Tungusic languages

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Siberia, Manchuria
Linguistic classification One of the world's primary language families
  • Northern
  • Southern
ISO 639-5 tuw
Glottolog tung1282[1]
Geographic distribution

The Tungusic languages /tʊŋˈɡʊsɪk/ (also known as Manchu-Tungus, Tungus) form a language family spoken in Eastern Siberia and Manchuria by Tungusic peoples. Many Tungusic languages are endangered, and the long-term future of the family is uncertain. There are approximately 75,000 native speakers of the dozen living languages of the Tungusic language family. Some linguists consider Tungusic to be part of the controversial Altaic language family, along with Mongolic, and sometimes Koreanic and Japonic.

The term "Tungusic" is from an exonym for the Evenk people used by the Yakuts ("tongus") and the Siberian Tatars in the 17th century meaning "pig". It was borrowed into Russian as "тунгус", and ultimately into English as "Tungus". It became a broad term for speakers of the whole family, "Tungusic". Use of "Tungus" is now discouraged; the Russian government now uses the endonym "Evenks" officially.


Linguists working on Tungusic have proposed a number of different classifications based on different criteria, including morphological, lexical, and phonological characteristics. Some scholars have criticized the tree-based model of Tungusic classification, arguing the long history of contact among the Tungusic languages makes them better treated as a dialect continuum.[2]

One classification which seems favoured over others is that the Tungusic languages can be divided into a northern branch and a southern branch (Georg 2004):

Population distribution of total speakers of Tungusic languages, by speaker

  Xibe (55%)
  Evenki (28.97%)
  Even (10.45%)
  Others (5.58%)
Northern Tungusic
Southern Tungusic

Alexander Vovin[3] notes that Manchu and Jurchen are aberrant languages within South Tungusic but nevertheless still belong in it, and that this aberrancy is perhaps due to influences from the Para-Mongolic Khitan language, from Old Korean, and perhaps also from Chukotko-Kamchatkan and unknown languages of uncertain linguistic affiliation.

Despite some similarities between the Tungusic and Koreanic languages, Alexander Vovin (2013)[4] considers Tungusic and Koreanic to be separate, unrelated language groups that share areal rather than genetic commonalities.



Some linguists estimate the divergence of the Tungusic languages from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Manchuria around 500 BC to 500 AD. (Janhunen 2012, Pevnov 2012)[5] Other theories favor a homeland closer to Lake Baikal. (Menges 1968, Khelimskii 1985)[6] While the general form of the protolanguage is clear from the similarities in the daughter languages, there is no consensus on detailed reconstructions. As of 2012, scholars are still trying to establish a shared vocabulary to do such a reconstruction.[5]

There are some proposed sound correspondences for Tungusic languages. For example, with Norman (1977) supports a Proto-Tungusic *t > Manchu s when followed by *j in the same stem, with any exceptions arising from loanwords.[7] Some linguists believe there are connections between the vowel harmony of Proto-Tungusic and some of the neighboring non-Tungusic languages. For example, there are proposals for an areal or genetic correspondence between the vowel harmonies of Proto-Korean, Proto-Mongolian, and Proto-Tungusic based on an original RTR harmony.[8] This is one of several competing proposals, and on the other hand, some reconstruct Proto-Tungusic without RTR harmony.[8]

Some sources describe the Donghu people of 7th century BC to 2nd century BC Manchuria as Proto-Tungusic.[9] Other sources sharply criticize this as a random similarity in pronunciation that has no real basis in fact.[10]

The historical records of the Korean kingdoms of Baekje and Silla note battles with the Mohe (Chinese: 靺鞨) in Manchuria during the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some scholars suggest these Mohe are closely connected to the later Jurchens, but this is controversial.

Alexander Vovin (2015)[11] notes that Northern Tungusic languages have Eskimo-Aleut loanwords that are not found in Southern Tungusic, implying that Eskimo-Aleut was once much more widely spoken in eastern Siberia. Vovin (2015) estimates that the Eskimo-Aleut loanwords in Northern Tungusic had been borrowed no more than 2,000 years ago, which was when Tungusic was spreading up north from its homeland in the middle reaches of the Amur River.

Jurchen-Manchu language[edit]

The earliest written attestation of the language family is in the Jurchen language, which was spoken by the rulers of the Jin dynasty (1115–1234).[12] The Jurchens invented a Jurchen script to write their language based on the Khitan scripts. During this time, several stelae were put up in Manchuria and Korea. One of these, among the most important extant texts in Jurchen, is the inscription on the back of "the Jin Victory Memorial Stele" (Da Jin deshengtuo songbei), which was erected in 1185, during the Dading period (1161–1189). It is apparently an abbreviated translation of the Chinese text on the front of the stele.[13] The last known example of the Jurchen script was written in 1526.

The Tungusic languages appear in the historical record again after the unification of the Jurchen tribes under Nurhaci (Manchu: ᠨᡠᡵᡤᠠᠴᡳ) who ruled 1616-1626. He commissioned a new Manchu alphabet based on the Mongolian alphabet, and his successors went on to found the Qing dynasty. In 1636, Emperor Hong Taiji decreed that the ethnonym "Manchu" would replace "Jurchen". Modern scholarship usually treats Jurchen and Manchu as different stages of the same language.

Currently, Manchu proper is a dying language spoken by a dozen or so elderly people in Qiqihar province, China. However, the closely related Xibe language spoken in Xinjiang, which historically was treated as a divergent dialect of Jurchen-Manchu, maintains the literary tradition of the script, and has around 30,000 speakers. As the only language in the Tungustic family with a long written tradition, Jurchen-Manchu is a very important language for the reconstruction of Proto-Tungusic.

Other Tungusic languages[edit]

Other Tungusic languages have relatively short or no written traditions. Since around the 20th century, some of these other languages can be written in a Russian-based Cyrillic script, but the languages remain primarily spoken languages only.

Tungusic research[edit]

The earliest accounts of Tungusic languages came from the Dutch traveler Nicolaas Witsen, who published in the Dutch language a book titled Noord en Oost Tartarye, (literally "North and East Tartary") which described a variety of peoples in the far east and included some brief word lists for many languages. Following his travel to Russia, he published his collected findings in three editions, 1692, 1705, and 1785.[14] The book includes some words and sentences from the Evenki language, (then called "Tungus").

The German linguist Wilhelm Grube (1855-1908) published an early dictionary of the Nanai language (Gold language) in 1900, as well as deciphering the Jurchen language for modern audiences using a Chinese source.

Common characteristics[edit]

The Tungusic languages are of an agglutinative morphological type, and some of them have complex case systems and elaborate patterns of tense and aspect marking.

The normal word order for all of these languages is Subject–object–verb.[15]


Tungusic languages exhibit a complex pattern of vowel harmony, based on two parameters: vowel roundedness and vowel tenseness. Tense and lax vowels do not occur in the same word; all vowels in a word, including suffixes, are either one or the other. Rounded vowels in the root of a word cause all the following vowels in the word to become rounded, but not those before the rounded vowel. These rules are not absolute; there are many individual exceptions.[15]

Vowel length is phonemic for these languages, with many words distinguished based on a short vowel versus long vowel distinction.[15]

Tungusic words have simple word codas, and usually have simple word onsets, with consonant clusters forbidden at the end of words, and rare at the beginning.[15]

Relationships with other languages[edit]

Tungusic is today considered a primary language family. Especially in the past, some linguists have linked Tungusic with Turkic and Mongolic languages in the Altaic language family. However, a genetic, as opposed to an areal, link remains unproven. Others have suggested that the Tungusic languages might be related (perhaps as a paraphyletic outgroup) to the Koreanic, Japonic, or Ainu languages as well.

The language of the Avars in Europe which created the Avar Khaganate is believed to be of Tungusic origin.[16]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tungusic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ Lindsay J. Whaley, Lenore A. Grenoble and Fengxiang Li (June 1999). "Revisiting Tungusic Classification from the Bottom up: A Comparison of Evenki and Oroqen". Language. JSTOR 417262. 
  3. ^ Vovin, Alexander. Why Manchu and Jurchen Look so Un-Tungusic?
  4. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2013. Why Koreanic is not demonstrably related to Tungusic?. Proceedings of the conference Comparison of Korean with Other Altaic Languages: Methodologies and Case Studies, November 15, 2013, Gachon University, Seongnam, Republic of Korea.
  5. ^ a b Martine Robbeets. "Book Reviews 161 Andrej L. Malchukov and Lindsay J. Whaley (eds.), Recent advances in Tungusic linguistics (Turcologica 89). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2012. vi + 277 pages, ISBN 978-3-447-06532-0, EUR 68" (PDF). Retrieved 25 Nov 2016. 
  6. ^ Immanuel Ness (29 Aug 2014). The Global Prehistory of Human Migration. p. 200. 
  7. ^ JERRY NORMAN (1977). "THE EVOLUTION OF PROTO-TUNGUSIC *t TO MANCHU s". 21 (3/4). Central Asiatic Journal: 229–233. JSTOR 41927199. 
  8. ^ a b Seongyeon Ko, Andrew Joseph, John Whitman (2014). "Paradigm Change: In the Transeurasian languages and beyond (Ch. 7)" (PDF). 
  9. ^ Barbara A. West (19 May 2010). "Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania". p. 891. Retrieved 26 Nov 2016. 
  10. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1983). "The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early Historic China," in The Origins of Chinese Civilization, University of California Press, pp. 411–466.
  11. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2015. Eskimo Loanwords in Northern Tungusic. Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015), 87-95. Leiden: Brill.
  12. ^ Lindsay J. Whaley (18 Jun 2007). "Manchu-Tungus languages". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 Nov 2016. 
  13. ^ Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland, and Stephen H. West. China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 228–229. ISBN 0-7914-2274-7. Partial text on Google Books.
  14. ^ Nicolaas Witsen (1785). "Noord en oost Tartaryen". 
  15. ^ a b c d The Tungusic Research Group at Dartmouth College. "Basic Typological Features of Tungusic Languages". Retrieved 25 Nov 2016. 
  16. ^ Helimski, E (2004). "Die Sprache(n) der Awaren: Die mandschu-tungusische Alternative". Proceedings of the First International Conference on Manchu-Tungus Studies, Vol. II: 59–72.

General references[edit]

  • Kane, Daniel. The Sino-Jurchen Vocabulary of the Bureau of Interpreters. Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series, Volume 153. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1989. ISBN 0-933070-23-3.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.
  • Poppe, Nicholas. Vergleichende Grammatik der Altaischen Sprachen [A Comparative Grammar of the Altaic Languages]. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1960.
  • Tsintsius, Vera I. Sravnitel'naya Fonetika Tunguso-Man'chzhurskikh Yazïkov [Comparative Phonetics of the Manchu-Tungus Languages]. Leningrad, 1949.
  • Stefan Georg. "Unreclassifying Tungusic", in: Carsten Naeher (ed.): Proceedings of the First International Conference on Manchu-Tungus Studies (Bonn, August 28 – September 1, 2000), Volume 2: Trends in Tungusic and Siberian Linguistics, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 45-57

Further reading[edit]

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