Victor Mair’s Log posts are always enjoyable, and The languages on Chinese banknotes is particularly meaty. A reader sent in a photograph of a one jiao banknote and asked him to explain the languages printed on it, those being Han (Chinese), Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Zhuang; of the last, he says “after Han, China’s largest minority, but one that few people outside of China have ever heard of (it is closely related to Thai).” There is detailed discussion of each language and how well it is represented by the text on the banknote; for Zhuang, the answer is not at all well: “This is what one scholar of the region has referred to as ‘the whole fake / improved ethnic language phenomenon. Whatever is written there may have only a limited relationship to the way Zhuang is spoken in real life. It’s the same with Yi.'”
There is a great deal of interesting material in the comments, including this one by Mair:

There is something that has been in the back of my mind since I began to write this post, but it has only now come to the surface. Namely, the whole idea of five main ethnic groups as constituting the most important parts of the Chinese empire goes back to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. Moreover, there is a distinctly linguistic representation of this manifestation of a multiethnic empire, viz., the polyglot dictionaries sponsored by the Manchu rulers. Of these polyglot dictionaries, the largest and I believe the best known was the pentaglot behemoth known (in Manchu) as the Han-i araha sunja hacin-i hergen kamciha Manju gisun-i buleku bithe. It also has titles in the four other languages that it contains (i.e., Tibetan, Mongol, Turki, and Chinese), but I don’t have time to type all of them out this morning before rushing off to a dissertation defense. You can find them, and other detailed information about this huge pentaglot, in item #126 of Bibliographies of Mongolian, Manchu-Tungus, and Tibetan Dictionaries, compiled by Larry V. Clark, John R. Krueger, Manfred Taube, Hartmut Walravens, and edited by Hartmut Walravens (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), pp. 198-199. It is available online in Google Books… Now, isn’t that interesting?! These are the same exact groups as are found on the PRC banknote discussed in this post, with one exception: the Zhuang have replaced the Manchus.

Sometimes I wish I’d followed my old friend Susan into Sinology—there’s so much to learn and think about you’d never get bored even if you had several lifetimes.


  1. My Chinese friends are always convinced the fifth script is Manchu! The saying 五族共和 refers to Han, Tibetan, Uighur, Mongol and Manchu, as far as I know.

  2. Mongolian text on 1 yuan banknote says “neg tugrug”
    Tugrug or tugrig is a national currency of Mongolia.
    I assume it creates much confusion on the Sino-Mongolian border since the exchange rate between Mongolian tugrik and Chinese “tugrik” is 250:1.

  3. I actually have the Five-Language Manchu Dictionary (it’s not that rare). It’s quite fascinating to look through. As the Bibliography suggests, there is a Manchu transcription given for Tibetan words as there is for Turkic (presumably Uighur?) words. But in fact, Tibetan has not one but two Manchu transcriptions. One is separated; the other is run together. I’m not sure of the reason for this. Perhaps it reflects some kind of Tibetan word division.
    SF notes the use of tugrik for the yuan. My Inner Mongolian textbooks all use the term ‘tugrik’ where the Chinese says ‘yuan’. It somewhat resembles the international use of the term ‘dollar’ for different currencies or the Chinese use of ‘yuan’ for many different currencies round the world. I’m not sure how common the use of ‘tugrik’ for ‘yuan’ is in the Inner Mongolian spoken language and I’ll ask the next time I get a chance. The Mongolians of Mongolia definitely use ‘yuan’.

  4. John Emerson says

    When I was in Taiwan (1983) my students didn’t know what the fifth language was either. They knew it was pronounced “man” but that could be either Manchu “man” or Southern Barbarian “man”. They didn’t care much either.
    Before 1900 it would have been Manchu. Those are the five languages on one of the famous Mongol-era inscriptions.

  5. David Marjanović says

    My Chinese friends are always convinced the fifth script is Manchu!

    Still? Interesting. 🙂

    Tugrug or tugrig is a national currency of Mongolia.


    Manchu “man” or Southern Barbarian “man”

    Wow, now I wonder why this is why a southern language was chosen to replace Manchu…

    the five languages on one of the famous Mongol-era inscriptions

    Really? Manchu wasn’t famous or important back then. The Mongols did something different: Kublai Khan had a new script designed for all major languages of his empire, apparently including Persian (for which it was never used)… oh, near the bottom of this page there’s a sample of it being used for Sanskrit.

  6. Five races under one union (1911), viz: the Han (red), the Manchu (yellow), the Mongols (blue), the “Hui” (white, basically the Uyghur and other western Muslims at the time), and the Tibetans (black).

  7. David Marjanović says

    The “how dare you speak my language” thread is closed, the “Mordicus” one is closed, and this one is full of Japanese spam…
    From that first one:

    Are you suggesting the “call yourself” bilingual phenomenon is more widespread in America than elsewhere?

    Uh, that word simply has a different meaning in the US than elsewhere: in the US, it seems to mean “speaks two languages reasonably well”. If you call a person zweisprachig in German, that means they have two native languages.
    On German in isolated communities losing case-marking, that may well be, but it’s easily exaggerated if you mistakenly assume Standard German was the starting point. The genitive has been dead for centuries in most dialects; the dative and the accusative merged in all Low German dialects as far as I have any idea, in much of Switzerland, and in the plural in the Bavarian-Austrian dialects (including mine, so that instead of genetive plural der we say von die).
    From what I imported to the “mordicus” thread… nope, Proto-Caucasian was not reconstructed to resemble PIE as much as possible. I’m sure about that, because nobody – including the people who did the reconstruction – considers Caucasian a member of Nostratic, or for that matter a close relative of Nostratic. Perhaps the “wheel” word was coined in PIE (where it has, after all, an internal etymology – reduplication of *kʷel- “to turn”) and then quickly loaned to Caucasian before it was spread over Asia; perhaps it’s cognate between Caucasian and Sino-Tibetan (though that would at minimum require metathesis) and then loaned to PIE, where it got a folk etymology that ended up modifying it; perhaps it’s a Wanderwort that took a more complicated path with several intermediate steps, after originating who knows where (obviously PIE remains a good candidate for that). My point was just that “borrowed by Proto-Sino-Tibetan from Indo-European” isn’t the only plausible explanation.
    Even Proto-Altaic wasn’t reconstructed – with an overlap in authors! – to look as Nostratic as possible. I’m too tired to explain why that’s obvious now. 🙂

  8. David Marjanović says

    the dative and the accusative [have] merged […] in the plural in the Bavarian-Austrian dialects

    Uh, only for nouns, not for pronouns. The merger does extend to pronouns in Low German and surroundings.
    The following joke about Berlin isn’t realistic anymore, but…
    Girlfriend: Küsse mir, Kasimir! (Kiss me.DAT!)
    Boyfriend: ‘Mich’! (Me.ACC!)
    Girlfriend: Also gut, küsse mir, Kasimich! (OK then…)
    Vietnamese and Latin fragments in Japanese spam. Quite impressive.

  9. From the closed “Mordicus” thread:
    RC: Concerning words for “wheel,” what after all could be proved in the first place using a word for a relatively late invention which is obviously imitative of the sound of a wooden wheel turning?
    I can’t tell if the appeal to onomatopeia here is serious (although imaginative) or not. As has been mentioned earlier here and in some previous threads, PIE *kukwel is a reduplicated form of the root *kwel, which is much, much older than the invention of the wheel.
    Roots *kwEl and *qwEl (the latter in languages which have uvulars) are extremely widespread, not just in PIE but in many other language families in Eurasia, North America and Austronesia (and perhaps elsewhere as well), with meanings having to do with bending and curving, culminating in rotation as continuous bending motion. Nominal derivatives of these roots most often apply to body parts capable of at least partial rotation (neck, wrist, ankle) as well as to curved objects (bow, rainbow, banana)) and round ones (head, ball). The moon also often belongs there as its shape is perceived by the eye as progressing from a very thin curve to a full circle and back. It is no wonder then that the wheel, an object designed to rotate continuously over a period of time, should be named at least in some of the relevant languages by a derivative of the root *kwel (reduplication usually indicates repetition and/or continuity).
    Semantically, all those nominal derivatives are linked by shape and motion, not by sound. If any sound is involved, it is accidental and irrelevant.

  10. nope, Proto-Caucasian was not reconstructed to resemble PIE as much as possible.
    I believe you! And I wasn’t seriously proposing that it was, just mentioning my grumpy automatic reaction.

  11. @marie-lucie: Thank you for coreecting me on the matter of onomatopoeia. But as your exposition indicates, there’s a phonaesthetic dimension here that muddies any straightforward historical comparison.

  12. John Emerson says

    I said “Manchu” when I meant “Jurchen”, but Jurchen is very closely related to Manchu. HOWEVER, now I wonder whether I’m right about Jurchen, and my reference isn’t accessible at the moment.
    This thread has roused great interest!

  13. slawkenbergius says

    I know I’m way, way late to this party, so I doubt anyone will read this, but John–if Jurchen was the script on the inscription, there’s no way it could have been confused with Manchu. Manchu script became based on Mongolian at the end of the sixteenth century, whereas Jurchen looked a lot like Chinese.

  14. Don’t worry, with the Recent Comments function it’s easy to see when old posts have come back to life.

Speak Your Mind