Tungusic Research Group at Dartmouth College


Section 1

Section 2

Section 3

About the languages

Introduction to the Study of Tungusic Languages
The term "Tungusic" refers to a group of twelve or so closely related languages spoken in Russia, China and Mongolia. These languages are relatively little studied, and for that reason they remain peripheral to western linguistics, and almost unheard of to the lay person. The obscurity of Tungusic languages is largely an accident of the location of their speakers and their social patterns. Most Tungusic languages were spoken by nomadic peoples who inhabited regions of the world which were poorly suited for the development of settlements in pre-industrial times; the harsh climate of Siberia and northeastern China and the remoteness of these areas from established cities served to protect their nomadism from external pressure. This same nomadism required relatively small clans, which were organized in terms of familial relations more than any sort of ethnic or political identity. The blend of such characteristics ensured that there was little internal pressure for Tungusic clans to grow, expand, settle, or conquer.

The one exception within this general Tungusic pattern is the case of the Manchus. The tribes which were ultimately united to form a unique Manchu ethnic identity were agrarian as much as they were nomadic. As farmers, they lived in locales more readily accessible to other ethnicities and, more importantly, to political empires such as the Russian Tatars who penetrated into Manchu regions in the 16th century, the Mongolian Jungarian Khanate (17th and 18th century), Korean dynasties, and most significantly, the Mongolian Yuan Empire which eventually ruled the whole of China (1279-1368). The exposure and subjection to such political entities left the Manchus far more expansionist oriented and technologically advanced than their Tungusic kin. As the Chinese Ming empire went into decline (1368-1644), Manchu tribes were brought together under the charismatic leadership of Nurhachi, conquered or subjugated Mongolia, south eastern Siberia, most of China, Tibet, and Korea, and established the great Qing empire (1644-1911). During the reign of Qing emperors, a writing system was developed for Manchu, and a huge literature was amassed.

The global significance of the Manchus has brought them into the public and scholarly eye in a way unique among Tungusic peoples. The fact that samples of the writing extend back for many centuries has made research on the Manchus attractive, not to mention possible, for scholars around the world.

As for the remainder of Tungusic groups, they enter history only in the scattered references found in the documents of the empires which surrounded them. For those groups in China, these come primarily in the form of Manchu records. In Russia, we find references to various Tungusic groups in the journals of explorers back into the sixteenth century, but useful linguistic information only began to surface in the middle the nineteenth century. Tsarist efforts to colonize Siberia put a greater number of Russian soldiers, traders, and settlers into Tungusic areas. Ethnographers were not far behind.

While our ignorance about Tungusic languages is understandable in historical perspective, it is regrettable for a number of reasons. First, the Tungusic languages contain a number of features which are not well understood by the linguistic community including converbs, rich aspectual and case systems, doubly marked possession, a larger than usual number of reflexive anaphors, and weak word class distinctions, to name a few. They also approach the ideal as examples of other better known phenomena such as head final syntax and ATR vowel harmony. The linguistic properties of Tungusic languages are introduced in more detail in Section 2.

Another key characteristic of the Tungusic language family worthy of in-depth study is that it resists typical methods of genetic classification, both internal and external to the family. Externally, Tungusic is often claimed to part of a larger Altaic family (which includes at least Turkic and Mongolian, and perhaps also Japanese and/or Korean). Clearly, there are many structural similarities among all Altaic languages, but an actual genetic relationship has yet to be proven using standard comparative techniques. Although some scholars suggest that the difficulties in providing evidence for Altaic are due to a lack of information and a deep enough historical record of the languages involved, others find a much more profound problem: the similarities may be due to contact between the languages rather than genetic affiliation, and the contact is so complex that it can never be unraveled to reveal the true relationships. Regardless of the stance one takes on this issue, it is undeniable that the Tungusic data which has been employed in research on Altaic has been incomplete, and worse, at times unreliable.

A similar problem holds for the internal classification of Tungusic. While many different attempts have been made to identify the degrees of genetic distance among Tungusic languages, there is no consensus to be had. Again, this may stem from a lack of information, or it may simply be the case that researchers have not had enough time to put together a convincing case for any of the proposed schemes. However, others believe the obstacles to classification are much greater, stemming from the nature of interaction that particular Tungusic groups have had with their neighbors.

A third provocative issue surrounding Tungusic is found in their more recent history. Over the last century, Tungusic cultures have undergone an astounding degree of change. The transformations have primarily been effected by external forces towards assimilation and control of Tungusic populations. As a consequence, the Tungusic languages will nearly all disappear in the next fifty years, there being only real opportunities for Sibe and Solon (in China), and Evenki (in Russia) to survive beyond this. Even for these languages, continued use much beyond this is unlikely under current circumstances.

The causes of language endangerment are beginning to be understood more fully. The Tungusic case, however, is unusual in that the languages involved fall under three extremely different spheres of political influence (Mongolia, Russian, China). They therefore offer a highly instructive comparative view of government policy on language use.

Furthermore, very little, if any, research has been carried out on the effects of language moribundity on the structure of languages which fit the typological profile of Tungusic languages. Such information, both in its own right and in its comparison with research carried on typologically distinct languages elsewhere in the world, would be illuminating in what it reveals about the human capacity for language.

Finally, quite apart from what the study of the Tungusic languages and cultures has to offer the scholarly community, there is a real sense in which people of Tungusic ethnicity are in great need of assistance in gathering information about their history, language, and culture. Such information was preserved for centuries through culture internal mechanisms: it was contained in their oral traditions, their clan names, their songs, their artifacts, and so on. However, these cultural archives cannot be maintained in reliable form by Tungusic people themselves as they attempt to adapt to new lifestyles which have been placed upon them so rapidly. The option that remains then is for outsiders with the resources, training, and motivation to extend some assistance on their behalf.

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Last updated 20 Nov 1998