Tocharian C.

Douglas Q. Adams reports at the Log on an exciting development (to those of us who are excited by Indo-European linguistics), the [mistaken (see update below)] confirmation of a third Tocharian language:

For over a hundred years now linguists have known of a small Indo-European family comprised of two closely related languages, Tocharian A and Tocharian B, in the Tarim Basin of eastern Central Asia (Chinese Xinjiang). Tocharian B speakers occupied the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, north of the Tarim River, from its origin at the confluence of the Kashgar and Yarkand rivers eastward to about the halfway point to the Tarim’s disappearance into Lop Nor. Politically Tocharian B speakers were certainly the major constituent of the population of the kingdom of Kucha and natively they called the language (in its English form) Kuchean. To the east-north-east, in the Karashahr Basin, were speakers of Tocharian A, centered around Yanqi (Uighur Karashahr, Sanskrit Agni). On the basis of the Sanskrit name this language is sometimes referred to as Agnean, though we do not have any direct or conclusive evidence as to what the speakers themselves called it. To the east-south-east of Kuqa, along the lower Tarim was the historic kingdom of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan < Han Chinese *glu-glân). The administrative language of Loulan was Gandhari Prakrit, obviously imported into the Tarim Basin along with Buddhism from northwestern India. In documents of the Loulan variety of Gandhari Prakrit are non-Gandhari words that have been attributed to the native language of the area. Some of those non-Gandhari words look like Tocharian (e.g., kilme ‘region’ beside TchB kälymiye ‘direction’) and it has seemed a reasonable hypothesis that the native language of Kroraina/Loulan was another Tocharian language, “Tocharian C.” (That the native language of Loulan was Tocharian was first suggested by Thomas Burrow in his The Language of the Kharoṣṭhī Documents from Chinese Turkestan, 1937.) This is a reasonable hypothesis, for which the evidence is admittedly meager, and many have been (reasonably) dubious or unconvinced.

However, in December 2018 Hempen Verlag of Bremen published Klaus T. Schmidt, Nachgelassene Schriften, edited by Stefan Zimmer. One of the two Nachlass documents was an examination of some ten heretofore ignored texts written in the Kharoṣṭhī alphabet, clearly associated with Loulan, in an obviously Tocharian language that is neither Tocharian A nor Tocharian B. […] This new data firmly establishes the existence of a Tocharian language in the Lop Nor Basin. A rather similar hypothesis, that there was a Tocharian-speaking population in the Gansu Corridor, known to the Chinese as the Yuezhi, is hardly proved by this new data, but it is rendered a bit more plausible in that now we can imagine an unbroken chain of Tocharian languages from the upper Tarim into the Gansu Corridor. The Yuezhi of course, driven from their home by the Xiongnu in the second century BC, migrated to western Central Asia where, ultimately, they were known to the classical world as the Tókharoi. The latter’s name was extended by early investigators (particularly Friedrich W. K .Müller in 1907) to the newly discovered languages of the Tarim Basin (A and B) under the mistaken idea that these peoples represented an eastward reflux of the Tókharoi. This reasoning was clearly wrong, but, if the Yuezhi should happen to have spoken a variety of Tocharian, the name may actually have some historical justification. The classical Tókharoi are now known to have spoken an Iranian language, but it’s quite possible that the incoming Yuezhi (whatever their original language) came to speak the language of the earlier inhabitants of their new home. (Compare the French who today speak a Romance language but whose [partial] ancestors, the Franks, were speakers of Germanic, or the Bulgarians who speak a Slavic language but whose [partial] ancestors, the Bulgars, spoke a variety of Turkic.) Further information and discussion, focusing on the linguistic data and issues, will appear in my review of the book to be published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies.

(Tocharian previously at LH.)

Update (Sept. 2019). Turns out it’s all bullshit: “not one word is transcribed correctly. […] Schmidt’s ‘Tocharian C,’ as it stands, has been removed from the plane of real languages and moved to some linguistic parallel universe.”

First, Schmidt may have subconsciously read into his texts what he wanted to be there. There have certainly been such things happening (the well-known first “transcription” of the Voynich Manuscript by William Romaine Newbold* is such a case). Secondly, and less generously, it may have been an outright fabrication, an attempt at deception. But, what would have been the purpose? Thirdly, and more generously, it might have been a kind of “Tocharian Sindarin”—a created language such as Tolkien played so artistically with, given a certain literary verisimilitude by the reference to old manuscripts where it might be found. If so, it was not meant to deceive, but his family, not having been told of its true nature, passed it on to Zimmer as real. And Zimmer, not being a reader of the Kharoṣṭhī script (precious few Tocharianists are), naturally enough took Schmidt’s transcriptions at face value.



  1. Savalonôs says:

    Perhaps these new Tocharian C findings could shed some light on the Tocharian palatalization/outcome of *d issues that I mentioned here:

  2. David Marjanović says:

    I certainly hope so!

  3. That the native language of Loulan was Tocharian was first suggested by Thomas Burrow in … 1937

    Now there’s a hypothesis long in the making.

    Of course hindsight is 20/20, so I wonder if there were also people suggesting other analyses around the time… several things like Iranian, Mongolic/Khitan or Sinitic/Tangut would be geographically natural enough contenders also.

  4. Bumping this to alert interested readers that the alleged language does not exist. See Update.

Speak Your Mind