The Tungusic Research Group at Dartmouth College


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About the languages

The Names and Locations of Tungusic Languages
There is no standard list of Tungusic languages; one finds great variability in the number of languages and the names given to them in various classifications. The following list is adopted here for convenience (asterisks indicate an extinct language): Even, *Arman, Evenki, Solon, Negidal, Oroqen, Nanai, Kile, Orok, Oroch, Ulcha, Udige, Manchu, *Jurchen and Sibe. [See the map of Northern Asia for the relative position of these languages].

The inclusion of four of these languages is controversial since many scholars believe they are too similar to other Tungusic varieties to be given an independent listing. 1) Arman is usually taken to be a dialect of Even; 2) Kile is usually taken to be a dialect of Nanai; 3) Sibe is considered a dialect of Manchu by some non-Chinese linguists; and 4) Oroqen is usually considered a dialect of Evenki by non-Chinese linguists. Since Arman is now extinct, its controversial status is unlikely to change; However, a good case can be made for the remaining three that they are sufficiently distinct to require independent labels.

A brief comment should be made here on the terms "language" and "dialect". There is no universal standard for how such terms are applied. Hence, Portuguese and Spanish are called languages, and nearly everyone would consider them to be so, yet Portuguese speakers can usually understand Spanish fairly well (the opposite is less true). Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are frequently called dialects of Chinese even though speakers have nearly no understanding of one another. Closely related Tungusic languages are probably closer on the scale to the Portugese~Spanish situation than the Mandarin~Cantonese situation. In Tungusic studies, the terminology problem is particularly pronounced. One of the pioneers on Tungusic research, V. I. Cincius, for instance, considered Evenki, Solon, Negidal, and Oroqen to be dialects (along with a fifth "North Evenki dialect"), and she considered Nanai, Orok, Ulcha, and Kile to be dialects of one language. Nevertheless, her use of "dialect" was probably meant in the same way that we will use the term "language", as suggestive of the point where mutual intelligibility breaks down between Tungusic varieties. Her notion of "subdialect" would then be equivalent to our use of "dialect" and so on.

Over the last century, these languages have been referred to by a number of terms. Ethnonyms used by neighboring groups were sometimes applied originally only later to be replaced by the title used by the group itself. Often, a particular dialect is used to name a cluster of dialects.

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Last updated 20 Nov 1998