Tocharian languages : definition of Tocharian languages and synonyms of Tocharian languages (English)

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Tocharian languages

Spoken in Tarim Basin in Central Asia
Extinct Ninth century AD
Language family
  • Tocharian
Writing system Tocharian script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
xto – Tocharian A
txb – Tocharian B

Tocharian or Tokharian (/təˈkɛəriən/ or /təˈkɑriən/) is an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family, formerly spoken in oases on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin (now part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China). Two branches of Tocharian are known from documents dating from the 3rd to 9th centuries AD:

  • Tocharian A (Agnean or East Tocharian; natively ārśi) of Qarašähär (ancient Agni, Chinese Yanqi) and Turpan (ancient Turfan and Xočo); and
  • Tocharian B (Kuchean or West Tocharian) of Kucha and Tocharian A sites.

Prakrit documents from 3rd century Kroran on the southeast edge of the Tarim Basin contain loanwords and names that appear to come from another variety of Tocharian, dubbed Tocharian C.[1] All these languages became extinct after Uyghur tribes expanded into the area.



A colophon to a Buddhist manuscript in Old Turkish states that it was translated from Sanskrit via a language called twγry, read as toxrï by Friedrich W. K. Müller in 1907 who guessed it was the newly discovered language of the Turpan area. He further connected this toxrï with the ethnonym Tócharoi (Ancient Greek: Τόχαροι, Ptolemy VI, 11, 6, 2nd cent. AD), itself taken from Indo-Iranian (cf. Old Persian tuxāri-, Khotanese ttahvāra, and Sanskrit tukhāra), and proposed the name "Tocharian" (German Tocharisch). Ptolemy's Tócharoi are often associated by modern scholars with the Yuezhi of Chinese historical accounts, who founded the Kushan empire.[2][3] These people are now known to have spoken Bactrian, an Eastern Iranian language, and Müller's identification is now a minority position among scholars. Nevertheless "Tocharian" remains the standard term for the language of the Tarim Basin manuscripts.[4][5]


Phonetically, Tocharian is a "centum" Indo-European language, meaning that it merges the palatovelar consonants (*ḱ, *ǵ, *ǵʰ) of Proto Indo-European with the plain velars (*k, *g, *gʰ). Centum languages are mostly found in western and southern Europe (Greek, Italic, Celtic, Germanic) and the number of isoglosses between Tocharian and several Western European languages is stunning, considering the geographical separation and total lack of cultural contact. In that sense, Tocharian (to some extent like the Greek and the Anatolian languages) seems to have been an isolate in the "satem" (i.e. palatovelar to sibilant) phonetic regions of Indo-European-speaking populations. The discovery of Tocharian contributed to doubts that Proto-Indo-European had originally split into western and eastern branches.[6][7]


  • /i/, /e/, /a/ (transcribed ā) /u/, /o/, /ɨ/ (transcribed ä), /ə/ (transcribed a)
  • Diphthongs (Tocharian B only): /əi/ (transcribed ai), /oi/ (transcribed oy), /əu/ (transcribed au), /au/ (transcribed āu)


  • Stops: /p/, /t/, /c/, /k/, /kʷ/ (transcribed kw)
  • Affricates: /ts/
  • Fricatives: /s/, /ɕ/ (transcribed ś), /ʂ/ (transcribed )
  • Approximants: /w/, /j/ (transcribed y)
  • Trills: /r/
  • Nasals: /m/, /n/ (transcribed word-finally), /ɲ/ (transcribed ñ)
  • Lateral approximants: /l/, /ʎ/ (transcribed ly)

Note that the above consonantal values are largely based on the writing of Sanskrit/Prakrit loanwords. A retroflex value for /ʂ/ is particularly suspect as it is derived from palatalized /s/; it was probably a low-frequency sibilant /ʃ/ (like German spelling sch), as opposed to the higher-frequency sibilant /ɕ/ (like Mandarin Pinyin spelling x).

  Writing system

  Wooden tablet with an inscription showing Tocharian B in its Brahmic form. Kucha, China, 5th-8th century (Tokyo National Museum)

Tocharian is documented in manuscript fragments, mostly from the 8th century (with a few earlier ones) that were written on palm leaves, wooden tablets and Chinese paper, preserved by the extremely dry climate of the Tarim Basin. Samples of the language have been discovered at sites in Kucha and Karasahr, including many mural inscriptions.

Tocharian A and B are not intercomprehensible. Properly speaking, based on the tentative interpretation of toxrï as related to Tocharoi, only Tocharian A may be referred to as Tocharian, while Tocharian B could be called Kuchean (its native name may have been kuśiññe), but since their grammars are usually treated together in scholarly works, the terms A and B have proven useful. A common Proto-Tocharian language must precede the attested languages by several centuries, probably dating to the 1st millennium BC. Given the small geographical range of and the lack of secular texts in Tocharian A, it might alternatively have been a liturgical language, the relationship between the two being similar to that between Classical Chinese and Mandarin. However, the lack of a secular corpus in Tocharian A is by no means definite, due to the fragmentary preservation of Tocharian texts in general.

Most of the script in Tocharian was a derivative of the Brahmi alphabetic syllabary (abugida) and is referred to as slanting Brahmi, However a smaller amount was written in the Manichaean script in which Manichaean texts were recorded.[8][9] It soon became apparent that a large proportion of the manuscripts were translations of known Buddhist works in Sanskrit and some of them were even bilingual, facilitating decipherment of the new language. Besides the Buddhist and Manichaean religious texts, there were also monastery correspondence and accounts, commercial documents, caravan permits, medical and magical texts, and one love poem.

In 1998, Chinese linguist Ji Xianlin published a translation and analysis of fragments of a Tocharian Maitreyasamiti-Nataka discovered in 1974 in Yanqi.[10][11][12]


Tocharian has completely re-worked the nominal declension system of Proto-Indo-European. The only cases inherited from the proto-language are nominative, genitive, and accusative; in Tocharian the old accusative is known as the oblique case. In addition to these three cases, however, each Tocharian language has six cases formed by the addition of an invariant suffix to the oblique case. For example, the Tocharian A word käṣṣi "teacher" is declined as follows:[13]

Case Suffix Singular Plural
Nominative käṣṣi käṣṣiñ
Genitive käṣṣiyāp käṣṣiśśi
Oblique käṣṣiṃ käṣṣis
Instrumental -yo käṣṣinyo käṣṣisyo
Perlative käṣṣinā käṣṣisā
Comitative -aśśäl käṣṣinaśśäl käṣṣisaśśäl
Allative -ac käṣṣinac käṣṣisac
Ablative -äṣ käṣṣinäṣ käṣṣisäṣ
Locative -aṃ käṣṣinaṃ käṣṣisaṃ

In contrast, the verb verbal conjugation system is quite conservative.[14]

  Cultural significance

  "Tocharian donors", 6th century CE fresco, Qizil, Tarim Basin. These frescoes are associated with annotations in Tocharian and Sanskrit made by their painters.

The existence of the Tocharian languages and alphabet was not even suspected until archaeological exploration of the Tarim basin by Aurel Stein in the early 20th century brought to light fragments of manuscripts in an unknown language.[15]

This language, now known as Tocharian, turned out to belong to a hitherto unknown branch of Indo-European. The discovery of Tocharian upset some theories about the relations of Indo-European languages and revitalized their study.

The Tocharian languages are a major geographic exception to the usual pattern of Centum branches, being the only one that spread directly east from the theoretical Indo-European starting point in the Pontic steppe. One theory, following the "wave" theory of Johannes Schmidt, suggests that the Satem isogloss represents a linguistic innovation within the heart of the Proto-Indo-European home range, which would thus see the distribution of the Centum languages as simply representing linguistic conservatism along the eastern and western peripheries of the Proto-Indo-European home range.

Tocharian probably died out after 840, when the Uyghurs were expelled from Mongolia by the Kyrgyz, retreating to the Tarim Basin. This theory is supported by the discovery of translations of Tocharian texts into Uyghur. During Uyghur rule, the peoples mixed with the Uyghurs to produce much of the modern population of what is now Xinjiang.

The Afanasevo culture is a strong candidate for being the earliest attested representative for speakers of the Tocharian languages.

  Comparison to other Indo-European languages

Tocharian vocabulary (sample)
English Tocharian A Tocharian B Ancient Greek Sanskrit Latin Gothic Old Irish Proto-Indo-European
one sas ṣe heĩs, hen sa(kṛ́t) semel simle samail PToch *sems ← *sḗm
two wu wi duo dvā́ duo twái *duoh₁
three tre trai treis tráyas trēs þreis trí *tréi̯es
four śtwar śtwer téssares catvā́ras, catúras quattuor fidwōr cethair *kʷetu̯óres
five päñ piś pénte páñca quīnque fimf cóic *pénkʷe
six ṣäk ṣkas héx ṣáṣ sex saihs *su̯éḱs
seven ṣpät ṣukt heptá saptá septem sibun secht *septḿ̥
eight okät okt oktṓ aṣṭáu, aṣṭá octō ahtau ocht *h₃eḱtéh₃(u)
nine ñu ñu ennéa náva novem niun noí *h₁néun̥
ten śäk śak déka dáśa decem taihun deich *déḱm̥t
hundred känt kante hekatón śatām centum hund cét *ḱm̥tóm
father pācar pācer patḗr pitā́ pater fadar athair *ph₂tḗr
mother mācar mācer mḗtēr mātā́ mater mōdar máthair *méh₂tēr
brother pracar procer phrā́tēr[* 1] bhrātar- frāter brōþar bráthair *bʰréh₂tēr
sister ṣar ṣer héor[* 1] svásar- soror swistar siur *swésōr
horse yuk yakwe híppos áśva- equus aiƕs ech *h₁éḱʷos
cow ko keu boũs gaúṣ bōs[* 2] (OE ) *gʷeh₃us ~ *gʷh₃eum̥
voice vak vek épos[* 1] vāk vōx (Du gewag)[* 1] foccul[* 1] *u̯ṓkʷs
name ñom ñem ónoma nāman- nōmen namō ainmm *h₃néh₃-m̥n
to milk mālkā mālkant amélgein mulgēre miluks bligid (MIr) *h₂melǵ-ei̯e
  1. ^ a b c d e Cognate, with shifted meaning
  2. ^ Borrowed cognate, not native.

  See also


  1. ^ Mallory, J.P.. "Bronze Age languages of the Tarim Basin". Expedition 52 (3): 44–53. 
  2. ^ J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair (2000). "Chapter 9 – Tocharian Trekkers". The Tarim Mummies. Thames & Hudson. pp. 270–297. ISBN 0-500-05101-1. 
  3. ^ Beckwith, Christopher (2009). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press. pp. 380–383. ISBN 978-0-691-15034-5. 
  4. ^ Tocharian Online: Series Introduction, Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum, University of Texas as Austin.
  5. ^ Mallory, J.P.; Adams, Douglas Q., eds. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London: Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 509. ISBN 978-1-884964-98-5. 
  6. ^ Renfrew, Colin Archaeology and language (1990), pg 107
  7. ^ Baldi, Philip The Foundations of Latin (1999), pg 39
  8. ^ Daniels (1996), p. 531
  9. ^ Campbell (2000), p. 1666
  10. ^ "Fragments of the Tocharian", Andrew Leonard, How the World Works,, January 29, 2008
  11. ^ "Review of 'Fragments of the Tocharian A Maitreyasamiti-Nataka of the Xinjiang Museum, China. In Collaboration with Werner Winter and Georges-Jean Pinault by Ji Xianlin'", J. C. Wright, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1999), pp. 367–370
  12. ^ "Fragments of the Tocharian a Maitreyasamiti-Nataka of the Zinjiang Museum, China", Ji Xianlin, Werner Winter, Georges-Jean Pinault, Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs
  13. ^ Beekes, Robert S.P. (1995). Comparative Indo-European linguistics: an Introduction. J. Benjamins. p. 92. ISBN 978-90-272-2151-3. 
  14. ^ Beekes (1995), p. 20.
  15. ^ Deuel, Leo. 1970. Testaments of Time, ch. XXI, pp. 425–455. Baltimore, Pelican Books. Orig. publ. Knopf, NY, 1965.


  • Gerd Carling 2009. Dictionary and Thesaurus of Tocharian A. Volume 1: a-j. (in collaboration with Georges-Jean Pinault and Werner Winter), Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009, XXXIX+204 pages.
  • Daniels, Peter (1996), The Worlds Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-507993-0 
  • Campbell, George (2000), Compendium of the Worlds Languages Second Edition: Volume II Ladkhi to Zuni, Routledge, ISBN 041520473 
  • "Tokharian Pratimoksa Fragment Sylvain Levi". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 1913, pp. 109–120.
  • Mallory, J.P. and Victor H. Mair. The Tarim Mummies. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. (ISBN 0-500-05101-1)
  • Malzahn, Melanie (Ed.). Instrumenta Tocharica. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 2007. (ISBN 978-3-8253-5299-8)
  • Pinault, Georges-Jean 2008. Chrestomathie tokharienne. Textes et grammaire, Leuven-Paris, Peeters (Collection linguistique publiée par la Société de Linguistique de Paris, t. XCV), 2008, 692 pages.
  • Schmalsteig, William R. "Tokharian and Baltic." Lituanus. v. 20, no. 3, 1974.
  • Krause, Wolfgang and Werner Thomas. Tocharisches Elemantarbuch. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1960.
  • Winter, Werner. 1998. "Tocharian." In Ramat Giacalone Anna and Paolo Ramat (eds). The Indo-European languages, 154-168. London: Routledge.

  External links



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