Timur’s Language(s).

A correspondent asks:

What language(s) would have been natively spoken by Timur the Lame, and what script would it / they have been written in?

I responded that he apparently spoke Turkish, but I wasn’t sure whether it would have been written in the Uyghur-based script of the Mongols or the Arabic-based script borrowed from Persian, and I thought I’d turn to the Varied Reader for enlightenment. What say you?


  1. Jongseong Park says

    Timur would have belonged to the Middle Turkic period, and most Middle Turkic texts were written in the Arabic script according to this source: https://books.google.com/books?id=ELrRr0L8UOsC&pg=PA333&lpg=PA333&redir_esc=y

  2. Jongseong Park says

    His (probably multilingual) court definitely did use Persian in the Perso-Arabic script in at least some official communications, e.g. this letter of Timur to Charles VI of France, written in Persian: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Letter_of_Tamerlane_to_Charles_VI_1402.jpg

    So it seems likely that his presumed native Turkic tongue would also have been written in the Arabic script, if there was occasion to write it.

  3. The date given on the file for the above letter is “30 July 1402 AD (1 January 805 AH).” Obviously “January” should be something else. What?

  4. Jongseong Park says

    Presumably it just means the first month of the Islamic calendar (Muharram), which being a strict lunar calendar doesn’t match up well with the Gregorian calendar.

  5. The first month of the Islamic calendar is called Muharram. Converting between the two calendars is complicated because the Islamic calendar uses a lunar year of 354 days, and so the months rotate with respect to the Gregorian months.

  6. 30 July 1402 (Julian) = 8 August 1402 (Gregorian) = 8 Muharram 805 (Islamic) +/- 1 day. I suspect someone did a conversion from Islamic directly to Gregorian and forgot to make the Julian (mis)correction, given that Gregorian wasn’t in effect anywhere in 1402.

  7. John Emerson says

    tamerlane’s connection with the Mongols was very distant and almost fictitious, through a wife. I believe that one of his titles was “Son-in-law”, which was an accepted title among Mongols.

    For a considerable period Persian was the international language of that area. The Mongols and the Pope corresponded in Persian or through Persian intermediaries. Persian remained an international, cultural, and diplomatic language from Istanbul to Xinjiang to Bombay into the 19th century (the Mughals and Ottomans both used it at times.) Among Turks trilingualism seems to have been common among the elite, with Arabic, Persian, and Turkish each having their zone.

  8. John Emerson says
  9. Tamerlane’s connection to the Chinggisid dynasty was only through his wife, but he was descended from the old Mongol tribe of Barlas. When I first saw a reconstruction of his face, I was shocked by how obviously Mongol he looked.

  10. Modern Turkish as we know it is quite different from other forms of Turkic languages. Azerbaijani is the closest, but modern Turkish has been purged of a lot of the loanwords from Arabic and Persian, and the grammar, spelling, and pronunciation is quite different at first glance.

    Modern Turkic languages spoken in Central Asia are more closely related to one another, and would be closer to what Timur would have spoken IF he spoke a Turkic language. There’d be a good deal of evolution over time of course.

  11. Contemporary chronicles wrote that Timur was fluent in Persian, Turkic and Mongolian.

    Turkic he spoke was likely the so called Chagatai Turkic (Uzbek and Uyghur are its modern descendants). It was written in Uyghur script at the time, then switched to Perso-Arabic script later.

    Some scholars believe that Timur did not speak Mongolian, because Mongol nomads in the area have been completely Turkified by then.

    But we really have no way of knowing this for sure. A century is not very deep timeframe for assimilation, so it is entirely conceivable that Barlas clan tribesmen continued to speak Mongolian at home.

  12. Linguistic assimilation of conquerors is fascinating topic.

    We know for a fact that a century after the Norman conquest, king Richard the Lionheart still spoke French as native language.

    The opposite example is William the Conqueror who spoke no Norwegian a century after Norse conquest of Normandy.

  13. I do find it puzzling how the Normans abandoned Norse speech so quickly, and became such reliable agents of French linguistic influence once they leapfrogged over to England.

  14. @ Lazar: I assume it has something to do with marriage patterns and socal circles? IIRC, the Norse who settled in Normandy married local (French-speaking) women and theri elite integrated themselves with the French nobility; from what I remember reading, Norse loanwords in Normandy mostly survive in traditionally male areas of activity, like fishing, supporting the assumption that the Norse switched to French in domestic Environments and kept Norse for a while as a “male” language used for professional purposes. After conquering England, the Norman nobility still was oriented towards France, and presumably intermarried mostly among the Norman / French elite, and so the process took much longer.

  15. Jongseong Park says

    For a discussion relevant to dating when the Arabic script began to be used for Turkic, please see:

    To summarize, there is an 11th-century literary work called Kutadgu Bilig written in Middle Turkic, known from three manuscripts: A (Vienna), B (Namangan), and C (Cairo). The Vienna copy was finished in 1436 and was written in the Uyghur script, whereas the other two were in the Arabic script; there is evidence that the Cairo copy must have been copied before 1367. Scribal errors in the Vienna copy point to its having been copied from a contemporary Arabic script version. The question of whether the original work was written in Uyghur or Arabic script is outside our topic of discussion, and the relevant part is the assertion that in the 13th and 14th centuries (or more precisely, the years 1220s–1367 when the two Arabic script texts were probably copied), “Arabic script was used to write Turkic Islamic texts in Central Asia”.

    But certainly Uyghur script continued to be used after the introduction of Arabic script to write Turkic (witness the 1436 copy), though I don’t know what determined the choice of script during the period of overlap—were they used by different communities, for different subject matter (though note that Kutadgu Bilig isn’t overtly Islamic), or for different audiences?

    By the way, while Uzbek and Uyghur are the modern languages most closely related to Chagatai Turkic and speakers of Uzbek and Uyghur used Chagatai as the literary language up to the early 20th century, they are not direct descendants of Chagatai. This is a minor quibble though, the way one would object to calling Italian and Spanish descendants of Classical Latin.

  16. “@ Lazar: I assume it has something to do with marriage patterns and socal circles? IIRC, the Norse who settled in Normandy married local (French-speaking) women and theri elite integrated themselves with the French nobility”

    Hans, the exact same scenario in what became southern China did not yield the same result. In fact it yielded an inverse result – some cooking and food terms seem to be of Daic origin. The difference obviously was the relative prestige of the language. French was relatively prestigious, even in the 11th century where Norse has basically never been. Norse disappeared pretty quickly in Ireland too.

    “Linguistic assimilation of conquerors is fascinating topic. ”

    It sure is. Sometimes elite dominance is just not dominant enough. Language shift is an interesting and understudied, though much decried, affair. Aleksandra Aikhenvald has a lot of interesting things to say about it.

  17. As a non-linguistic aside, I just read today, here, about a new study which tracks down genetic markers for 11 males who spread their genetic signature all over Asia between 2000 BC and AD 1000. Two of the lineages had previously been connected with Genghis Khan and Giocangga (who I hadn’t heard of before). The others may yet be connected with known historical figures.

  18. @Jim: But the prestige of French didn’t save it in England, so it must be a combination of marriage patterns and Prestige.

  19. Hnas, I agree that it’s both. In the case of French, or specifically Norman French, Anglo Saxon was a written language while Norman French was not. That means one had one kind of prestige while the other had another form.

    When it comes to marriage patterns, it’s not all about the Normans either. Quite a number of the invading nobility were Breton, and there was a meme that the invasion was really just a counter-attack to regain lost ground. This goes a long way towards explaining how the Normans adopted the Arthurian legends as their national mythology, and why those legends and not Beowulf are the ones that resonate with most English people, that are the cultural touchstone.

  20. Very interesting, I never thought of that.

  21. So why did the Arthurian legends become so popular on the Continent in the subsequent centuries?

  22. Unlike the Matter of Troy/Rome, the Matter of Britain contained the Christian religion; unlike the Matter of France, it was unconstrained by history. That meant you could do whatever you wanted to with it.

    Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,
    De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.

    —Jean Bodel, Chanson de Saisnes (12C)

  23. Stefan Holm says

    Couldn’t it be that the legends around Arthur rhymes better with medieval Christian ideals? They contain chivalry, knighthood and even romance. Beowulf in my reading is closer to old Norse pagan poetry – in meter, in plot, in values, in terse expressions etc. And the story itself takes place in western Sweden (geatas), wherefrom not even the vikings known to the British came.

  24. J. W. Brewer says

    It’s chicken and egg, perhaps, but Beowulf was obscure to the point of virtual non-existence prior to maybe the early 19th century. As far as I can tell, every major English author from say Chaucer to Dr. Johnson lived and died not only w/o reading it but w/o ever having heard of it, since it was just sitting around in a surviving MS that only a few specialists could read and fewer did. The formation of the canonical sequence where it’s the thing you read before moving on to Chaucer (which you might like better and might like worse) is very very much after the fact. (What Beowulf’s relative fame was as compared to other literary works in OE as of 1065 is a different question I don’t know the answer to.)

  25. Most of the library of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) was in Latin: Cotton apparently went around buying up whatever old manuscripts various landowners had in their possession, without too much concern for whether he or anyone else could read them or not. The dissolution of the monasteries had badly damaged the national record-keeping system.

    Cotton was a Scottish Unionist and a Parliamentarian, who collected his manuscripts in order to try and prove the ancient superiority of parliaments to kings; as a result, Charles I confiscated his books in 1629 at the beginning of his period of non-parliamentary rule, and they were only returned after his death. They were eventually transferred to the British Library, though not before a fire in 1731 destroyed many manuscripts and damaged many more. The BL still uses call numbers for these works that are derived from Cotton’s own system: the Beowulf manuscript is “Cotton Vitellius A.xv”, meaning that it stood on the top shelf (A) of a bookcase with a bust of the Emperor Vitellius on it, the 15th book from the left.

    Beowulf itself was not properly studied until the National Archivist of Denmark, an Icelander named Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, went to England in 1786 to investigate it. He ended up making a transcription and commissioning another, a Good Thing because deterioration of the manuscript has caused some words near the edge to become illegible since then. He published the first printed edition with a Latin translation in 1815 (his second attempt; the first was destroyed by fire just before it could be printed) under the rather arrogant title of De Danorum rebus gestis secul. III & IV : Poëma Danicum dialecto Anglosaxonica ‘Things done by the Danes in the 3rd and 4th centuries: a Danish poem in the Anglo-Saxon dialect’.

  26. Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain involved Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The latter could be regarded as Danes and possibly even Angles (they lived in Schleswig and southern part of Jutland peninsula).

  27. David Marjanović says

    We know for a fact that a century after the Norman conquest, king Richard the Lionheart still spoke French as native language.

    I thought Occitan?

  28. I do find it puzzling how the Normans abandoned Norse speech so quickly,

    One might ask the same question about the Varangian Rus’.

  29. It seems to be somewhat of a pattern for the Norse – wherever they settled, put up farmstaeds, etc., probably bringing over their families from Scandinavia, like on Iceland and many North Sea Islands, they kept the language, but where they just formed an elite ruling a population speaking a different lnaguage, they seem to have gone native relatively quickly.

  30. We don’t really know very much about Richard I’s languages. He was born in Oxford and lived in England till he was nine. He wrote Occitan and French poetry. His chancellor William Longchamp was accused (probably truthfully) by Richard’s brother John of not knowing English; the fact that that would be seen as a Bad Thing in an Anglo-Norman suggests that knowledge of English was routine among them by the mid-12C.

  31. Isn’t Oxford outside the Danelaw where Norse influence would have been the greatest?

  32. David Marjanović says

    His chancellor William Longchamp was accused (probably truthfully) by Richard’s brother John of not knowing English; the fact that that would be seen as a Bad Thing in an Anglo-Norman suggests that knowledge of English was routine among them by the mid-12C.

    Interesting; that’s quite a bit sooner than I thought.


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