Chinese names for the Lena River

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[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu]

The usual Chinese name for the Lena River is 勒拿河 Lèná hé. That's not a particularly felicitous transcription. Lèná rhymes with 圣赫勒拿 Shèng Hèlèná i.e. St Helena; it fails to reflect the palatalisation of the l in the Russian name. An alternative name transcribes the syllable ле with 列 liè, following the usual practice.

Lèná might not be particularly faithful to the Russian pronunciation, but at least it should immunise the Chinese public against the belief that Lenin 列宁 Lièníng named himself after the river. (The idea is widespread, but Lenin apparently was already using the pseudonym well before the events supposed to have motivated the choice.)

An earlier name is attested in Qing documents, namely 里雅那江 Lǐyǎnà jiāng. The name is not without historical significance: Langtan 郎坦, a Manchu official, began the negotiations that led to the treaty of Nerchinsk by claiming all territories up to the Lena river, something the Russians didn't appreciate. A Qing source that narrates the incident, the 1739 Baqi tongzhi chuji 八旗通志初集 or "First Edition of the History of the Eight Banners", uses the name Liyana in Chinese. I haven't been able to consult the Chinese original, but there's a Russian translation that shows that form the Chinese name (in its Pallady Cyrillisation лияна цзян)[1] (yes, that leads to a footnote; even blog posts can have footnotes).

The iya in Liyana makes the form look Manchu-mediated, and that's because it is. The talks at Nerchinsk were conducted in Latin through Jesuit interpreters, and the primary language of pretty much everyone in the Qing delegation (such as Songgotu (q.v. at Dartmouth), who signed the treaty, and indeed Langtan himself) was quite likely Manchu. So we would have Russian Лена Lena > (a Latinised form, oral or written) > Manchu Liyana > Chinese 里雅那 Lǐyǎnà.

The Lena river isn't mentioned in the text of the Nerchinsk treaty (because in the final agreement all its course ended up on the Russian side), but it appears in other Manchu documents. A Manchu map connected to the Nerchinsk negotiations is the "Map of the Nine Rivers of Jilin" (吉林九河圖), which does include the Lena. The map is reproduced on the website of Taiwan's National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院); the Lena is visible on the upper left. Unfortunately the labels are unreadable at that resolution, but scholarship on Qing maps[2] confirms the Manchu name was indeed Liyana bira.

So the Manchu and Chinese name is transparently derived from Russian. While the name of the Lena river in Russian and Yakutian (a Turkic language spoken in the area) is assumed to be of ultimately Tungusic origin, the lack of a vowel before the 'l' means that the Manchus had to take it from the Russian rather than directly from, say, Yakutian or Evenki. Despite Langtan's vague claim that the Qing empire should extend all the way to the Lena because that's how far their state had reached in the past (unclear which state, and in which past), Qing officials weren't able to come up with a better Chinese or Manchu name for the river than a transcription of what the Russians called it.

That's relevant to a larger issue. Plenty of places in what is now Far Eastern Russia (though usually not so far inland) do have Chinese names, something many on both sides of the border are well aware of. Many non-Russian, often Chinese, toponyms in the Amur basin remained in common use more than a century after the Qing ceded a large swath of land to Russia at the Treaty of Aigun in 1858. China has denounced Aigun as an "unequal treaty" (不平等条约), and, although the Chinese government isn't claiming those lands back, anecdotal evidence suggests many in China feel they should have them. Those feelings are in turn seen with suspicion among some Russians now living in the region. Although a USSR Council of Ministers resolution Russified Far-Eastern toponyms wholesale in 1972, many of the older names remain in use among the local population.

An example I've written about is the location of the 'Tigre de Cristal' (水晶虎宫殿), the largest casino in Russia, opened a couple of months ago near Vladivostok to cater to a largely Chinese clientele. The casino is on a bay now officially called Muravyinaya (бухта Муравьиная; бухта is a loan from the German cognate of bight). Myrmecological though that sounds ('ants' cove'), the name is more likely to honour Count Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky than an insect infestation. It was Muravyov who signed the 'unequal' Aigun treaty on behalf of Russia, earning the lands Vladivostok now lies on for the Empire, and the comital title 'Amursky' for himself.

The name Muravyinaya is obviously not older than the Treaty of Aigun, and many locals keep using the older name, Tavayza Тавайза, said to come from Chinese Dawaizi (or Daweizi)[3]. In characters, that would be most likely 大崴子; 崴 wǎi and 崴子 wǎizi, attributed a range of meanings from 'mountain bend' (山湾) to 'bay', is common in place names in Jilin as well as across the border. The (older) Chinese name for Vladivostok is 海参崴 Hǎishēnwǎi; Posyet Bay (залив Посьета) used to be called 摩阔崴 Mókuòwǎi. There's also the idiom 跑崴子 pǎo wǎizi, originally meaning 'to go to Vladivostok' (to trade, possibly in sea cucumbers).

The word 崴(子), at least in this sense, seems in turn to be a Manchu loan. My ignorance of Manchu is appalling, but after rummaging through dictionaries and bilingual texts[4] I found a noun wai and a derived adjective waiku, also occurring (reduplicated?) in waiku daikū and meaning 'askew' (could that in turn be a loan from 歪 wāi?).

Tavayza or Dawaizi could be a more auspicious name for visitors to the new casino than the current official name, which points either to undesirable insects or to the even less desirable count who helped deprive China of those lands. (Dialectically enough, the loss of those lands to Russia has meant that Chinese people can now legally gamble on them.)

So while the abundance of Chinese toponyms is a vivid reminder of Qing rule beyond the Amur, the apparent lack of a non-Russian-mediated name for the Lena (or at least of one known to Qing officials) might deny one motivation to those inclined to formulate a historical claim further into Siberia. Some are indeed so inclined. While, as I said, such views aren't reflected in an official position, some people have tried to articulate the idea that much of Eastern Siberia had been under Chinese rule since time immemorial, with arguments not unlike those used to back Chinese territorial claims elsewhere. Qi Jun 齐钧 of the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has written an article[5] that defends the Qing claim to the lands up to the Lena (and indeed goes on to assert that China exerted "effective administration" over large swaths of Siberia as early as the Tang, and that Yuan explorers reached the Arctic).

The merits of such claims and their reception among Chinese academics go beyond the linguistic issues I wanted to bring up, so let me just say one more thing about the Lena river. It also has a Mongolian name, Зүлгэ Zülge (Buryat Зүлхэ). That looks quite different from the Russian and Tungusic names, and I have no idea where it might come from, or how early it might be attested. All I can say is it looks similar to the word зүлэг züleg (ǰülge in traditional script), meaning 'lawn' or 'turf'.

Here's my wildest speculation regarding the etymology of Зүлхэ Zülhe, the Buryat name of the Lena river.  All I could say is that it looks similar to зүлэг züleg (traditional script ǰülge), which in (Khalkha) Mongolian means 'grass, lawn' and apparently also 'meadow'. (Buryat is a Mongolic language.)

It turns out that there are a number of words in Mongolic and Turkic languages of the shape jVlgV (with j a lenis affricate). A footnote to an article by Louis (Lajos) Ligeti* on the 'Phags pa script presents over a dozen such words, with meanings including 'meadow', 'lawn', 'ravine', 'valley crossed by a river', 'brook' (as well as 'district', which Ligeti argues comes from a different Mongolian etymon with a fortis initial).

Ligeti doesn't mention Buryat Zülhe as a river name. A 'grass' related meaning is present in several words with 'front' vowel harmony (Mongolian ǰülge belongs here), while in a few others we have the meaning 'ravine, gorge' and 'back' vowels. The back-group would seem semantically closer to rivers, but there are crossings between the two groups.

('Front' and 'back' are in scare quotes because the relevant opposition is not necessarily phonetically one of frontness in the languages involved.)

I don't know any Turkic, but googling around I found some such words I'm displaying suggestively here:

Mongolian жалга jalga (trad. ǰilaɣ-a): 'valley, ravine' (back vowel harmony)

Kyrgyz жылга jylga, similar examples in Kazakh and elsewhere in Turkic languages: meanings variously given as 'brook', 'ravine'… (mostly back; all loans from the Mn. above?)

Buryat Зүлхэ Zülhe 'name of the Lena river' (front)

Mongolian зүлэг züleg (trad. ǰülge) 'lawn, turf, meadow' (front)

So I don't know if (a) the words fall into two groups, with the Lena name related to the front-grass group; (b) the Lena name is related to the back-ravine group, but just switched to front vowels; (c) the Lena name has nothing to do with any of the other words; (d) all the words are related, or come from unrelated etyma but the semantics got mixed over time.

——*Ligeti L., "Trois notes sur l'écriture 'Phags-pa", Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Vol. 13, No. 1/2 (1961), pp. 201-237. JSTOR.

[1] Translated as "Биография Лантаня (Biography of Langtan)", in Davydova M., Myasnikov B., eds., Русско-китайские отношения в XVII веке. Материалы и документы (Russian-Chinese relations in the 17th century. Materials and documents), vol. 2. Moscow, Nauka, 1972. Available online. The Baqi tongzhi also has a Manchu version that had been translated into Russian before the Chinese one.

[2] Kicengge 承志, "尼布楚條約界碑圖的幻影—滿文《黑龍江流域圖》研究 (The illusion of the Nerchinsk treaty boundary-stone: The Map of the Amur Region in Manchu)", The National Palace Museum Research Quarterly vol. 29, no. 1 (Autumn, 2011), pp. 147-236. Online here.

[3] Solovyov F., Словарь китайских топонимов на территории советского Дальнего Востока (Dictionary of Chinese toponyms in the territory of the Soviet Far East). Vladivostok, 1975. Online here.

[4] An occurrence online claims to be from a modern edition of the Qingwen zhiyao 清文指要 or Manju gisun-i oyonggo jorin-i bithe, a Manchu-Chinese phrasebook whose first version seems to date to 1789. Waiku 'crooked' also occurs in the translation of the Book of the Nishan Shaman serialised in the Echoes of Manchu blog.

[5] Qi Jun 齐钧, "《尼布楚条约》所涉以雅库为界初考 (A preliminary study of 'Yaku as the border' alluded at the Treaty of Nerchinsk)", in  Han Yanlong 韩延龙 ed., 法律史论集 (Studies on legal history), Beijing, 法律出版社, 2006. Available online in abridged form.


  1. languagehat said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    Lèná might not be particularly faithful to the Russian pronunciation, but at least it should immunise the Chinese public against the belief that Lenin 列宁 Lièníng named himself after the river. (The idea is widespread, but Lenin apparently was already using the pseudonym well before the events supposed to have motivated the choice.)

    The "events" are irrelevant as far as I can see; "Lenin" has to be based on a form "Lena," the only two choices to explain that are the river and "the name of a Gymnasium classmate," and the latter seems to me self-evidently absurd, given Lenin's character. The fact that Plekhanov called himself “Volgin” after the Volga is just the nail in the alleged Gymnasium classmate's coffin. (Cf. also Onegin after the river Onega; it's a perfectly ordinary way to create Russian surnames.)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    From Marcel Erdal:

    I read somewhere that the name Lena is believed to come from Elyu Ene, meaning "large river". Is this correct and, if it is, what is the source language?

    If Lenin did not name himself after the river, as the paper states, what did he name himself after?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 11:46 am

    From Alexander Vovin:

    Very interesting post!

    Manchu -iy- marks palatalization (cf. Ma. giyang [g'ang] 'river' < 江), so Liyana is phonetically [l'ana]. Since Liyena would contradict the rules of Manchu vowel harmony, only either Liyene or Liyana would be possible. I am afraid I have to second Marcel on Lenin < Lena. It is not the matter of what we learnt in school in the former USSR. but rather that the asshole never used this pseudonim before his exile. If you have any evidence to the contrary, could you please share? It would be very interesting. One problem that I have with your etymology is that in its upper reaches (which probably would be more familiar to itinerant Buriat, Manchu, and Manchu travellers), if my memory still serves me well, Lena flows not through the meadows as in the Yakut area in its mid-stream or father in the north in its down-strem, but througfh the cliffs and hills. Also, no Turkic native word starts with l-, if there was an aphaeresis, Turkologists would probably be able to identify the word, if it is Turkic. But may be you should look to Yukaghir for the etymology: after all Yukaghirs Chuvans, and Omoks were in the area long before Turks and these languages do have initial l-.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    From Peter Golden:

    An interesting and old question. The suggestions as to how Vladimir Il’ich Ul’ianov came to adopt his nom de plume/nom de guerre Lenin are numerous (well over 100) – and it was not the only pseudonym that he used. One of the “official” family versions is that it stemmed from the Lena River, but that is far from certain. A brief survey of the issue is given in the Russian Wikipedia, not an unimpeachable source, but it gives some idea of the range of views.

    In any event, given its initial L-, it is highly unlikely that it is Turkic. It is said to derive from Evenki Elü ena (Елю енэ) “great river” > Yakut/Sakha Ölüöne (Өлүөнэ), but I will leave that to those more versed in Tungusic than I.

  5. languagehat said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

    A brief survey of the issue is given in the Russian Wikipedia, not an unimpeachable source, but it gives some idea of the range of views.

    It refers to "many versions," but the only two it actually mentions are the standard one, that he named himself after the river, and one favored by Vladlen Loginov, that he borrowed the name of a real Nikolai Lenin whose passport he used. But since the name of the actual Lenin family is derived from the Lena River, it seems to me a distinction without a difference. I'm not sure why so much effort is expended in trying to find alternative explanations for such an obvious derivation.

  6. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    Thanks to Victor Mair for posting this and to everyone for the comments.

    I'm afraid I've come across as a bit too dismissive of the hypothesis that Lenin named himself after the river. What appears to be discredited is the idea that he took the name after the Lena massacre (since he was using the moniker before that happened), or that it's an allusion to his Siberian exile, which he didn't spend particularly near the Lena. The longer-than-Volgin version is admittedly much more plausible. If, on the other hand, he took the name from someone else surnamed Lenin, then that's who he named himself after, not the river itself. At any rate, I didn't mean to suggest Lenin's pseudonym has a non-Russian origin, or to ignore is typical formation with -in, and have nothing to add to that old discussion.

    What I found remarkable is the choice of the Chinese transcription. If Lenin did indeed mean his moniker to refer to the river, then the transcription Lèná is turning people away from a useful association, rather than 'immunising' them against a false belief, as I suggested. Transcriptions of foreign names used in Chinese media, especially when less common languages are involved, are of varying quality (cf. the Danish name Anders, sometimes transcribed as if the 'd' was pronounced; googling for Anders Fogh Rasmussen I find both 安德斯 (with d) and 安诺斯 (no d)); but with Russian names, the distinction between 'soft' (palatalised) and 'hard' consonants is usually preserved in the transcriptions. Xinhua, the state news agency, has published transcription dictionaries that codify these rules for many languages, and Xinhua's role in the Chinese media ecosystem means its transcriptions tend to be followed. Now, specifically for a stressed syllable ле as in the name of the Lena river and indeed in 'Lenin', a Chinese transcription will typically use a character pronounced liè. I don't see why anyone would choose instead, as it's pronounced quite differently: the palatalisation of the Russian л is lost, and the e in pinyin le is actually a back vowel [ɤ] (which can be preceded by a glide [ɯ]; in some accents, the l itself can sound rather similar to an English 'dark l'). So I was wondering if the choice of didn't have an ulterior motive, such as dissuading people from associating the river with Lenin. Perhaps whoever came up with the term was (mistakenly?) sceptical about the usual story on Lenin's pseudonym.

    (It's not as if the character 列 liè, which occurs in Lenin's name and can stand for it (as in 马列主义 Mǎ-Liè zhǔyì 'Marxism-Leninism'), is taboo in transcriptions: cf. Лебедев 别杰夫, also with stressed ле.)

  7. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

    @Alexander Vovin

    I also thought it made more sense for the Buryat name Zülhe to be related to the Turkic and Mongolian words meaning 'valley', 'ravine' etc., given what the river looks like in its upper reaches. That indeed makes more sense than an etymology related to the 'meadow' group.

    The problem with that is that in the 'meadow' group (exemplified by Mongolian ǰülge) we mostly have front vowel harmony, and in the 'valley' group (Kyrgyz жылга, Mn. ǰilaɣ-a) mostly back harmony. The Buryat name for the Lena, Zülhe, has front vowels, putting it closer to the 'meadow' group. Buryat already has a reflex of Mongolian ǰilaɣ-a meaning 'ravine, gully, dry river bed…'; it occurs in toponyms in Buryatia in the form Жалга(й). So for Zülhe to be related to the 'back' group, Buryat would have had to borrow a fronted version of it from a neighbouring language, rather than inherit it within Mongolic.

    (There are more examples of similar Mongolic and Turkic words in the Ligeti paper, but I'd rather not quote any of those before I can double-check them elsewhere.)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    From Juha Janhunen:

    There is something wrong with elü ena 'great river'. There seems to be no word like elü* or yelü* 'great' in Ewenki, and the relevant word for 'river' is attested in Ewenki dialects variously as yenee – yengee – engne – engnye, which makes it rather difficult to reconstruct it for Proto-Ewenki. In any case, this is not a basic word for 'river'. In the SSTM it is erroneously connected with the names of the Yenisei, Ewenki yendegii etc. (of Samoyedic origin, see Studia Etymologia Cracoviensia 17). Altogether, words with an initial y- in Ewenki are secondary. The word yenee is probably a pre-Ewenki Palaeo-Siberian substrate item, cf. Yukaghir enu-ng, – onu-ng 'river', Kamchukotic inu-ng 'sea'. Even so, the name of the Lena may well contain this element, and it is also present in the name of the Yana. To understand the way how it came to be used in Russian, we should study in more detail the route of the Russian Cossacks to the Lena: where did they first use this name for the river – in the south (in the Baikal region), or in the north (on the lower Lena) – for time being, I do not know the answer. Perhaps the Russians got the name from Yukaghiric speakers.

    And I notice only that Sasha also suggested that the name could be of a Yukaghiric origin.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

    From Alexander Vovin:

    While being a Manchurist, and not a North Tungusic specialist, Ewenki Elü ena (Елю енэ) “great river" strikes me as being very odd. The normal words in Ewenki for 'river' is bira and for the 'greatr' hagdï.

  10. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    To clarify the various words involved: on the one hand we have words more or less transparently related to the Russian name:

    Evenki form meaning 'big river' > Yakut Ölüöne

    Evenki > (Yakut) > Russian Лена Lena > (Latin intermediate form, oral or written >) Manchu Liyana > Chinese Lǐyǎnà used in Qing documents

    Russian > modern Chinese form Lèná (unexplained choice of the first syllable; Lenin avoidance?)

    Russian > regular modern Chinese form Lièná, less common

    Then there's the Buryat name, quite different from Lena, for which I'm not proposing an etymology, but noting a similarity with Mongolian and Turkic words.

    Mongolian жалга jalga (trad. ǰilaɣ-a): 'valley, ravine' (back vowel harmony)

    Kyrgyz жылга jylga, similar examples in Kazakh and elsewhere in Turkic languages: meanings variously given as 'brook', 'ravine'… (mostly back; all loans from the Mn. above?)

    Buryat Зүлхэ Zülhe 'name of the Lena river' (front)

    Mongolian зүлэг züleg (trad. ǰülge) 'lawn, turf, meadow' (front)

    Maybe someone has something to say about the possible relations between these Turkic and Mongolic forms?

  11. Brett said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

    @hat: Whether "being named after" is a transitive relation seems to be something that people (I'm thinking of native English speakers, primarily) disagree on—sometime quite vociferously. In situations where A is named after B and B is named after C (neither of these being controversial), I have observed people to argue that A is not named after C. For example, I have a cousin whose first name is our grandfather's middle name and our great-grandfather's first name. However, my aunt insists that the cousin is only named after our grandfather, not our great-grandfather. To me that seems absurd, but that's what she insists.

  12. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

    @Alexander Vovin

    There's another Tungusic word floating around. In the post I mention an alleged Manchu origin for Chinese 崴(子) wǎi(zi) 'bay' in place names in Jilin and today's Primorsky Krai. I don't know any Manchu, but dictionaries give a Ma. noun wai and an adjective waiku meaning 'crooked'. Could Ma. wai be the origin of the Chinese 崴?

    Manchu wai looks surprisingly similar to Chinese 歪 wāi 'askew'. Is that a coincidence, or could Ma. wai be a Chinese loan itself? I wonder if wai has cognates elsewhere in Tungusic…

  13. languagehat said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    If, on the other hand, he took the name from someone else surnamed Lenin, then that's who he named himself after, not the river itself.

    @hat: Whether "being named after" is a transitive relation seems to be something that people (I'm thinking of native English speakers, primarily) disagree on—sometime quite vociferously.

    Of course you're both right, and I was too dismissive with my "distinction without a difference" remark; it does indeed make a difference whether he named himself after the river or borrowed someone else's name, I was just (over)reacting to the idea that his name didn't have anything to do with the river.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2015 @ 6:05 am

    From José Andrés Alonso de la Fuente:

    I believe that the Russian hydronym Lena (Лéна) goes back to the Tundra Yukaghir noun compound jojl-enung (j = yod, ng = velar nasal) 'river with steep, craggy riverbanks'. This noun compound was borrowed into Yakut and from there into (East) Ewenki. Russians most likely took it from the Ewenkis. Even nowadays, most Ewenkis don't recognize Елюене as a native term. The second component, however, can be found as an autonomous lexeme in some East Ewenki dialects in various forms: yänää, yängää, ängnä, etc., all meaning 'river, river valley', and it is preserved in another Russian hydronym, namely Яна. Its origin, of course, is the Yukaghir noun en(u)ng 'river' which I mentioned above. I'll gladly provide references in case it is necessary.

  15. January First-of-May said,

    December 28, 2015 @ 8:01 am

    These things differ so much that I'm not even sure if there's any
    For example, George Walker Bush was named after his father George Herbert Walker Bush, who is in turn named after George Herbert Walker (his maternal grandfather). Yet it is somewhat hard to seriously argue that George Walker Bush was named after (his great-grandfather) George Herbert Walker.
    OTOH, while it is obvious from the name that Martin Luther King Jr. was directly named for his father (or he wouldn't be Jr.), he is still considered to be named for Martin Luther.

    In corporation history, there are, IIRC, some cases where A is named after B is named after C [is named after D…] and the ends of the chain have no part in common, even etymologically. For example, JP Morgan Chase is named after Chase Manhattan, which is named after Bank of Manhattan, but saying JP Morgan Chase is named after Bank of Manhattan would be absurd.
    Something similar happened with the Russian word универсам (basically "supermarket", from a phrase meaning "universal self-service shop"), which through repeated contraction left out the "shop" part entirely (it's literally "univer[sal] self[-service]", so there's actually none of the "service" part either).

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 1:24 am

    From Jichang Lulu:

    To add to what Alexander Vovin, Juha Janhunen and José Andrés Alonso de la Fuente have said on the possible Yukaghir origin of Russian Лена Lena:

    Janhunen's article in Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia 17, with comments on the Ewenki yenee and similar forms, said to account for the second half of the Ewenki name for the Lena, is available on the website of the Jagiellonian University;

    the elements in Alonso de la Fuente's proposed (Tundra) Yukaghir compound appear in entries 700 and 1655 in Irina Nikolaeva's Historical Dictionary of Yukaghir.

    Yukaghir is a family of two extant languages spoken in Yakutia, totalling perhaps 200 speakers. More information, online texts, links etc. on the Yukaghir pages maintained by Nikolaeva and Elena Maslova.

  17. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

    I asked Irina Nikolaeva about the proposed Yukaghir etymology composed of jojl and enu. She notes that "in Yukaghir noun-noun compounds, the first component usually loses the final -l" and replaces it with the genitive marker -n (before a consonant) or -d (before a vowel). "For example, lachil 'fire' + amun 'bone' gives lachi-d-amun 'burning log'. So the combination of jojl and enu would normally give joj-d-enu."

    This phenomenon "is common to both Yukaghir languages and can be found in older Yukaghir recordings. I know of one example from Old Yukaghir in which -l was preserved, but it was still followed by the genitive -d."

    That would seem to speak against the specific proposed etymology for the name of the river: I understand that Evenki has both an alveolar lateral [l] and a dental voiced stop [d], so the -d- in Yukaghir *joj-d-enu should still be a -d- in the Evenki form.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 30, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    From Jichang Lulu:

    On Зүлхэ Zülkhe, the Buryat name of the Lena:

    In the post I noticed that this word bears some similarity, on the one hand, to Mongolian зүлэг züleg (trad. ǰülge) 'lawn, turf, meadow', and, on the other hand, to certain Mongolic and Turkic words with back vowels and meanings including 'brook' and 'ravine'. The latter group includes Mongolian жалга jalga (trad. ǰilaɣ-a) and Kyrgyz жылга jylga. The question was whether the Buryat word is related to either group.

    Buryat has, besides Zülkhe, reflexes of the Mongolian words in each of the groups above:

    жалга jalga 'depression; ravine' (~ǰilaɣ-a)
    зүлгэ zülge 'lawn, meadow' (~ǰülge)
    зүлхэ zülkhe 'middle course of a river; large river; Lena river'

    Definitions abridged from Cheremisov's dictionary*.

    As for the third word, googling for Buryat examples seems to give only results where зүлхэ refers specifically to the Lena, rather than to rivers in general. Cheremisov's example уhанай зүлхэ uhanay zülkhe 'middle course' (уhанай is the genitive of уhан 'water, river', a cognate of Khalkha ус 'water') yields no ghits.

    Kruchkin's Great Russian-Mongolian Dictionary** (which has a Mn-Ru part as well) gives Зүлэг мөрөн Züleg mörön 'Lena river' in the entry for зүлэг 'lawn, meadow'.

    Other Mongolian dictionaries (Kowalewski, Lessing, yellow Mongɣol kitad toli) have no entry with consonants as in the mystery Buryat word, and no reference to the Lena in the entry for züleg either.

    *Черемисов К.М., Цыдендамбаев Ц.Б., Бурят-монгольско – русский словарь. М.: Государственное издательство иностранных и национальных словарей, 1951.

    ** Кручкин Ю., Большой русско-монгольский словарь. M.: Восток-Запад, 2006.

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