and career, see, Wandruszka 1972.

[3] Römer 2001. Both Hirnschall and Plenck entered the Academy in 1794 (Gołuchowski 1904: 94)

[4] I thank Dr. Petritsch from the HHStA for providing me with copies a long time ago. See also Petritsch 1987: 39.

[5] For a new collective volume on this subject, see Csató – Menz – Turan eds. (2016).

[6] Doerfer 1985.

[7] Meninski 1680.

[8] On them, see Hamilton 2005:148.

[9] See picture no. 4, and above note 7. Cf. also, e.g., Petritsch 1987: 28-30 and especially on transcription issues, Zieme 1966.

[10] Meninski 1680: Prooemium; see picture no. 6.

[11] Kappler 2014: 117, note 19. For an overview of another 18th-century adaptation of Meninski’s transcription system, see Kappler 2014: 119 (unedited Venice manuscript of Pietr’Antonio Rizzi of 1711, under the title of Memoria locale di precetti grammaticali turchi).

[12] As Kappler 2014:110 note 8 and 122 rightly says, although several articles have been devoted to the analysis of special aspects of Meninski’s work, there is until now no comprehensive and exhaustive analysis of his dictionary and grammar.

[13] On İbrahim Müteferrika, see, e.g. Van den Boogert 2005. For the aspect of İbrahim Müteferrika’s characters, see, e.g. Holdermann 1730.

[14] Stachowski 2011: 152 on Rocchi 2009; see also Pianzola 21789 I: 5, III: 7, 13).

[15] On Chabert’s grammar, see Römer forthcoming – picture no. 8.

[16] Anton Freiherr von Hammer-Nemesbány (3 Feb. 1809-31 Dec. 1889) entered the Academy in 1826, later became a higher state employee and also served as Imperial Interpreter of Oriental languages. He was not related to Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (Wurzbach 1861: 267 and Gołuchowski 1904: 95). For a portrait, see http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Pages/ZettelDetail.aspx?p_iZettelID=3243219, 15 Aug.2013 (cf. also Römer forthcoming).

[17] See Mangold 2004: 49 and Mommsen 1961.

[18] Gołuchowski 1904: 93.

[19] Anton Döry von Jobbaháza entered the Academy in 1795 (Gołuchowski 1904: 94), and Franz Graf Nádasdy started his studies in 1798 (Agstner 2004: 501).

[20] See, e.g., Diem et al. 2010 and the webpage of CVL (Computer Vision Lab) at the Technical University of Vienna at https://www.caa.tuwien.ac.at/cvl/ (24 August 2016).

[21] Unless specified otherwise, all pictures were taken by the author of this present articles from books and manuscripts of the former library of the Konsularakademie kept at the Oriental Institute of Vienna University.



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Bernardo da Parigi (1665): Vocabulario italiano turchesco,… tradotto dal francese nell’italiano… dal P.F. Pietro d’Abbavilla…. Roma: stamparia della Sac. Congreg. di Propag. fide.

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Römer, Claudia (2001): Latin Extracts from Naima’s History translated by students at the “K.K. Akademie orientalischer Sprachen”, Vienna 1796, in: Çiçek, Kemal (ed.): Pax Ottomana, Studies in memoriam Prof. Dr. Nejat Göyünç, SOTA & Yeni Türkiye Yayınları, Haarlem – Ankara, 581-588.

Römer, Claudia (2002): Die Übungsbücher der Zöglinge der K.K. orientalischen Akademie, in: I. Feigl et al. (Hrsg.), Auf den Spuren der Osmanen in der österreichischen Geschichte (Wiener Osteuropa Studien 14), Peter Lang Verlag, 155-160.

Römer, Claudia (2004): Neues zu den von der Orientalischen Akademie 1865 herausgegebenen ‘Osmanischen Sprichwörtern’, in: Oliver Rathkolb (ed.): Festschrift 250 Jahre. Von der Orientalischen zur Diplomatischen Akademie in Wien. Studien Verlag, Innsbruck, Wien, München, Bozen, 2004, 65-75.

Römer, Claudia (forthcoming): Meninski’s Grammar Simplified: Thomas Chabert’s ‚Kurze Anleitung zur Erlernung der türkischen Sprache für Militär Personen‘ (A Short Turkish Manual for the Military), Vienna 1789. Otto Spies Memorial Lecture. Annemarie Schimmel-Kolleg, Bonn, 2 October, 2015.

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The article image shows the title page of Meninski´s Dicitionary from 1680 (Photo of the author).

Univ.-Prof.in Dr.in Claudia Römer ist Professorin und Turkologin am Institut für Orientalistik der Universität Wien (AT). Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte liegen im Bereich der Osmanische Diplomatik, der Osmanische Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte sowie der Stilistik und historische Grammatik des Osmanischen.


Univ.-Doz. Dr. Adelheid Krah ist Senior Lecturer am Institut für Geschichte der Universität Wien; sie forscht und lehrt als habilitierte Universitätsdozentin, SL, in den Bereichen Mittelalterliche Geschichte, eLearning, Geschichte Mittel/Zentraleuropas und Westeuropas. Sie arbeitete auch als Archivarin am Bayerischen Hauptstaatsarchiv in München, ist Fellow des DHI-Paris und im Vorstand von ICARUS.

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