|Spoken in:||Tarim Basin in Central Asia|
|Language extinction:||Eighth century|
|Language family:|| Indo-European|
|Writing system:||Tocharian script|
xto — Tocharian A
txb — Tocharian B
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-
based pronunciation key.
Tocharian or Tokharian is one of the most obscure branches of the group of Indo-European languages. It consisted of two languages, Tocharian A (Turfanian, Arsi, or East Tocharian) and Tocharian B (Kuchean or West Tocharian). These languages were spoken roughly from the sixth to eighth centuries; before they became extinct, their speakers were absorbed into the expanding Uyghur tribes.
Both languages were once spoken in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia, now the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. The name of the language is taken from the Tocharians (Greek: Τόχαροι, "Tokharoi") of the Greek historians (Ptolemy VI, 11, 6). These are sometimes identified with the Yuezhi and the Kushans, and the term Tokharistan usually refers to 1st millennium Bactria. A Turkic text refers to the Turfanian language (Tocharian A) as twqry. Interpretation is difficult, but F. W. K. Müller has associated this with the name of the Bactrian Tokharoi. In Tocharian, the language is referred to as arish-käna and the Tocharians as arya.
Phonetically, Tocharian is a "centum" Indo-European language, characterized by the merging of palato-velar consonants with plain velars (*k, *g, *gh), which is generally associated with Indo-European languages of the West European area (Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek). In that sense, Tocharian seems to have been an isolate in the "Satem" phonetic world of Indo-European-speaking East European and Asian populations.
- /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 <ku>)
- Affricates: /ts/
- Fricatives: /s/, /ɕ/ (transcribed <ś>), /ʂ/ (transcribed <ṣ>)
- Approximants: /w/, /j/ (transcribed [y])
- Trills: /r/
- Nasals: /m/, /n/ (transcribed <ṃ> 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>).
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 twqry as related to Tokharoi, 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. The common Proto-Tocharian language must precede the attested languages by several centuries, probably dating to the 1st millennium BC.
The alphabet the Tocharians were using is derived from the North Indian Brahmi alphabetic syllabary (abugida) and is referred to as slanting Brahmi. 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, and medical and magical texts, and one love poem. Many Tocharians embraced Manichaean duality or Buddhism.
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:
The existence of the Tocharian languages and alphabet was not even guessed at, until chance discoveries in the early 20th century brought to light fragments of manuscripts in a then-unknown alphabetic syllabary (abugida) that turned out to belong to a hitherto unknown branch of the Indo-European family of languages, which has been named 'Tocharian'.
Tocharian has upset some theories about the relations of Indo-European languages and is revitalizing linguistic studies. The Tocharian languages are a major geographic exception to the usual pattern of Indo-European branches, being the only one that spread directly east from the theoretical Indo-European starting point in the Pontic steppe.
Tocharian probably died out after 840, when the Uyghurs were expelled from Mongolia by the Kirghiz, 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.
|Tocharian vocabulary (sample)|
|Modern English||Tocharian A||Tocharian B||Irish||Latin||Ancient Greek||Sanskrit||*Proto-Indo-European|
e||aon||ūnus||heis||éka||*hoinos or *sems
ar||ṣ er||siúr||soror||éor¹||svasṛ -||*swesor
¹ = Cognate, with shifted meaning ² = Borrowed cognate, not native. ³ = English meaning, unrelated word
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- Krause, Wolfgang and Werner Thomas. Tocharisches Elemantarbuch. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1960.