Tungusic languages

Siberia, Northeast China
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 northeast China 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 contentious Altaic language family, along with Turkic, Mongolic, and sometimes Koreanic and Japonic. However, there is no consensus whether Altaic is a linguistically genetic group or a sprachbund.

The term "Tungusic" is from an exonym for the Evenks people used by the Yakuts ("tongus") and the Siberian Tatars in the 17th century meaning "pig".(from Proto-Turkic *doŋuŕ) 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):

Northern Tungusic
Southern Tungusic



Some linguists estimate the divergence of the Tungusic languages from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Manchuria around 500 BCE to 500 CE.(Janhunen 2012, Pevnov 2012)[3] Other theories favor a homeland closer to lake Baikal.(Menges 1968, Khelimskii 1985)[4] 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.[3]

Some sources describe Donghu people of 7th century BCE to 2nd century BCE Manchuria as Proto-Tungusic.[5] Other sources sharply criticize this as a random similarity in pronunciation that has no real basis in fact.[6]

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.

Jurchen-Manchu language

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).[7] 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.[8] 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 Mongoloian 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 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 Tungustic languages

Other Tungustic 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

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.[9] The book includes some words and sentences from the Evenks languge, (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

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.[10]


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.[10]

Vowel length is phonemic for these languages, with many words distinguished based on a short vowel versus long vowel distinction.[10]

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.[10]

Relationships with other languages

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.

See also



  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Tungusic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Lindsay J. Whaley, Lenore A. Grenoble and Fengxiang Li (Jun 1999). "Revisiting Tungusic Classification from the Bottom up: A Comparison of Evenki and Oroqen". Language. Retrieved 26 Nov 2016.
  3. 1 2 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.
  4. Immanuel Ness (29 Aug 2014). The Global Prehistory of Human Migration. p. 200.
  5. Barbara A. West (19 May 2010). "Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania". p. 891. Retrieved 26 Nov 2016.
  6. 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.
  7. Lindsay J. Whaley (18 Jun 2007). "Manchu-Tungus languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 25 Nov 2016.
  8. 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.
  9. Nicolaas Witsen (1785). "Noord en oost Tartaryen".
  10. 1 2 3 4 The Tungusic Research Group at Dartmouth College. "Basic Typological Features of Tungusic Languages". Retrieved 25 Nov 2016.

General references

Further reading

External links

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