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Tocharian or Tokharian is an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family. The name is taken from people known to the Greeks (Ptolemy VI, 11, 6) as the Tocharians ( , "Tokharoi"). These are sometimes identified with the Yuezhi and the Kushans, while the term Tokharistan usually refers to 1st millennium Bactria. A Turkic text refers to the Turfanian language (Tocharian A) as twqry. Interpretation is difficult, but F. W. K. Müller has associated this with the name of the Bactrian Tokharoi.

Tocharian consisted of two languages; Tocharian A (Turfanian, Arsi, or East Tocharian) and Tocharian B (Kuchean or West Tocharian). These languages were spoken roughly from the sixth to ninth centuries; before they became extinct, their speakers were absorbed into the expanding Uyghur tribes. Both languages were once spoken in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia, now part of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Chinamarker.


Phonetically, Tocharian is a "Centum" Indo-European language, meaning that it merges the palato-velar consonants of Proto Indo-European with the plain velars (*k, *g, *gʰ). Centum languages are mostly found in western and southern Europe, (Italic, Celtic, Germanic). In that sense, Tocharian (like to some extent the Greek and the Anatolian languages) seems to have been an isolate in the "Satem" phonetic world of Indo-European-speaking East European and Asian populations. The discovery of Tocharian contributed to doubts that Proto-Indo-European had originally split into western and eastern branches.


  • (transcribed ā) (transcribed ä), (transcribed a)
  • Diphthongs (Tocharian B only): (transcribed ai), (transcribed oy), (transcribed au), (transcribed āu)


  • Stops: (transcribed ku)
  • Affricates:
  • Fricatives: (transcribed ś), (transcribed )
  • Approximants: (transcribed y)
  • Trills:
  • Nasals: (transcribed word-finally), (transcribed ñ)
  • Lateral approximants: (transcribed ly)

Note that the above consonantal values are largely based on the writing of Sanskrit/Prakrit loanwords. A retroflex value for is particularly suspect as it is derived from palatalized ; it was probably a low-frequency sibilant (like German spelling sch), as opposed to the higher-frequency sibilant (like Mandarin Pinyin spelling x).

Writing system

Tocharian is documented in manuscript fragments, mostly from the 8th century (with a few earlier ones) that were written on palm leaves, wooden tablets and Chinese paper, preserved by the extremely dry climate of the Tarim Basin. Samples of the language have been discovered at sites in Kuchamarker and Karasahr, including many mural inscriptions.

Tocharian A and B are not intercomprehensible. Properly speaking, based on the tentative interpretation of twqry as related to Tokharoi, only Tocharian A may be referred to as Tocharian, while Tocharian B could be called Kuchean (its native name may have been kuśiññe), but since their grammars are usually treated together in scholarly works, the terms A and B have proven useful. A common Proto-Tocharian language must precede the attested languages by several centuries, probably dating to the 1st millennium BC. Given the small geographical range of and the lack of secular texts in Tocharian A, it might alternatively have been a liturgical language, the relationship between the two being similar to that between Classical Chinese and Mandarin. It must be noted however that the lack of a secular corpus in Tocharian A is by no means definite, due to the fragmentary preservation of Tocharian texts in general.

Most of the script in Tocharian was a derivative of the Brahmi alphabetic syllabary (abugida) and is referred to as slanting Brahmi, However a smaller amount was written in the Manichaean script in which Manichaean texts were recorded . It soon became apparent that a large proportion of the manuscripts were translations of known Buddhist works in Sanskrit and some of them were even bilingual, facilitating decipherment of the new language. Besides the Buddhist and Manichaean religious texts, there were also monastery correspondence and accounts, commercial documents, caravan permits, and medical and magical texts, and one love poem. Many Tocharians embraced Manichaean dualism or Buddhism.

In 1998, Chinese linguist Ji Xianlin published a translation and analysis of fragments of a Tocharian Maitreyasamiti-Nataka discovered in 1974 in Yanqimarker.,,


Tocharian has completely re-worked the nominal declension system of Proto-Indo-European. The only cases inherited from the proto-language are nominative, genitive, and accusative; in Tocharian the old accusative is known as the oblique case. In addition to these three cases, however, each Tocharian language has six cases formed by the addition of an invariant suffix to the oblique case. For example, the Tocharian A word "teacher" is declined as follows:

Case Suffix Singular Plural
Instrumental -yo
Comitative -aśśäl
Allative -ac

Cultural significance

The existence of the Tocharian languages and alphabet was not even suspected until archaeological exploration of the Tarim basin by Aurel Stein in the early 20th century brought to light fragments of manuscripts in an unknown language .

This language, now known as Tocharian, turned out to belong to a hitherto unknown branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The discovery of Tocharian has upset some theories about the relations of Indo-European languages and revitalized their study.

The Tocharian languages are a major geographic exception to the usual pattern of Centum branches, being the only one that spread directly east from the theoretical Indo-European starting point in the Pontic steppe. One theory, following the "wave" theory of Johannes Schmidt, suggests that the Satem isogloss represents a linguistic innovation within the heart of the Proto-Indo-European home range, which would thus see the distribution of the Centum languages as simply representing linguistic conservatism along the eastern and western peripheries of the Proto-Indo-European home range.

Tocharian probably died out after 840, when the Uyghurs were expelled from Mongolia by the Kyrgyz, retreating to the Tarim Basin. This theory is supported by the discovery of translations of Tocharian texts into Uyghur. During Uyghur rule, the peoples mixed with the Uyghurs to produce much of the modern population of what is now Xinjiang.

Comparison to other Indo-European languages

Tocharian vocabulary (sample)
Modern English Tocharian A Tocharian B Old Irish Latin Ancient Greek Vedic Sanskrit Proto-Indo-European
one sas e oen ūnus heis eka *oynos, *sems
two wu wi duo duo dva *d(u)woh1
three tre trai trí trēs treis tri *treyes
four śtwar śtwer cethair quattuor téssares catur *kʷetwores
five päñ piś cóic quīnque pente pañca *penkʷe
six äk kas sex héx *(s)weḱs
seven pät ukt secht septem heptá saptá *septm
eight okät okt ocht octō októ *oḱtoh3
nine ñu ñu noí novem ennéa náva *newn
ten śäk śak deich decem deka dáśa *deḱm
hundred känt kante cét centum hekatón śatám *ḱmtom
father pācar pācer athair pater patēr pitár- *ph2tēr
mother mācar mācer máthair mater mētér mātar- *meh2tēr
brother pracar procer bráthair frāter phrátērCognate, with shifted meaning bhrātar- *bhreh2tēr
sister ar er siur soror éor svas - *swesor
(horse)English meaning, unrelated word yuk yakwe ech equus híppos áśva- *eḱwo-
cow ko keu bosBorrowed cognate, not native. boûs gáus *gʷow-
(voice) vak vek - vōx épos vāk *wekʷ-
name ñom ñem ainmm nōmen ónoma nāman- *nomn
to milk malk mälk mlig-/blig- mulgēre amélgein marjati *melg-

See also



  • " Tokharian Pratimoksa Fragment Sylvain Levi". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 1913, pp. 109–120.
  • Mallory, J.P. and Victor H. Mair. The Tarim Mummies. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000. (ISBN 0-500-05101-1)
  • Schmalsteig, William R. " Tokharian and Baltic." Lituanus. v. 20, no. 3, 1974.
  • Krause, Wolfgang and Werner Thomas. Tocharisches Elemantarbuch. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1960.
  • Malzahn, Melanie (Ed.). Instrumenta Tocharica. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 2007. (ISBN 978-3-8253-5299-8)

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