EthnicityTungusic peoples
Siberia, Manchuria
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5tuw
Geographic distribution of the Tungusic languages

The Tungusic languages /tʊŋˈɡʊsɪk/ (also known as Manchu-Tungus and Tungus) form a language family spoken in Eastern Siberia and Manchuria by Tungusic peoples. Many Tungusic languages are endangered. There are approximately 75,000 native speakers of the dozen living languages of the Tungusic language family. The term "Tungusic" is from an exonym for the Evenk people (Ewenki) used by the Yakuts ("tongus").


Linguists working on Tungusic have proposed a number of different classifications based on different criteria, including morphological, lexical, and phonological characteristics. Some scholars have criticized the tree-based model of Tungusic classification and argue that the long history of contact among the Tungusic languages makes them better treated as a dialect continuum.[1]

Current geographic distribution of languages in the Tungusic family.

The main classification is into a northern branch and a southern branch (Georg 2004) although the two branches have no clear division, and the classification of intermediate groups is debatable.

Four mid-level subgroups are recognized by Hölzl (2018),[2] namely Ewenic, Udegheic, Nanaic, and Jurchenic.

Population distribution of total speakers of Tungusic languages, by speaker

  Xibe (55%)
  Evenki (28.97%)
  Even (10.45%)
  Others (5.58%)

Alexander Vovin[3] notes that Manchu and Jurchen are aberrant languages within South Tungusic but nevertheless still belong in it, and that this aberrancy is perhaps due to influences from the Para-Mongolic Khitan language, from Old Korean, and perhaps also from Chukotko-Kamchatkan and unknown languages of uncertain linguistic affiliation.



Some linguists estimate the divergence of the Tungusic languages from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Eastern Manchuria around 500 BC to 500 AD. (Janhunen 2012, Pevnov 2012)[6] Other theories favor a homeland closer to Lake Baikal. (Menges 1968, Khelimskii 1985)[7] While the general form of the protolanguage is clear from the similarities in the daughter languages, there is no consensus on detailed reconstructions. As of 2012, scholars are still trying to establish a shared vocabulary to do such a reconstruction.[6] The Lake Khanka region was found to present the most likely homeland, based on linguistic and ancient genetic data.[8]

There are some proposed sound correspondences for Tungusic languages. For example, Norman (1977) supports a Proto-Tungusic *t > Manchu s when followed by *j in the same stem, with any exceptions arising from loanwords.[9] Some linguists believe there are connections between the vowel harmony of Proto-Tungusic and some of the neighboring non-Tungusic languages. For example, there are proposals for an areal or genetic correspondence between the vowel harmonies of Proto-Korean, Proto-Mongolian, and Proto-Tungusic based on an original RTR harmony.[10] This is one of several competing proposals, and on the other hand, some reconstruct Proto-Tungusic without RTR harmony.[10]

Some sources describe the Donghu people of 7th century BC to 2nd century BC Manchuria as Proto-Tungusic.[11] Other sources sharply criticize this as a random similarity in pronunciation with "Tungus" that has no real basis in fact.[12]

The historical records of the Korean kingdoms of Baekje and Silla note battles with the Mohe (Chinese: 靺鞨) in Manchuria during the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some scholars suggest these Mohe are closely connected to the later Jurchens, but this is controversial.

Alexander Vovin (2015)[13] notes that Northern Tungusic languages have Eskimo–Aleut loanwords that are not found in Southern Tungusic, implying that Eskimo–Aleut was once much more widely spoken in eastern Siberia. Vovin (2015) estimates that the Eskimo–Aleut loanwords in Northern Tungusic had been borrowed no more than 2,000 years ago, which was when Tungusic was spreading northwards from its homeland in the middle reaches of the Amur River.

Wang and Robbeets (2020)[14] place the Proto-Tungusic homeland in the Lake Khanka region.

Liu et al. (2020) [15] revealed that Haplogroup C-F5484 and its subclades are the genetic markers of Tungusic-speaking peoples. C-F5484 emerged 3,300 years ago and began to diverge 1,900 years ago, indicating the approximate age of differentiation of Tungusic languages.[citation needed]

Jurchen-Manchu language

The earliest written attestation of the language family is in the Jurchen language, which was spoken by the rulers of the Jin dynasty (1115–1234).[16] The Jurchens invented a Jurchen script to write their language based on the Khitan scripts. During this time, several stelae were put up in Manchuria and Korea. One of these, among the most important extant texts in Jurchen, is the inscription on the back of "the Jin Victory Memorial Stele" (Da Jin deshengtuo songbei), which was erected in 1185, during the Dading period (1161–1189). It is apparently an abbreviated translation of the Chinese text on the front of the stele.[17] The last known example of the Jurchen script was written in 1526.

The Tungusic languages appear in the historical record again after the unification of the Jurchen tribes under Nurhaci, who ruled 1616–1626. He commissioned a new Manchu alphabet based on the Mongolian alphabet, and his successors went on to found the Qing dynasty. In 1636, Emperor Hong Taiji decreed that the ethnonym "Manchu" would replace "Jurchen". Modern scholarship usually treats Jurchen and Manchu as different stages of the same language.

Currently, Manchu proper is a dying language spoken by a dozen or so elderly people in Qiqihar, China. However, the closely related Xibe language spoken in Xinjiang, which historically was treated as a divergent dialect of Jurchen-Manchu, maintains the literary tradition of the script, and has around 30,000 speakers. As the only language in the Tungusic family with a long written tradition, Jurchen-Manchu is a very important language for the reconstruction of Proto-Tungusic.

Other Tungusic languages

Other Tungusic languages have relatively short or no written traditions. Since around the 20th century, some of these other languages can be written in a Russian-based Cyrillic script, but the languages remain primarily spoken languages only.[citation needed]


The earliest Western accounts of Tungusic languages came from the Dutch traveler Nicolaes Witsen, who published in the Dutch language a book, Noord en Oost Tartarye (literally 'North and East Tartary'). It described a variety of peoples in the Russian Far East and included some brief word lists for many languages. After his travel to Russia, his collected findings were published in three editions, 1692, 1705, and 1785.[18] The book includes some words and sentences from the Evenki language, then called "Tungus".

The German linguist Wilhelm Grube (1855–1908) published an early dictionary of the Nanai language (Gold language) in 1900, as well as deciphering the Jurchen language for modern audiences using a Chinese source.

Common characteristics

The Tungusic languages are of an agglutinative morphological type, and some of them have complex case systems and elaborate patterns of tense and aspect marking.

The normal word order for all of the languages is subject–object–verb.[19]


Tungusic languages exhibit a complex pattern of vowel harmony, based on two parameters: vowel roundedness and vowel tenseness (in Evenki, the contrast is back and front). Tense and lax vowels do not occur in the same word; all vowels in a word, including suffixes, are either one or the other. Rounded vowels in the root of a word cause all the following vowels in the word to become rounded, but not those before the rounded vowel. Those rules are not absolute, and there are many individual exceptions.[19]

Vowel length is phonemic, with many words distinguished based on the distinction between short vowel and long vowel.[19]

Tungusic words have simple word codas, and usually have simple word onsets, with consonant clusters forbidden at the end of words and rare at the beginning.[19]

Below are Proto-Tungusic consonants as reconstructed by Tsintsius (1949) and the vowels according to Benzing (1955):[20]

Labial Dental Palatal Velar
Stop voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Affricate voiceless t͡ʃ ⟨č⟩
voiced d͡ʒ ⟨ǯ⟩
Fricative s ʃ ⟨š⟩ x
Nasal m n ɲ ⟨ń⟩ ŋ
Lateral approximant l
Rhotic r
Glide w j
front central back
high i y ⟨ü⟩ ɨ ⟨ï⟩ u
mid e ø ⟨ö⟩ o
low a

Relationships with other languages

Tungusic is today considered a primary language family. Especially in the past, some linguists have linked Tungusic with Turkic and Mongolic languages, among various others, in the Altaic language family or Transeurasian family.[21] However, the proposal of a genetic, as opposed to an areal, link remains highly controversial.[22][23]

The language of the Avars in Europe which created the Avar Khaganate is believed by some scholars to be of Tungusic origin.[24]

See also



  1. ^ Lindsay J. Whaley, Lenore A. Grenoble and Fengxiang Li (June 1999). "Revisiting Tungusic Classification from the Bottom up: A Comparison of Evenki and Oroqen". Language. 75 (2): 286–321. doi:10.2307/417262. JSTOR 417262.
  2. ^ Hölzl, Andreas. 2018. The Tungusic language family through the ages: Interdisciplinary perspectives: Introduction. International Workshop at the 51st Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea (SLE). 29 August – 1st September 2018, Tallinn University, Estonia.
  3. ^ Vovin, Alexander. Why Manchu and Jurchen Look so Un-Tungusic?
  4. ^ a b c Mu, Yejun 穆晔骏. 1987: Balayu 巴拉语. Manyu yanjiu 满语研究 2. 2‒31, 128.
  5. ^ Hölzl, Andreas (2020). "Bala (China) – Language Snapshot". Language Documentation and Description. 19: 162–170.
  6. ^ a b Martine Robbeets. "Book Reviews 161 Andrej L. Malchukov and Lindsay J. Whaley (eds.), Recent advances in Tungusic linguistics (Turcologica 89). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2012. vi + 277 pages, ISBN 978-3-447-06532-0, EUR 68" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 May 2017. Retrieved 25 Nov 2016.
  7. ^ Immanuel Ness (29 Aug 2014). The Global Prehistory of Human Migration. John Wiley & Sons. p. 200. ISBN 9781118970584.
  8. ^ Wang, Chuan-Chao; Robbeets, Martine (2020). "The homeland of Proto-Tungusic inferred from contemporary words and ancient genomes". Evolutionary Human Sciences. 2: e8. doi:10.1017/ehs.2020.8. ISSN 2513-843X. PMC 10427446. PMID 37588383. S2CID 218569747.
  9. ^ JERRY NORMAN (1977). "THE EVOLUTION OF PROTO-TUNGUSIC *t TO MANCHU s". Central Asiatic Journal. 21 (3/4): 229–233. JSTOR 41927199.
  10. ^ a b Seongyeon Ko, Andrew Joseph, John Whitman (2014). "Paradigm Change: In the Transeurasian languages and beyond (Ch. 7)" (PDF).((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Barbara A. West (19 May 2010). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase. p. 891. ISBN 9781438119137. Retrieved 26 Nov 2016.
  12. ^ The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early Historic China
  13. ^ Vovin, Alexander. 2015. Eskimo Loanwords in Northern Tungusic. Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015), 87–95. Leiden: Brill.
  14. ^ Wang, Chuan-Chao; Robbeets, Martine (2020). "The homeland of Proto-Tungusic inferred from contemporary words and ancient genomes". Evolutionary Human Sciences. 2: e8. doi:10.1017/ehs.2020.8. ISSN 2513-843X. PMC 10427446. PMID 37588383. S2CID 218569747.
  15. ^ Liu, Bing-Li; Ma, Peng-Cheng; Wang, Chi-Zao; Yan, Shi; Yao, Hong-Bing; Li, Yong-Lan; Xie, Yong-Mei; Meng, Song-Lin; Sun, Jin; Cai, Yan-Huan; Sarengaowa, Sarengaowa (March 2021). "Paternal origin of Tungusic-speaking populations: Insights from the updated phylogenetic tree of Y-chromosome haplogroup C2a-M86". American Journal of Human Biology. 33 (2): e23462. doi:10.1002/ajhb.23462. ISSN 1042-0533. PMID 32657006. S2CID 220501084.
  16. ^ Lindsay J. Whaley (18 Jun 2007). "Manchu-Tungus languages". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 Nov 2016.
  17. ^ Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland, and Stephen H. West. China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 228–229. ISBN 0-7914-2274-7. Partial text on Google Books.
  18. ^ Nicolaas Witsen (1785). "Noord en oost Tartaryen".
  19. ^ a b c d The Tungusic Research Group at Dartmouth College. "Basic Typological Features of Tungusic Languages". Archived from the original on 30 January 2020. Retrieved 25 Nov 2016.
  20. ^ J. Benzing, "Die tungusischen Sprachen: Versuch einer vergleichenden Grammatik", Abhandlungen der Geistes und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse,vol. 11 (1955), pp. 949–1099.
  21. ^ Robbeets, Martine (January 2017). "Austronesian influence and Transeurasian ancestry in Japanese: A case of farming/language dispersal". Language Dynamics and Change. 7: 210–251. doi:10.1163/22105832-00702005. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-002E-8635-7. Retrieved 2019-03-26., Robbeets, Martine et al. 2021 Triangulation supports agricultural spread of the Transeurasian languages, Nature 599, 616–621
  22. ^ Georg, Stefan (2023). "Connections between Uralic and Other Language Families". In Daniel Abondolo; Riitta-Liisa Valijärvi (eds.). The Uralic Languages. London: Routledge. pp. 176–209. doi:10.4324/9781315625096-4. ISBN 9781315625096.
  23. ^ Tian, Zheng; Tao, Yuxin; Zhu, Kongyang; Jacques, Guillaume; Ryder, Robin J.; de la Fuente, José Andrés Alonso; Antonov, Anton; Xia, Ziyang; Zhang, Yuxuan; Ji, Xiaoyan; Ren, Xiaoying; He, Guanglin; Guo, Jianxin; Wang, Rui; Yang, Xiaomin; Zhao, Jing; Xu, Dan; Gray, Russell D.; Zhang, Menghan; Wen, Shaoqing; Wang, Chuan-Chao; Pellard, Thomas (2022-06-12), Triangulation fails when neither linguistic, genetic, nor archaeological data support the Transeurasian narrative, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, doi:10.1101/2022.06.09.495471, S2CID 249649524
  24. ^ Helimski, E (2004). "Die Sprache(n) der Awaren: Die mandschu-tungusische Alternative". Proceedings of the First International Conference on Manchu-Tungus Studies, Vol. II: 59–72.


  • Kane, Daniel. The Sino-Jurchen Vocabulary of the Bureau of Interpreters. Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series, Volume 153. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1989. ISBN 0-933070-23-3.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.
  • Poppe, Nicholas. Vergleichende Grammatik der Altaischen Sprachen [A Comparative Grammar of the Altaic Languages]. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1960.
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  • Stefan Georg. "Unreclassifying Tungusic", in: Carsten Naeher (ed.): Proceedings of the First International Conference on Manchu-Tungus Studies (Bonn, August 28 – September 1, 2000), Volume 2: Trends in Tungusic and Siberian Linguistics, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 45–57.

Further reading