Tocharian love poem

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From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

This English translation is modified based on pages 26-28 of the article — Adams, Douglas Q: "More thoughts on Tocharian B prosody," Tocharian and Indo-European Studies 14 (2013), 3-30.

A fragmentary manuscript in Tocharian B, ca. 600 AD, excavated in Kucha (Qizil Miŋ-Öy), Berlin Turfan Collection. Now stored at Frankfurt. No. THT 496, B 496.

…(ya)ltse pikala watäṃ ·e – ci(ṣṣ)e /// /// – – ·nts· p(o) ask(a)sk(au) (mā) ñ(i) (ci)sa noṣ śomo ñ(e)m(wno)lme (l)āre tāka mā ra postaṃ cisa lāre mäsketär-ñ : ciṣṣe laraumñe ciṣṣe ārtañye pelke kaltta-(r)r«†ä» śolämpa ṣṣe mā t(e) stālle śol wärñai : 2 taiysu pälskanoym sanai ṣaryompa śāyau karttse(ś) śaulu-wärñai snai tserekwa snai tā – :
yāmor-ñīkte ṣe cau ñī palskañe śarsa tusa ysaly= ersate ciṣy= araś ñi sälkāte : wāya ci lauke tsyāra ñiśwetke «k»ly«†k»autka-ñ pāke po läklenta«nt»s ciṣe tsārwo sampā(te-ñ) – – – – – – ·e śol pals(k)= araś ñī kom-kom mī-

"…a thousand years, [you will] tell [our] story. [I thus announce, [here]tofore there was no human being dearer to me than [you]; likewise hereafter there will be no one dearer to [you] than [me]. [Your] love, [your] affection, [my] jubilant song rises up! Along with life [itself], this should not come to an end for [my] whole life. I was thinking: “I will live with one love well [for the whole of my] life, without any deceit, without…” The God [of Karma] alone recognized this, my thought. Thus he provoked a quarrel; it ripped out my heart [that belonged] to [you. I]t led [you] afar, it tore me apart, it turned me into a partaker of all sorrows; he took away the consolation [I had] in thee… my life, spirit, and heart, day-by-day…"

Cf. the transcription and translation in J. P. Mallory and Victor H.Mair, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West (London:  Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 273.  This is one of the favorite parts of our book.

From Douglas Adams:

This particular single manuscript page is probably the most famous Tocharian text known.  Even 1,500 years later its emotional appeal is readily apparent to the reader.  Since, like the vast majority of Tocharian tetxs, it is fragmentary, I allow myself the hope that, if complete, the final section would speak of his love restored.

A colleague who specializes on South Asian history and culture from the same period maintained that a poem of such intense personal feeling and emotion would not have been written in India at that time.  What this indicates to me is that, although Tocharia was thoroughly Buddhicized, its culture was not entirely Indianized.

Selected readings


  1. Doug Hitch said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 10:26 pm

    The first five or six akṣaras in the second to last line are transcribed above as: wetke «k»ly«†k»autka-ñ. Krause-Thomas TEB II p. 72 give wetke, lykautka-ñ, with a note "Für klyautka-ñ". In pure, rigorous, akṣara by akṣara transliteration, I would read: we tke lykau X ṅka`ñ (X is the blotch). ṅka seems graphically more likely than tka. This would give a normalized transcription: wetke lykauṅkañ. I don't read Kuchean, but apparently lyk- is a permissible initial cluster. Does this help in reading?

  2. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 11:49 pm

    According to Pinault, Chrestomathie tokharienne, 2008, 30, the scribe's error of writing lykau- for the correct klyau- is because the pronunciation of the initial cluster had already been simplified by this time to lyau-.

    I would think that the poets (mostly from the second half of the first millennium) in the anthology of the Subhāṣita-ratnakoṣa show, especially in chapters 22 virahiṇī-vrajyā "The lady parted from her lover" and 23 virahi-vrajyā "The lover separated from his mistress", similar intense emotions; see the exquisite translations in Daniel H. H. Ingalls, An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry (HOS 44) 1965.

  3. Chris Button said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 10:13 pm

    According to Pinault, Chrestomathie tokharienne, 2008, 30, the scribe's error of writing lykau- for the correct klyau- is because the pronunciation of the initial cluster had already been simplified by this time to lyau-.

    Does Pinault explain this any further? Not being a Tocharian specialist, I'm interested in how it compares to occasional attestations of kly- in Inscriptional Burmese where kl- seems to be in the process of shifting to its Written Burmese form ky- and the scribe appears to have captured the sound change in progress.

    Is the -y- in "klyau" a secondary development from the -l-? If kl- is considered a co-articulation, could that explain why the scribe might have written lk- instead, which with the -y- then becomes lyk- in "lykau"? Otherwise, why would the scribe even retain the k- if it had already been dropped?

  4. Chris C. said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

    @Chris Button "Otherwise, why would the scribe even retain the k- if it had already been dropped?"

    Why do we retain the "gh" in "knight"? Or the "g" in "gnat"? Or the "t" in (my dialect) "often"?

    In other words, is any explanation necessary beyond a tendency toward conservatism in written forms?

  5. Chris Button said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 10:39 pm

    @ Chris C

    Because the "k" is in the wrong place: "klyau-" has been written "lykau-". In English, that would be like writing "know" as "nkow"

  6. Chris Button said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 11:13 pm

    To put it another way, if the k- of kl- has been dropped in pronunciation and that is being reflected in the spelling now starting with l-, then why should the k- still be retained in the spelling but somewhere else in the syllable? I'm wondering if maybe the k- hadn't actually been dropped and that it was able to be retained because kl- was being treated as a coarticulation rather than a cluster of k- followed by l-.

  7. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 9:06 am

    [On the writing error of klyau-] Pinault writes: “Le scribe a permuté les composants de la ligature initiale, ce qui doit s’expliquer par le fait que la prononciation courante était sans doute déjà lyautka, avec la même simplification du groupe initial kl- qui s’observe dans tokh. A lutk-”. Presumably the idea that the unpronounced k- should be written occurred to the scribe a bit too late. Werner Thomas, who first published the text (ZVS 71, 1954, 78-80) points out a similar mistake in a Toch. B Udānālaṃkāra MS, writing lkäntsann(e) for the correct kläntsann(e). Incidentally, in Tocharian, consonants appear in two series, non-palatalized and palatalized, much like in Slavic. Here, -ly- stands for the palatalized -l-, which is as expected in Toch. B Class II Preterit (Pinault, id. p. 599).

    [On the writing of –tka-] The ligature in question might look like -ṅka- rather than -tka- if you look at the table on p. 239 of Melanie Malzahn, “Tocharian brahmi chart” (in Instrumenta Tocharica, Heidelberg 2007). But it shares the top shape like a breve with the ts- ligature of the same MS, while the top of ṅka- should look like an inverted breve. In any case this is a well-known verb belonging to the class of –tk- verbs (30 of them are attested according to G. S. Lane, “Tocharian verbal stems in -tk-”, JAOS 85-1, 1965, 66-73), and there is no other way to interpret it. For the etymology of these bizarre looking verbs, see Craig Melchert, “Tocharian verb stems in -tk-”, ZVS 91-1, 1977, 93-130 (basically roots ending in a dental followed by the –sk- suffix, well known from Greek and Latin).

  8. Chris Button said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 6:02 pm

    Here, -ly- stands for the palatalized -l-

    Thanks for the additional context! So would we have had something like klʲ- as the onset? I suppose that then makes more sense in terms of just flipping the order to lʲk-

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 12:39 pm

    Just out of curiosity, can anyone give an example or two of a word in that text with a cognate in modern English, or maybe another modern Germanic language or a modern Romance language?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 8:39 am

    From Don Ringe:

    Modern English is as good as any of the other languages suggested; this is a very distant relationship, so Tocharian is roughly as different from any modern western European language as from any other.

    There is one perfect cognate: te 'this' (logophoric) is a dead ringer for ModE that, both reflecting PIE *tód ‘that' (neuter).

    The rest are more approximate. ñem 'name' is certainly the same word as ModE name, but the paradigm of the PIE word exhibited an alternation of vowels ("ablaut"), and the two words preserve different ablaut grades of the original PIE paradigm.

    ci 'you' (sg. oblique) is more or less the same word as archaic ModE thee, but the grammatical ending is different.

    Finally, śāyau 'I will live' and the derived nouns śaul ~ śol 'life' and śomo 'person' (~ śaumo, but that spelling happens not to occur in this text) reflect a basic verb śāw– 'live' which is directly descended from PIE present stem *gʷíh₃w-e/o- 'live, be alive' (possibly with another ablaut complication). That verb does not survive in English (or in any Germanic language). But already in PIE it was derived (irregularly) from an adjective *gʷih₃wós 'alive', and that word does survive in ModE as quick (cf. the archaic phrase the quick and the dead).

    The complexity of the last example is pretty typical of relationships as distant as this. It might be possible to find a few more of those, but the cognates listed above are the immediately obvious ones, and I think all specialists would agree on them.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 8:53 am

    From Peter Zieme:

    As the Tocharian is a fragment, we do not know its context. In the Uygur Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā the following extract is from a speech of the master to his pupil about the love of a wife whose husband went on a journey, and the text is meant as advice not to follow a temptation; here we know the context, but without this evidence what do you think?

    tün kün seni umunup
    saŋa amranmakın muna ölürmän
    amranmaklıg bag tügünin
    tolp öz konuk marımlarımın
    barča bäk katag bayuksän
    bo yertinčüdä sendätä üstün
    sävgülük taplaguluk äd tavar bulmazmän
    mäniŋ yüräkimtä isig özümtä
    adırtsız köŋülin olurgıl
    tolp ätözümin saŋa urunčak tutuzurmän
    tapagčıŋ udugčıŋ bolayın

    Day and night I long for you
    Look, I die in love with you.
    With the knot of love
    you have tightened
    all my bones and organs.
    In this world besides you
    there is no other matter
    I love and long for.
    Take a seat in my heart
    and in my life!
    I offer my whole body as a pledge,
    I will be your servant!

    (after J. Wilkens, Berliner Turfantexte 37, ll. 02451-02461, pp. 340-341).

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 10:03 am

    From Sasha Lubotsky:

    śomo stands for śaumo 'human being' < *kiau- < Proto-Indo-European *gwih3 u- `alive': Lat. vīvus, Gr. biós, dzṓō 'to live'; in English loanwords vivid, bio-logy, Zoo; also English quick |======| ñ(e)m 'name' < PIE *h 3nh3mn-: English name, French nom |======| postäṃ 'afterwards': Lat. post, Eng. LW posterior |======| snai 'without' < PIE *snHi: Lat. sine (in English sinecure 'without worries')

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 10:31 am

    From Michael Weiss:

    In addition to the forms mentioned by esteemed colleagues Ringe and Lubotsky, there is tsyāra 'tore' which is the causative preterite II to the root tsär– 'to be separated'. This root goes back to PIE *der– 'tear apart' and is cognate with PDE to tear < OE teoran and Gk. dérein 'to flay' (source of dér-ma 'skin' as in dermat-ology). In Tocharian the regular reflex of PIE *d is ts- in contrast to *t and *dh which both give t. This is one of the few pieces of evidence showing that Proto-Tocharian inherited the PIE threefold contrast of laryngeal processes for stops. The phonological palatalization of ts is ś as in TB śak 'ten' < *ts'əkən < *dék'm̥, but in the form tsyāra we are seeing a morphological palatalization characteristic of this preterite category.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 4:36 pm

    From Doug Adams:

    The Tocharian love poem’s highly personal and emotional focus that is not very congruent with Indian poetry of the same period is “matched,” so to speak, by the non-Indian metrical structure. In contemporary Indian poetry the “unit of account” was a set of syllables of a particular pattern of long and short syllables (e.g., long-short-short or the like) and ignores stress. This is how Sanskrit poetry was arranged and it is familiar to us in that the same sort of structure underlies classical Greek and Latin poetry. But the Tocharian meter in this poem ignores the length of syllables, instead putting together regular collections of stressed and unstressed syllables (e.g., stressed-unstressed-unstressed). This of course is how English (or German) poetry works. Certainly the Tocharian culture we see revealed in the attested documents owes much to Indian models, but non-Indian elements are also present.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 10:58 pm

    From Elizabeth Barber:

    All I could add would be the Romance–French–cognates of the same roots for the last 3: tu/toi, nom, vive/viv-re. Of course one could add other families for the same 4, e.g. Slavic– Russian etot, ty, imja, zhiv- or (Modern) Greek to, esy, onoma, bios. Those are all pretty sturdy words.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2020 @ 6:31 am

    From Wenkan Xu:

    New book that may be of use for the question at hand:

    Harald Bichlmeier, Ondrej Sefcik, Roman Sukac, eds., Etymologus, Festschrift for Vaclav Blazek (Baar-Verlag, 2020).

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