By Rick Miller
If everybody spoke the same language and used the same alphabet, stamp identification would be much simpler (and much less challenging and enjoyable).
There are more than 2,700 living languages spoken in the world today, although many of them are not used on postage stamps. These languages are written in more than 200 alphabetic, syllabic or logogrammatic writing systems.
In alphabetic systems, each letter represents a phonetic value.
In syllabic systems, each letter resembles a syllable.
Japanese and Chinese writing systems use logograms, symbols that represent concepts or words rather than phonetic sounds.
Among the more familiar alphabets used by a number of different postal administrations are Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic.
Less familiar to most are the Armenian and Georgian alphabets and the Ethiopian syllabary. Stamps inscribed only in these writing systems are shown in Figure 1.
Familiar alphabets can sometimes lead you astray, because letters often have different phonetic values in different languages.
Current Universal Postal Union regulations require that all stamps (except those of the United Kingdom) used on international mail show the country's name in Latin letters.
The UPU notwithstanding, many stamps do not show the issuing country's name in Latin letters.
Older stamps often are inscribed only in the native script. Some countries, even though they are UPU members, do not always comply with this UPU requirement. Also, modern stamps intended only for domestic postage need not meet this requirement.
You will likely come across many stamps that do not show the country's name in Latin letters.
Knowing something about the symbols that appear on stamps can help you identify those whose names are not written in an alphabet that you know.
They can often also tell you something about the national, religious or ideological character of the administration that issued the stamps.
One postal administration where knowledge of symbols can be very useful in stamp identification is that of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Empire stamps are currently listed under Turkey in the Scott catalog.
Most early Ottoman stamps bear inscriptions only in the Arabic alphabet, but two symbols appear on most of them that can help in identification.
The first symbol is the tughra, the official signature used by the sultan. More than just a signature, each brushstroke in this elaborate calligraphic emblem has meaning.
To western eyes they can all look the same, but the tughras of four sultans appear on Ottoman stamps: Abdul Aziz, Adul Hamid II, Mohammed V and Mohammed VI.
The second symbol found on Ottoman Empire stamps is the crescent moon and star symbolizing the Turkish Caliphate. As the sultan was the head of state in the Ottoman Empire, the caliph was the supreme Islamic religious leader.
The tughra of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the crescent moon and star of the Turkish Caliphate are seen on the
5-para ocher Ottoman stamp shown in Figure 2, Turkey Scott 146.
Long in decay, the Ottoman Empire's death was hastened by being on the losing side in World War I.
When Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal) forged the Republic of Turkey from the empire's wreckage, the sultan, the caliph and the use of the Arabic alphabet were all swept away in his efforts to modernize and westernize Turkey.
Modern stamps of Saudi Arabia often lack a Latin-letter inscription of the country's name.
Most stamps issued before September 1982 were inscribed in Latin letters with the country's name in French or English or with the abbreviation "K.S.A." for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Latin-letter inscription was omitted from the 20-halalas Riyadh Television Center stamp, Scott 845, shown in Figure 3, issued Sept. 4, 1982, and it has been missing from most subsequent issues.
You can identify the stamps of Saudi Arabia by the national crest, which appears on all Saudi stamps that lack a Latin-letter inscription.
The crest, comprising a palm tree above crossed swords, can be seen to the right of the television tower on the stamp in Figure 3.
The Serbian national coat of arms can be used to identify the first stamp of Serbia as well as recent issues of Republika Srpska, the Serbian administration in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims all speak the same language, Serbo-Croatian. However, Serbs write the language in Cyrillic letters while Croats and Bosnians use the Latin alphabet.
The Serbian administration in Bosnia has inscribed most of its stamps entirely in Cyrillic letters, presumably as a point of national honor.
The Serbian coat of arms is a shield with a cross with a Cyrillic letter "S" in each corner. The letters stand for "Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava" (only Serbia can save itself).
A Bosnian Republika Srpska 7.50-dinar Europa, National Festivals stamp, Scott 72, is shown in Figure 4. The Serbian coat of arms is at the center of the stamp design.
The national symbol of Ukraine is the trident. Early stamps of Ukraine, such as the 40-shahiv green Trident stamp, Scott 4, shown in Figure 5, bear only Cyrillic inscriptions.
In 1918 Ukraine handstamped trident overprints on Russian Empire stamps. The many varieties from several different Ukrainian cities offer a great opportunity for a specialized collection.
In 1992, history repeated itself as Ukraine's Ministry of Communications overprinted the trident on stamps of the defunct Soviet Union to meet postal needs.
Some symbols are shared by more than one country.
While two-headed eagles must be very rare in nature, they are fairly common in national heraldry.
The Albanian, Bosnian and Imperial Russian stamps shown in Figure 6 all feature two-headed eagles as symbols of the nation or dynasty.
The Vytis (white knight), the national crest of Lithuania, is virtually identical to the national crest of its neighbor to the east, Belarus, as shown on the stamps in Figure 7.
The rearing mount, drawn sword and double-barred-cross emblazoned shield make these national symbols virtually indistinguishable from each other.
This shared national symbol dates from the 13th and 14th centuries when Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which at that time was the largest country in Europe.
Symbols can be especially useful in identifying stamps from countries that use logogrammatic writing systems, such as Japan.
The imperial chrysanthemum crest appeared on nearly all Japanese stamps issued before 1947. Likewise, the orchid crest is seen on many stamps issued by the Japanese puppet state of Manchoukuo.
A 10-sen deep blue Imperial Crest stamp, Japan Scott 103, is shown on the left in Figure 8. A 2-fen green Orchid Crest stamp, Manchoukuo Scott 62, is shown on the right.
Nationalist and totalitarian ideologies seem particularly prone to the use of symbols.
The Chinese stamp shown on the left in Figure 9 pictures the communist hammer and sickle, while the German Official stamp on the right is emblazoned with the swastika of the German National Socialist Workers Party (Nazi).
While the hammer and sickle is pretty much the exclusive property of communism, the swastika is an ancient sun symbol that predates writing, and its use does not always indicate Nazism.
Over-sensitivization has sometimes led to condemnation of any use of a swastika as being inherently racist or supportive of Nazism.
The Indian 3-rupee Bhagwan Mahavira stamp, Scott 1888 shown in Figure 10, is just one of many examples of a non-Nazi swastika used in stamp designs and watermarks.
If that weird stamp that you haven't been able to identify lacks an inscription in an alphabet that you can read, don't despair.
Look for a symbol that can give you a clue to the stamp's identity.