Tannu Tuva.

When I was a kid and collected stamps, I remember being struck by the exotic name “Tannu Tuva” as well as the exotic stamps produced under that name (as that article says, “these exotic stamps were popular with young collectors during the middle of the twentieth century”). I’ve been going through some old files and I found a sheet headed “From Alt.culture.tuva FAQ Version 1.41” addressing the question of how that “Tannu” got there, which I apparently printed out in 1999; I was afraid I’d have to copy it out to post it, but it turns out a slightly more recent (2001) version of the FAQ is online here, so I can just copy and paste:

12: How did the “Tannu” get into “Tannu Tuva”?
A: Several Mongolians and the band Ozum were asked about the word “Tannu”; they did not know the word or its source. Mongolians and Tuvans both answered “it may not be Tannu, it must be Tangdy”. They opined that it must be a Tuvan term; it is certainly not Mongolian. Their guess is that Tangdy is the word printed on some maps as “Tannu-Ola” (in Tuvan dictionaries this appears as “Tangdy cyny” or “Tangdy-Uula”). As you may know, tangdy (ta”ng”dy) means “high mountain” or “taiga surrounded by high mountain” in Tuvan.

Here is some supporting information, mainly from a book by S. A. Shoizhelov (Matson), Tuvinskaya Noonday Republican [copying error for “Narodnaya Respublika”], Moscow 1930. (Written in Oct. 1929).

Tuva was indeed called “Tang-nu Wulianghai”. The Czarist Russians called Tuva “Uryanhai”. P. 29-30 of the above mentioned book talks about a “Russo-Uryanhai regional meeting”, in which, of course, a resolution was passed. This meeting was after, and supposedly in response to, the February Revolution of 1917. The meeting was held in Byelotsarsk, and was convened by the Immigrants’ Administration (Pereselencheskogo Upravleniya). Kyzyl was called Byelotsarsk (“White Tsar Town”) from 1914 until 1918, then was known as Khem-Beldyr until 1926, and has been called Kyzyl since then.

Article One of this resolution refers to “Tannu-Uryanh[a]i”, obviously a corruption or Russianization of “Tang-nu Wulianghai”.

Once the Russians decided to call the Tuvans “Tuvans” and not “Uryanhais”, then it was a natural step for them to quit calling the place “Tannu-Uryanhai” and call it “Tannu-Tuva” instead.

In his discussion of the first meeting of the Party in Tuva, Natsov refers to the “Tannu-Tuva”, but then afterwards it is always simply “Tuva”. At the founding of the nominally independent state, it was called the Tannu-Tuvan People’s Republic, but that soon afterward, in just a few years, the “Tannu” was dropped.

As we all know, the first Tuvan postage stamps, issued in 1926, have “Ta Ty” for Tangdy Tyva on them. The next issue, from 1927, has just “Tyva”.

Baylan Cannol, a systems engineer from Teeli, Tuva, confirms that yes, “Tannu” is a corrupted form of “Tangdy”. During the era of the Tannu-Tyva Arat Republic (TAR) there was a division of Tuvan people into several parts, depending on where the Tuvan lived. The distinct divisions included the “Tangdy Tyvazy” (those living in Tuva) and the “Kalga Tyvazy” (Tuvans living in Mongolia). In those times, Tuvans living in different areas had more relations with each other as one people. Since the union of Tannu Tuva with Russia, Tannu Tuva has almost forgotten the Kalga Tyvazy and other groups.

Baylan also confirms that ‘Tangdy Tyva’ doesn’t correspond with ‘Tangdy Uula’, and ‘Tangdy Uula’ is just a mountain in the south. The word “tangdy” means the same as the word “taiga” (subarctic coniferous forests, which are mainly in Tannu Tuva, not in Mongolia, China etc.).

Of course, I have no way of knowing if that’s all true, and any updates, addenda, or random comments are, as always, welcome.


  1. I remember being struck by the exotic name “Tannu Tuva”

    You and Richard Feynman.

  2. The Mongolian name for the mountain is Tagna uul, an apparent borrowing from Tuvan.

    Word for taiga in Mongolian is… taiga!

    Yes, taiga is a Russian borrowing from Mongolian which spread to other European languages.

  3. There may be more names to mention, Tanu-Tuva was also in the documents. And the capital was also Krasnyj Gorodok, Krasnyj, and Uryankhaisk (Khem-Beldyr was more narrowly an ethnic Tyva neighborhood of the Red Town). The country consisted of 7 banners (khoshun ~~ Mong. khoshuu) subordinated to the Chinese imperial govt. before they slipped away after the 1912 revolution.

  4. I have nothing to say about the toponims in Tuva, but Tuvinskaya Noonday Republican is bizarre. Should be Tuvinskaya Narodnaya Respublika = People’s Republic of Tuva.

  5. Heh. I missed that; must be an early Cupertino!

  6. Patrick Taylor says

    Language Hat readers might also appreciate this
    link to the Wikipedia article on Tannu Uriankhai, which I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet. The Tannu-Ola mountains are also said to be mentioned as the Tanglu mountains in paragraph 200 of the eighth chapter of the Secret History of the Mongols, different editions being available here and here.

  7. Charles Perry says

    The stamps I have seen all spelled Tannu as Taŋnu.

  8. John Emerson says

    The Uriangqai were a people in the area in Genghis Khan’s time, and they also figured in earlier legend.

    At one point there was a controversy as to whether the Tuvan language is Turkish or Mongolian. As I remember, and per Wiki, it’s heavily Mongolized Turkish.

  9. Trond Engen says

    I keep reading it as Uruk-hai.

  10. When I was a kid and collected stamps, I remember being struck by the exotic name “Tannu Tuva” as well as the exotic stamps produced under that name

    — I could have written the exact same sentence. Thanks for bringing back a childhood memory. When I was in primary school, I astonished my teacher by identifying all the countries in Africa on a map which only contained their outlines. “How did you know all this?” she asked. “I collect stamps,” I replied.

  11. John Emerson says

    I remember the stamp book too, my father’s or uncle’s from 1930 or 1940. My brother may still have it.

  12. “I keep reading it as Uruk-hai.”

    What a relief. I thought I was the only one.

  13. It’s not too late, I hope, to cite what may be one of the few references to Tannu Tuva stamps in the corpus of English-language poetry. About half-way down.

    — Marriage —

    Should I get married? Should I be good?
    Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
    Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
    tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
    then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
    and she going just so far and I understanding why
    not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
    Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
    and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky–

    When she introduces me to her parents
    back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
    should I sit knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
    and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
    How else to feel other than I am,
    often thinking Flash Gordon soap–
    O how terrible it must be for a young man
    seated before a family and the family thinking
    We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
    After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?
    Should I tell them? Would they like me then?
    Say All right get married, we’re losing a daughter
    but we’re gaining a son–
    And should I then ask Where’s the bathroom?

    O God, and the wedding! All her family and her friends
    and only a handful of mine all scroungy and bearded
    just waiting to get at the drinks and food–
    And the priest! He looking at me if I masturbated
    asking me Do you take this woman for your lawful wedded wife?
    And I trembling what to say say Pie Glue!
    I kiss the bride all those corny men slapping me on the back
    She’s all yours, boy! Ha-ha-ha!
    And in their eyes you could see some obscene honeymoon going on–

    then all that absurd rice and clanky cans and shoes
    Niagara Falls! Hordes of us! Husbands! Wives! Flowers! Chocolates!
    All streaming into cozy hotels
    All going to do the same thing tonight
    The indifferent clerk he knowing what was going to happen
    The lobby zombies they knowing what
    The whistling elevator man he knowing
    The winking bellboy knowing
    Everybody knowing! I’d be almost inclined not to do anything!
    Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye!
    Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!
    running rampant into those almost climatic suites
    yelling Radio belly! Cat shovel!
    O I’d live in Niagara forever! in a dark cave beneath the Falls
    I’d sit there the Mad Honeymooner devising ways to break marriages, a scourge of
    bigamy a saint of divorce–

    But I should get married I should be good
    How nice it’d be to come home to her
    and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
    aproned young and lovely wanting by baby
    and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
    and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
    saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
    God what a husband I’d make! Yes, I should get married!
    So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night
    and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
    Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
    like pasting Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
    like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest
    grab her and tell her There are unfavorable omens in the sky!
    And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
    When are you going to stop people killing whales!
    And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
    Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust–

    Yet if I should get married and it’s Connecticut and snow
    and she gives birth to a child and I am sleepless, worn,
    up for nights, head bowed against a quiet window, the past behind me,
    finding myself in the most common of situations a trembling man
    knowledged with responsibility not twig-smear not Roman coin soup–
    O what would that be like!
    Surely I’d give it for a nipple a rubber Tacitus
    For a rattle bag of broken Bach records
    Tack Della Francesca all over its crib
    Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib
    And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon

    No, I doubt I’d be that kind of father
    not rural not snow no quiet window
    but hot smelly New York City
    seven flights up, roaches and rats in the walls
    a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes Get a job!
    And five nose running brats in love with Batman
    And the neighbors all toothless and dry haired
    like those hag masses of the 18th century
    all wanting to come in and watch TV
    The landlord wants his rent
    Grocery store Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus
    Impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking–
    No! I should not get married and I should never get married!
    But–imagine if I were to marry a beautiful sophisticated woman
    tall and pale wearing an elegant black dress and long black gloves
    holding a cigarette holder in one hand and highball in the other
    and we lived high up a penthouse with a huge window
    from which we could see all of New York and even farther on clearer days
    No I can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream–

    O but what about love? I forget love
    not that I am incapable of love
    it’s just that I see love as odd as wearing shoes–
    I never wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother
    And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible
    And there maybe a girl now but she’s already married
    And I don’t like men and–
    but there’s got to be somebody!
    Because what if I’m 60 years old and not married,
    all alone in furnished room with pee stains on my underwear
    and everybody else is married! All in the universe married but me!

    Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible
    then marriage would be possible–
    Like SHE in her lonely alien gaud waiting her Egyptian lover
    so I wait–bereft of 2,000 years and the bath of life.

    — Clive James

  14. Radio belly! Cat shovel! […] Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf! […] twig-smear

    Can anyone construe any of that? Pie Glue I understand.

    Recipe for Roman-coin soup.

  15. That’s not by Clive James, it’s by Gregory Corso. This is how rumors get started.

  16. Can anyone construe any of that?

    I too thought it must be phonetic derangement and puzzled over it, but Kirby Olson treats it as plaintext:

    These rather puzzling images that at first seem to be total nonsense can be seen to mix rather cleverly the spiritual with the carnal: Christmas, a spiritual holiday, is not usually mixed with teeth; and the next image implies an advanced state of spirituality, but instead of using the word “spirit,” Corso uses the term “brains” to indicate the biological terminology as opposed to religious terminology. The third image brings in an apple but then links it to the human body, through the word “deaf,” again conflating different levels of the great chain of being.

    Obvously, I do not vouch for the value of that analysis.

  17. That’s not by Clive James, it’s by Gregory Corso.

    You’re absolutely right! I don’t know how the error happened, but I relish the thought that I’ve probably grossly insulted both of them.

  18. Just came across a photo-report on the lone banner of the imperial Tuva which didn’t join the independence movement in the 1910s, and consequently remained in Mongolia. As I understand, the government there treated them as non-citizens / foreigners for decades, alternatively trying to deport them across the border or to resettle them away from the border. Only a few dozen families remain, now mostly sustained by the tourist business / reindeer rides and shamanist ceremonies for the exotic tours.

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