Khitan language

Native to China, Mongolia
Region northern
Extinct c. 1243 (Yelü Chucai, last person known who could speak and write Khitan)
Khitan large script and Khitan small script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 zkt
Linguist list
Glottolog kita1247[2]

Khitan or Kitan ( in large script or in small, Khitai;[3] Chinese: t 契丹, Qìdānyǔ), also known as Liao, is a now-extinct language once spoken by the Khitan people (4th to 13th century). It was the official language of the Liao dynasty (907–1125) and the Qara Khitai (1124–1218).

Khitan appears to have been related to the Mongolic languages;[4] Juha Janhunen states, "[T]he conception is gaining support that Khitan was a language in some respects radically different from the historically known Mongolic languages. If this view proves to be correct, Khitan is, indeed, best classified as a Para-Mongolic language."[1]

Khitan was written using two mutually exclusive writing systems known as the Khitan large script and the Khitan small script.[1] The small script, which was a syllabary, was used until the Jurchen-speaking Jin dynasty (1115–1234) replaced it in 1191.[5] The large script was logographic like Chinese and may have been used by Para-Mongolic groups as far back as the Tuoba.


The History of Liao contains a volume of Khitan words transcribed in Chinese characters titled "Glossary of National Language" (國語解). It is found in Chapter 116.[6][7][8][9]

The Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty erroneously identified the Khitan people and their language with the Solons, leading him to use the Solon language to "correct" Chinese character transcriptions of Khitan names in the History of Liao in his Imperial Liao-Jin-Yuan Three Histories National Language Explanation (欽定遼金元三史國語解) project.

The Liao dynasty referred to the Khitan language with the term Guoyu 國語 "National language", which was also used by other non-Han Chinese dynasties in China to refer to their languages like Manchu of the Qing, Classical Mongolian during the Yuan dynasty, Jurchen during the Jin, and Xianbei during the Northern Wei.


There are several closed systems of Khitan lexical items for which systematic information is available.[10] The following is a list of words in these closed systems that are similar to Mongolic. Mongolian equivalents are given after the English translation:


KhitanTranslationMongolian scriptmodern Mongolian pronunciation
heu.ur spring qabur havar
ju.un summer jun zun autumn namur namar
u.ul winter ebül övöl


KhitanTranslationMongolian script modern Mongolian pronunciation
*omconeonca 'unique' onts (unique)
j.ur.ersecondjirin 'two' jirin (two), jiremsen (double/pregnant)
hu.ur.erthirdgurba 'three'gurav, gurvan, guramsan (triple)
durer/durenfourthdörbendöröv, dörvön
taufivetabun tav, tavan dahi
*nilsixjirguganzurgaa (innovation "jir'gur" or 2x3)
da.lo.erseventhdologa 'seven' doloo
nyo.ieightnayim 'eight' naim
*is, onyonineyesü yüs, yüsön
jau hundredjagun zuu, zuun
mingthousandmingganmyanga, myangan

Compared with Khitan, The Tungusic numerals of the Jurchen language differ significantly: three=ilan, five=shunja, seven=nadan, nine=uyun, hundred=tangu.


KhitanTranslationMongolian script modern Mongolian pronunciation
te.qo.achickentaqiya tahia
em.a goatimaga yamaa tuulai


KhitanTranslationMongolian scriptmodern Mongolian pronunciation
ud.ureastdoruna dornoünzüün
bo.ra.ianrightbaragun baruun
ja.cen.iborderjaqazasan, zaag


KhitanTranslationMongolian scriptmodern Mongolian pronunciation

Personal relations

KhitanTranslationMongolian scriptmodern Mongolian pronunciation
mo kufemaleemeem
deuyounger brotherdegüdüü
g.en.unsadness, regretgenü='to regret' in the letter of Arghun Khan)genen, gem
kupersonkümünhün, hümün

Tribal administration

KhitanTranslationMongolian script
cau.urwarcagur, as in "tsa'urgalan dairakh"
nai/nai.dheads, officials"-d" is a plural suffix=noyan, noyad for plural
t.em-to bestow a titletemdeg 'sign'
k.emdecreekem kemjiye 'law/norm'
qudugblessedqutug, section, provincekeseg
ming.anmilitary unit of thousandminggan

Basic verbs

KhitanTranslationMongolian script
sa-to residesagu-
a-bea- 'live', as in "aj ahui"

Natural objects

KhitanTranslationMongolian scriptmodern Mongolian pronunciation

The Liaoshi records in Chapter 53:

In the national (Khitan) language this day (5th day of the 5th lunar month) is called 'Tao Saiyier'. 'Tao' means five; 'Saiyier' means moon/month.

'Tao Saiyier' corresponds to Mongolian 'tavan sar' (fifth moon/month). The Turkic equivalent would be 'beshinchi ay' while the Manchu (Tungusic) equivalent would be 'sunja biya'.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Janhunen 2006, p. 393.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Kitan". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. "Khitan" at Omniglot.
  4. Herbert Franke, John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett, Roderick MacFarquhar, Denis Twitchett, Albert Feuerwerker. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 3: Sui and T'ang China, 589–906. Part 1, p.364
  5. Janhunen 2006, p. 395.
  6. 遼史/卷116 卷116.
  7. pp. 123-125 Howorth, H. H.. 1881. “The Northern Frontagers of China. Part V. The Khitai or Khitans”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 13 (2). Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland: 121–82.
  8. Wilkinson, Endymion Porter (2000). Chinese History: A Manual. Volume 52 of Harvard Yenching Institute Cambridge, Mass: Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series (illustrated, revised ed.). Harvard Univ Asia Center. p. 864. ISBN 0674002490. ISSN 0073-084X. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
  9. Heming Yong; Jing Peng (14 August 2008). Chinese Lexicography : A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911: A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911. OUP Oxford. pp. 382–. ISBN 978-0-19-156167-2.
  10. Kane, Daniel The Kitan language and script 2009, Leiden, The Netherlands


Juha Janhunen (2006). The Mongolic Languages. Routledge. p. 393. ISBN 978-1-135-79690-7. 

Further reading

Look up Category:Khitan language in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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