Victor Mair at the Log has one of his occasional posts investigating murky areas of East and Central Asian etymology; the latest is Tocharian, Turkic, and Old Sinitic “ten thousand”, and it’s extremely interesting to see the takes of various specialists on the conundrum he introduces with a quote from Clauson, An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Turkish:

F tümen properly ‘ten thousand’, but often used for ‘an indefinitely large number’; immediately borrowed from Tokharian, where the forms are A tmān; B tmane, tumane, but Prof. Pulleyblank has told me orally that he thinks this word may have been borrowed in its turn fr. a Proto-Chinese form *tman, or the like, of wan ‘ten thousand’ (Giles 12,486).

More or less at random, I cite the response from Gerd Carling:

This is complex. As far as I understand, the explanation by Adams (2013:318) apud Winter 1991: the Tocharian word is ultimately borrowed from Middle Iranian, is possibly problematic due to the fact that it is attested in Modern Iranian only, indicating that the Iranian words may be borrowed from Turkic, which in turn is likely borrowed from Chinese (or, alternatively Tocharian, which possibly borrowed from Chinese).

There are a bunch of others, and I agree with Mair’s summation:

I do believe that Old Turkic tümen (“ten thousand”, but often used for “an indefinitely large number”), Tocharian A tmān; B tmane, tumane (“ten thousand”), and Sinitic 萬 (MSM wàn; Old Sinitic Schuessler /*mans/, Baxter-Sagart /*C.ma[n]-s/, Zhengzhang /*mlans/) (“ten thousand”) are somehow related, but it is not clear to me what that relationship is.

If you have any interest in the topic, by all means read both post and comments.


  1. From recent experience (visits 2012-2016, friend of Iranian background visiting 2019), this is still the case:

    “Iranian currency was always written in riyals, but the sums were always talked about in tumans (a tuman was 10 riyals, but the riyal had originally been a thousand of something else). Back in the old days, before the revolution, no one knew why, or when this started, or what the origin of tuman could have been. Not sure whether this has changed since the revolution, but when I was there in 98 and 99 it seemed to be the same from what I remember in earlier times.”

    Using money in Iran is intimidating for the visitor, with the written figure in local currency being off by a factor of ten from the spoken figure (because of people speaking in tomans), with the day-to-day instability of the exchange rate when compared to hard currency, and, I think still, with the government-sanctioned exchange rate, only available to a few, rating the rial as four times the market exchange rate.

  2. Old Slavic tma meant 10 000. Tma literally means darkness, but is it also connected to this?

  3. They already mentioned Russian тьма “an indefinitely large number”, not yet темник (a Mongol Horde general, he who commands 10,000 warriors). The superlative to тьма “an indefinitely large number” is тьма тьмущая, owing to folk-etymological тьма ~~ darkness (becoming the darkest darkness).

    The Siberian city of Tyumen which I visit from time to time owes its name to another derived meaning: a division (a military one, of 10,000 warriors, or an administrative one)

    An English folk etymology would obviously be “too many” LOL

  4. I think it would be interesting to know what large numbers different societies used metonymically to mean “uncountably many.” From hrair to a million

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Apropos of nothing, really (but this is Sparta … no, Language Hat) the Western Oti-Volta stem for “thousand” is tus-, as in the Kusaal singular tusir.

    This obviously proves that Western Oti-Volta (like Chinese, I gather, from Language Log) is closely related to Germanic.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I think it would be interesting to know what large numbers different societies used metonymically to mean “uncountably many”

    Four in some Australian languages, if I remember right.

  7. “Five” among rabbits, if I remember correctly.

  8. Etymologically correct Russian translation of “Banzai!” is “T’mu let!”

  9. David Marjanović says

    An English folk etymology would obviously be “too many” LOL

    I see your “too many” and raise you “that many”…

  10. Alas the full name seems to have run afoul of modern sensitivities. An etymology of “countless” or “too many” would work nicely here.

  11. Tümen is still used in Inner Mongolia to mean ‘10,000’. In Mongolia they’ve been influenced by the Russians and use arvan myanga, literally ‘ten thousand’. For Mongolians, tümen just means ‘a large number’ and is used in expressions like ard tümen ‘the common people’. Mongolians find it confusing when they hear Inner Mongolians say things like dörvön tümen dörvön myanga (‘four tumens and four thousand’, sì-wàn sì (qiān) in Chinese). It has to be döchön dörvön myanga (‘forty-four thousand’). Above 100,000 differences in usage are even more confusing.

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