Dungan-English dictionary

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We have had several posts about Dungan on Language Log:

"Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet" (4/20/13)

"'Jesus' in Dungan" (7/16/14)

"Writing Sinitic languages with phonetic scripts" (5/20/16)

See also:

Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform.


The reason I have been interested in Dungan for the last four decades and more is that it constitutes prima facie evidence that a Sinitic language that had never before been written in Sinographs can be written in an alphabetical script, even without the indication of tones.  Relying on separation of words with spaces, punctuation, etc., the Dungans have used their script to write poetry, essays newspaper articles, and so on.

Now I'm very pleased to learn of the publication of Olli Salmi's Dungan-English Dictionary by Eastbridge Books, an imprint of Camphor Press:

Dungan is interesting for Chinese studies because it has an alphabetic orthography. It is also important because it shows very little influence from the Chinese literary language. It has preserved original features of the local dialects of about 150 years ago. It also has loans from Persian and Arabic, from Turkic languages, and from Russian.

The Dungans are Muslims who fled China for Russian territory in Central Asia after the failure of the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877). Their language, which UNESCO classifies as "definitely endangered," is related to northwestern Mandarin Chinese. Dungan has two main dialects: the so-called Gansu dialect, which is similar to the Muslim Chinese communal dialects in the southern part of the province of Xinjiang, and the Shaanxi dialect, which has more in common with the dialects of southern Shaanxi around Xi'an. In the Soviet Union an alphabetic orthography and a literary language was developed for the Gansu dialect.

Although Dungan is now spoken primarily outside of China and employs an alphabet rather than Chinese characters, it is not really a peripheral dialect of Chinese. The Dungan Revolt started near Xi'an, Shaanxi, the cradle of the Chinese civilization and a frequent site of the capital of the country. (This is where the terracotta soldiers were buried.) The speakers that gave rise to Gansu Dungan came from a place west of the Shaanxi speakers, but still a totally Chinese-speaking area.

This dictionary is based on words and examples collected from Dungan-language newspapers and books published before the fall of the Soviet Union. Special attention has been paid to not only vocabulary (9,945 headwords) but also grammatical features; the dictionary may even provide material for the study of syntax. An effort has been made to find characters for Dungan words in dialect dictionaries published in China.

Camphor Press



  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 5:42 am

    I'd love to read an updated post about the state of the art in Pinyin, for which much more could be done to further its use, especially from Asia – but then again, some years ago an overwhelming rejection of Pinyin in a govermental survey.
    Las month this issue came to my mind after finding out "The Dozenal Society of America"
    which promotes the advantages of using a duodecimal base; is there a similar institution for Pinyin?

    Incidentally, I'd like to know about the next publication(s) in the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series.

  2. Mark S. said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 8:08 am

    Two different page spreads from the Dungan-English Dictionary are available: here (pdf) and here (png).

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 9:54 am

    Russian prerevolutionary works devoted to the culture and language of the Dungans, as well as to their migration to the Russian Empire can be found and copied on dungane.ru.

    See also Olga Zavyalova. “Dungan Language.” Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics. General Editor Rint Sybesma. Vol. 2. Leiden–Boston: Brill, 2017. Pp. 141–148.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 9:59 am

    @Antonio L. Banderas

    The best place to keep up with matters pertaining to Pinyin is here:


    The next volume currently planned for the ABC dictionary series at Hawaii is the Cantonese-English Dictionary of Robert S. Bauer. Since it is a massive, complicated work, it may still take some time before it is in print, though the bulk of the work has been done during the past couple of decades, and especially in the last few years.

  5. Chris Button said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

    That's great to see the dictionary has come to completion. One quick query on the comment below…

    … it constitutes prima facie evidence that a Sinitic language that had never before been written in Sinographs can be written in an alphabetical script, even without the indication of tones.

    Surely the writing of a tonal language with an alphabetic script without indication of tones nothing new? Think of all those missionary alphabets whose creators often weren't too well attuned to such prosodic things and sometimes missed contrastive length as well. Usually context fairly quickly (albeit perhaps not as quickly as would be ideal) makes it clear to a native speaker how to pronounce things; it's the non-native speakers who are really left really fumbling. Even as sounds shift over time, some tonal markings (perhaps merged into redundancy or split into different sounds by a regular rule), however imprecise, will at least give a foreigner something to grasp on to. Then again, orthographies aren't generally created for foreigners…

  6. Quyet said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 9:28 pm

    @Chris Button
    Precisely. Vietnamese is the perfect example. The government often sends out mass text messages with announcements to every number in the country with no diacritics at all. Furthermore, teenagers have grown up to text toneless and abreviated with no issues, anf now it's common to see things like "Hn 2 vc mun dj choj oh cv thog nhat vs cac p dog nghiep hem?"

  7. Minhv said,

    October 27, 2018 @ 7:38 am

    Dungan is indeed a fascinating case study for a Sinitic language.

    It's rapidly gaining (or has already gained) features alien to other Sinitic languages such as grammatical tense, and its vocabulary base expands via direct borrowing from foreign languages (especially Cyrillic-using ones), rather than the relatively more calque-based approach by Sinographic Chinese. No doubt its phonetic script based nature contributed to a conducive environment for such developments.

    Dungan is quickly losing the capability of being transcribed into Sinographs, and soon Sinitic-literate people will be completely unable to comprehend written Dungan without exclusively studying the language, rather than (say) quickly gaining basic literacy by just learning a bunch of Cyrillic letters. Ironically, even Japanese would be more legible at that stage.

    Contrast this with Written Colloquial Wu or Written Colloquial Cantonese, which can easily be highly legible to anyone educated in Standard Written Chinese with a minimal amount of study, despite more than a millennia of divergence in the spoken languages.

    It'll be interesting to observe the development of Dungan, and what lessons future Chinese language reformers will take from this.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    October 27, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

    It'll be interesting to observe the development of Dungan

    Sure, assuming there's going to be any. "Definitely endangered", says the quote in the OP.

  9. Michele Sharik said,

    October 27, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

    @Quyet: "Hn 2 vc mun dj choj oh cv thog nhat vs cac p dog nghiep hem?"

    What would that be in their regular script (with tone marks/diacriticals)?

    PS. Has anybody else lost the ability to subscribe to the comment feed?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2018 @ 6:17 pm

    @Michele Sharik

    It's here:

    "Diacriticless Vietnamese, part 2"


  11. Michele Sharik said,

    October 27, 2018 @ 11:19 pm

    @Victor: thanks!

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