“Tocharian C” Again: The Plot Thickens and the Mystery Deepens

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[This is a guest post by Douglas Q. Adams]

Readers of this blog may remember the excitement generated a few months ago by the announcement that “Tocharian C,” the native language of Kroraina (Chinese Loulan) had been discovered, hiding, as it were, in certain documents written in the Kharoṣṭhī script ("Tocharian C: its discovery and implications" [4/2/19]). Those documents, with transcription, grammatical sketch, and glossary, were published earlier this year as a part of Klaus T. Schmidt’s Nachlass (Stefan Zimmer, editor, Hampen in Bremen, publisher).  However, on the weekend of September 15th and 16th a group of distinguished Tocharianists (led by Georges Pinault and Michaël Peyrot), accompanied by at least one specialist in Central Asian Iranian languages, languages normally written in Kharoṣṭhī, met in Leiden to examine the texts and Schmidt’s transcriptions.  The result is disappointing, saddening even.  In Peyrot’s words, “not one word is transcribed correctly.”  We await a full report of the “Leiden Group” with a more accurate transcription and linguistic commentary (for instance, is this an already known Iranian or Indic language, or do the texts represent more than one language, one of which might be a Tocharian language?). Producing such a report is a tall order and we may not have it for some little time.  But, at the very least, Schmidt’s “Tocharian C,” as it stands, has been removed from the plane of real languages and moved to some linguistic parallel universe.

So, what do we have in Schmidt’s “Tocharian C”? I can think of three scenarios, perhaps there are more.   First, Schmidt may have subconsciously read into his texts what he wanted to be there. There have certainly been such things happening (the well-known first “transcription” of the Voynich Manuscript by William Romaine Newbold* is such a case). Secondly, and less generously, it may have been an outright fabrication, an attempt at deception. But, what would have been the purpose? Thirdly, and more generously, it might have been a kind of “Tocharian Sindarin”—a created language such as Tolkien played so artistically with, given a certain literary verisimilitude by the reference to old manuscripts where it might be found. If so, it was not meant to deceive, but his family, not having been told of its true nature, passed it on to Zimmer as real.  And Zimmer, not being a reader of the Kharoṣṭhī script (precious few Tocharianists are), naturally enough took Schmidt’s transcriptions at face value.

[VHM:  *Holder of the Adam Seybert Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy chair at the University of Pennsylvania from 1907 to 1926.]

Zimmer is to be commended for tracking down pictures of all the texts (from Berlin, Paris, London, and Cambridge) and publishing them with the material he received from Schmidt’s family, thus making possible the “Leiden Group’s” examination.  Whatever its genesis, it was a convincing construct, at least until one looked at its supposed sources: it was internally consistent and presented a picture of a language which would meet the expectations of Tocharianists, with just enough quirky, unexpected stuff, to again meet the expectations for the discovery of a new but related language. Schmidt’s “Tocharian C” is still, in Zimmer’s words, a “linguistic sensation,” but apparently one of an entirely different order than we had originally supposed.


  1. David Marjanović said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 6:23 am

    This is actually more fascinating than the original announcement of "Tocharian C". I can't wait to learn what languages all these documents really are written in!

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 6:28 am

    From Michael Weiss:

    A quick look at the first TC text reveals that it was fantastical. I doubt it was a fabrication. KT Schmidt had, sadly, been drifting towards wild claims and wishful thinking for a while now.

  3. Phillip Helbig said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 8:01 am

    "This is actually more fascinating than the original announcement"

    In 1984, I serendipitously purchased The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It is a well written and exciting book. We now know that major parts of it are not true. It is unclear whether the authors realized this and, if so, at what time. But in some sense the story behind the deception is more important than the story itself.

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    Acc'd WP, the existence of Tocharian C was suspected before Schmidt's "discovery" from loanwords in Krorainan Prakrit, so I guess there still probably was a Tocharian C, just not Schmidt's?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 1:22 pm

    From Don Ringe:

    I have the K. T. Schmidt book and will look at it with a somewhat different eye now (though some of the statements about Tocharian phonology, which I actually know something about, already struck me as highly improbable).

  6. Chris Button said,

    September 26, 2019 @ 6:00 am

    So to Andreas Johansson's point, are we indeed just back to some loanwords then?

    If Schmidt truly believed he had made this amazing discovery, why would he not have published it when he was alive? That it came out after his death makes me think Douglas Adams' suggestion of Schmidt having fun with a Tocharian Sindarin of sorts might prove to be correct.

  7. Rodger C said,

    September 27, 2019 @ 6:44 am

    More like at Tocharian Gautisk.

  8. Dino said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 11:43 pm

    Good question Chris Button, why? Sounds a bit fishy. They have closed the comment on the other thread so I am not able to reply there. I enjoy your attempt at reconstruction and you might well be correct on what sound it was but you are missing the main point, the oracle bone script was a picture of an insect, when people talked about it a few years ago my family and friends checked it out, we all saw it. Why would someone go out of their way deleting it and replaced it with a false picture and give us a crappy explanation of how it evolved.

    As for Victor Mair posting a comment from Steve O'Harrow which seems to insinuate that I make claim of all languages came from Vietnamese and emailed to Lawerence C. Thompson, , I do not even know who Lawerence C. Thompson is nor did I claim all languages came from Vietnamese. I was saying Vietnamese share vocabularies with many other languages. The reason for this can be correlated to researches put out by others years ago on how world civilization spread out from Sunda in South East Asia such as geneticist Stephen Openheimer, Gordon White`s book Starship.

    Vietnamese history says Vietnamese came from 72 ethnics, Irish myths say there were 72 languages after the fall of Babel, in Greek, Eastern Orthodox and Magdalena traditions Jesus had 72 disciples, there are many more about number 72 when we do comparative study with other histories but we do not have the time for it here. My point was that there was already many interrelated languages already, it is false to claim Indo-European languages came from one parent. I have no idea what Steve was on about with this quote: * "Men of Hu, Men of Han, Men of the Hundred Man".

    The word man, HUMAN actually is comprised of Hu meaning breath, spirit, you can correlate it to French Halein, biblical Hebrew Habvel also second part of yahu or yeho, Vietnamese Hy. + Man means awake, Germanic: manþ, German: munter, English: manna [food for enlightenment] from biblical Hebrew: MAN, old Viet: man, Vietnamese: văn the base word for culture, civilized. The old testament is a metaphorical story about the journey of the souls, descending down into the body then rose back up, not a historical document, slavery in Egypt means slavery to the body and ego.

    BTW biblical Hebrew is Asiatic Greek, you should check out the book Hebrew Is Greek available for free online.

  9. Dino said,

    September 29, 2019 @ 12:42 am

    Sorry, need correction. the hu and ho in yahu and yeho mean peace, stillness, it is ya and ye that mean breath, spirit, I do not have time to show comparative evidence for it now. Cheers!

  10. Chris Button said,

    September 29, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    @ Dino

    the oracle bone script was a picture of an insect, when people talked about it a few years ago my family and friends checked it out, we all saw it. Why would someone go out of their way deleting it and replaced it with a false picture and give us a crappy explanation of how it evolved

    The wikipedia analysis of 夏 is clearly grossly incomplete (although not necessarily "false"), and it is worth being very circumspect of wikipedia for any graphic analysis. However, I think your comments about an insect represent a confusion of the original graphic form representing 秋 "autumn" with that of 夏 as is sometimes found in the literature.

  11. Dino said,

    October 2, 2019 @ 8:41 pm

    Chris Dutton, the original picture was not that insect picture, and I do not recall the old oracle bone script for autumn was such a fake picture of an insect either. You seem to have strong interest in studying in this area so I will give you some basic tips.

    The Welsh say after Summerland [Sunda] they were in Deffrobani. Summerland was in between the Afez Sea [Sea of South] and Deffrobani. Deffrobani literally means Văn Lang. To save you time look straight into the words in Welsh] deffro, ban, Indonesian] lahan, Wagiman] lahan, Vietnamese] bang, la bàn, lang chạ; for comparative evidence.

    Old formal Vietnamese used Welsh vocabularies and been replaced with common Indo-European vocabularies. Germanic is the strongest feature in modern Vietnamese. English: do, old English: don, Vietnamese: động, English: not, Vietnamese: nỏ. English: don't, Vietnamese: đâu [use in non request], đừng [use in request, command]. Để=put. Vietnamese: hành động, German: handeln [action]. Vietnamese: bị [use in past participle], English: be, been; Vietnamese: là from ra [manifest], English: are; Vietnamese: thị, English: is, IndoEur is thought to be -esti. Vietnamese: có, hữư, English: have, Welsh: caf, cewch and many more Welsh mutation forms; related to Vietnamese: cầm=hold.

    I do not have time to keep writing here, but I will give you a few hints. Vietnamese history actually said Greek was the leading branch of our Nine Righteous people; look into why Han history sounds like Roman history, Da Qin means Roman. Jesus also was known to be from Edessa [The Nine]. Why would anyone worship the Lord of the Underworld [HuangDi] as their ancestor? HuangDi defeated ChiYou and his 72 brothers, Romans crucified Jesus, really? Like they would teach you the truth. Good luck.

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    October 3, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    I am not going anywhere near Vietnamese, but it is worth noting that the Hu Gadarn myth was largely created by the forger Iolo Morgannwg, although the name is found in medieval sources.

    Gadarn is a mutated form of cadarn, strong/mighty.

    Deffrobana is probably a form of ancient and medieval Taprobana, identified with Sri Lanka, assumed to come from deffro, to wake.

  13. Diego Loukota said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 6:30 am

    The plot thickens indeed! I am very excited to see this post.
    I have been working on the corpus for some time and my own independent reaction to K.T. Schmidt's Nachlass was the same as that of the "Leiden group." I have not managed to elicit a reply to my queries from the "Leiden group," but unless I learn from them that what they have found is significantly better than what I myself have found, I will present a paper at the 2020 meeting of the American Oriental Society in Boston. What I have so far is: A) Schmidt's transcription is untenable from the point of view of Kharoṣṭhī paleography. Even if we were to admit that the Kucha Kharoṣṭhī took only a very general visual resemblance from mainstream Kharoṣṭhī (imagine, say, Cherokee syllabary from the printed Latin alphabet), and that therefore the values of graphemes are not the same as those in Kharoṣṭhī, still Schmidt's transcription is not self-coherent; B) At least if one reads the signs that resemble the most mainstream Kharoṣṭhī as if they were Kharoṣṭhī, there are traces of inflectional morphology (this excludes Chinese and, say, Old Turkic, although it would be early for it anyway); and C) Some derivational suffixes may be seen as related to cognates in the two indigenous Middle Iranian Saka languages Khotanese and Tumshuqese attested in the Tarim Basin.
    I would like to provide here a small emendation to this insightful post: the "Leiden group" may well have been "accompanied by at least one specialist in Central Asian Iranian languages" but as to whether these "languages [were] normally written in Kharoṣṭhī," this last statement is not accurate. Khotanese and Tumshuqese were written in varieties of the Brāhmī script (with Tumshuqese being much more creative than Khotanese…). János Harmatta attempted to provide interpretations for the Issyk and Ayrtam inscriptions (both from the other side of the Pamirs) as remains of Middle Iranian languages written through the medium of derivatives of Kharoṣṭhī, but both inscriptions are epigraphic hapaxes, and my impression is that his ideas have not gained a lot if traction. I would hold that document BH5-7 in the National Library of China (https://gandhari.org/a_document.php?catid=CKD0843) may contain Khotanese written in Kharoṣṭhī, but this is just a hunch and it would be an enormous rarity. It is fascinating to see how Kharoṣṭhī throughout its history seems to have been consistently used to write only one language, the Gāndhārī prakrit, whereas its sister Brāhmī gave rise instead to myriads of daughter scripts used even now to write nearly all the other ancient and modern languages of South, South East Asia, and the Himalayas. Like Auntie Mary died a spinster while her non-identical twin-sister Jane had ten kids, a hundred grand-kids and a thousand great-grand-kids…
    The final point on which I would like to remark is that whatever the scenario of the piece in K.T. Schmidt's Nachlass may be (wishful thinking or "Tocharian Sindarin;" a fabrication I would dismiss as he never intended to publish it) the amount of ingenuity, historical plausibility and ehem… linguistic fancy (in the best sense of the word) displayed in there are really noteworthy. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum!

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

    From Dough Hitch:

    The first half of Schmidt is on the Karmavācanā. As far as I can tell, this is the first publication of the longest surviving Kuchean text. It also has useful information about the Tumshuqese Karmavācanā which is a close parallel. For these reasons alone the book is valuable and useful. Apparently, much or all of this appeared earlier in his Habilitationsschrift, which I have not seen.

    The second half of the book has received all of the attention, as far as I know. Also, as far as I know, there has never been a successful decipherment of a document in an unknown language and unknown script. In SPP 186, fn. 45 (p. 14-15) I compared three transcriptions of one line of the Kharoṣṭhī from Kucha. Even here, where the source language and script are theoretically known, there are problems in reading since both seem to have evolved. And for the documents with likely not Prakrit content it is a huge stretch to give a full translation. Schmidt makes all kinds of logical leaps. But it is a valuable contribution to draw attention to these documents and Zimmer needs applause for rounding up the images. Undeciphered documents are seductive. I think we can expect other "translations" to appear.

  15. Diego Loukota said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

    Erratum: The Ayrtam inscription is in Bactrian, and written in the Bactrian alphabet (derived from the Greek alphabet), so please correct from my previous post. What I had in mind was the third inscription from Dasht-e-Nawur, which is in an unknown script that Harmatta sees as being the same as the one of the Issyk bowl inscription and derived from Kharoṣṭhī. He takes the underlying language to be Saka. Harmatta mentions a series of inscriptions, most of them unpublished, and hypothesizes a whole writing system used to write that lost Saka language west of the Pamirs… Here is his account: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/sites/silkroad/files/knowledge-bank-article/vol_II%20silk%20road_languages%20and%20literature%20in%20the%20kushan%20empire.pdf

  16. Diego Loukota said,

    October 7, 2019 @ 3:16 pm

    And a probably more sober and rigorous treatment of the same script/corpus can be found in Gérard Fussman's "Documents épigraphiques kouchans": https://www.persee.fr/doc/befeo_0336-1519_1974_num_61_1_5193

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