Sogdians and Xiongnu / Huns

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The ethnicity and language of the Xiongnu / Huns (the names are related, but that is not to say they are exactly the same peoples across the stretch of time during which they existed) have long been enigmas for scholars of Chinese and Inner / Central Asian history during the late first millennium BC and early first millennium AD.  Recently discovered archeological evidence may shed new light on these puzzles.

These are themes that we have often discussed on Language Log, for which see the "Selected readings" below.


From Middle English *Hun, *Huns, from Old English Hūne, Hūnas, from Late Latin Hunnus, Latin [Term?] (Ugni)[1], from Koine Greek Χοῦνοι (Khoûnoi) or Χουνοί (Khounoí),[2] borrowed through Middle Iranian (compare Sogdian [script needed] (xwn), Sanskrit हूण (hūṇa)), apparently ultimately from Turkic *Kuŋ-yü, the name of a tribe (they were known in China as Xiongnu).

(source; for more details see here and here [beginning])

We know a word or two of Xiongnu, e.g., "Ordos", which is cognate with "horde" and "Urdu".


Recorded in English since 1555. From Middle French horde, from German Horde, from Polish horda, from Russian орда (orda, horde", 'clan, troop'), probably from Kipchak Turkic (compare Tatar урда (urda, horde)), from Proto-Turkic *or- (army, place of staying of the army, ruler etc.). Cognates include Turkish ordu (camp, army), Mongolian орд (ord, court, castle, royal compound, camp, horde), Kalmyk орда (orda) and English Urdu.


Ultimately (via German Horde, Polish horda, and kindred words in other languages of central Europe, with initial h-, of obscure origin) from Ukrainian orda, tribe or army of Mongols and Turkic peoples (as the Golden Horde) from North-Western Turkic ordï, encampment, residence, court, from Old Turkic ordu.

(American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed.)

It is clear that the word "horde", together with its cognates and the peoples who carried them, were highly mobile across the length and breadth of Eurasia.  Thus it is no wonder that questions of ethnogenesis as well as linguistic and genetic origins and relationships pertaining to the Xiongnu / Huns are highly complex and controversial.  As one of my close colleagues likes to say, they are a veritable "minefield".

Yet there is a phantom factor in all of this that, once brought out into the open, may help to clarify matters greatly, namely, Iranian peoples, whom I'm fond of referring to as the Kulturvermittlers of Eurasian civilization.  As more and more archeological wonders relating to the Sogdians emerge — mortuary couches, sarcophagi, etc. — their role as the leaven in the Eurasian civilizational mix will help to delineate a clearer picture of the magnificent Brot und Butter from the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the Japanese archipelago in the east, from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south.  And it wasn't just the Sogdians who were wandering across all of these vast spaces, but their kindred folk as well — the Achaemenids, Scythians, Persians, Alans, Bactrians, Dahae, Khwarazmians, Massagetae, Medes, Parthians, Persians, Sagartians, Sakas (Khotanese), Sarmatians, and Cimmerians.

Since already in prehistoric times Iranian peoples were the first to utilize wheeled vehicles (especially chariots) and ride horses, it is no wonder that they would have the capability to roam far and wide across the land, taking their language and culture with them.

What this all boils down to with regard to Jin Xu's tweet with which this post began is that, whether literally and verifiably true or not, an early 8th century Sogdian (Iranian) claimed to be the descendant of a 1st century AD Xiongnu ruler, so that gives us one vector on who the Xiongnu were.


Selected readings


[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 12:54 pm

    > Jin Xu's tweet with which this post began is that, whether literally and verifiably true or not, an early 8th century Sogdian (Iranian) claimed to be the descendant of a 1st century AD Xiongnu ruler, so that gives us one vector on who the Xiongnu were

    Tweet just says that they are attendants? Due to my lack of command of Mandarin, I can't be sure, but is there a paragraph in the link that says such a thing? Or maybe I am not interfering the second sentence properly?

    > Sogdians depicted … They're "attendants" …

  2. Daniel Waugh said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    Of course whether the historical memory of the T'ang period is accurate (given the various possibilities for foreign ancestors among the elites) is a good question. There is a wonderful mingqi statue in the collection of the Lanzhou musuem (probably something of a caricature, as often was the case in depicting foreigners), showing a semi-bald guy with a somewhat big nose (analogous to one of the figures in the tomb painting), with a somewhat self-satisified look. Sogdian? Who knows? Victor–I'll send it to you separately, as I cannot seem to paste it in here….

    On "orda", Kipchak connection sounds reasonable. It is worth noting that while people loosely refer to the Ulus Jochi as the Golden Horde, thinking this means the political entity or lots of bad nomads, the origin of that term probably lies in the designation for the tent of the ruler in his nomadic encampment. The Russian sources tell us the princes went "to the orda" (but not the Golden Horde, which probably derives from Western sources about the Mongols), but that does not necessarily mean Sarai on the Volga (wherever it was); it may mean going up into the foothills of the N. Caucasus where the Khan had his summer camp.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 1:32 pm

    From MATSUI Dai via Mehmet Olmez:

    The epitaph relates the deceased of the Helian 赫連 clan to 冒頓 and 呼韓邪, the previous Xiongnu great rulers. We may regard it as emphasis on the Xiongnu identity, even in Tang times

  4. Marcel Erdal said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 2:09 pm

    Well, a bit of doubt is in order. It appears to be the general opinion that the first wheeled vehicles were documented from the mid-4th millenium BCE whereas the Proto-Iranians separated from the Indo-Iranians in the mid-2nd millenium BCE; so they couldn't very well be the first to utilize wheeled vehicles.
    The Turks and Mongols inherited the term ordo ‘royal camp’ from the Xiōngnú (whatever language(s) they spoke). There is no trace of any Proto-Turkic *or- with the meaning proposed (only a verb or- ‘to mow grass etc.’), nor any suffix -do. Nor is there any Turkic Kuŋ-yü.

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 2:28 pm

    Beckwith in his Empires of the Silk Road (2009): .404-405, nn.51-52 advanced the theory that Xiongnu “may have been pronounced *Soɣdâ, Soɣlâ, *Sak(a)dâ or even *Skla(C)da.” In his most recent discussion of the question, “On the Ethnolinguistic Identity of the Hsiung-nu” Language, Society, and Religion in the World of the Turks. Festschrift for Larry Clark at Seventy-Five, ed. Zsuzsuanna Gulácsi. Silk Road Studies, XIX (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018): 53-75, he concluded (p. 67) Xiongnu = *Suɣadâ/*Suŋdâ~ *Suɣlâ/*Suŋlâ
    Suɣdâ ~ Suɣlâ = the name of the Sogdians (later Soġd) < Proto-Iranic skuδa “shooter, archer, Scythians” (Szemerényi, 1980) “The Hsiung-nu thus seem to have been essentially identical to the Scythians in every respect, including their name;” (p.70) The Xiongnu spoke “an eastern Steppe zone North Iranic dialect.” Xiongnu in Old Chinese transcription may be reconstructed as: “*Suŋda ~* Suŋla from earlier *Suɣda ~ *Suɣla, corresponding to the attested Eastern Scythian dialect forms Suɣda~Suɣla, the two attested ancient variants of the name of the Sogdians. Their name descends directly from the name of the Scythians, written in Greek Scytha ~ Skula‘Scythian’ from Proto-Iranic *skuδa “shooter; archer.” In his view, the Xiongnu were “ethnolinguistically” Scythian.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 2:53 pm

    June Teufel Dreyer called my attention to the "hot" part of Huhehot and, citing Mongolian орд (ord, “court, castle, royal compound, camp, horde”), asked whether it meant "camp" and is now used for "city". And she wanted to know whether it is cognate with ord / horde too.

    I started to look around and was quickly able to determine that, yes, the "hot" part of Huhehot does indeed mean "city". It got more interesting when my search led to this:


    Reconstruction: Proto-Uralic/kota



    Akin to Proto-Indo-Iranian *kata- (compare Avestan -‎ (kata-, “house/home, pit”), Persian کد‎ (kad, “house”)). The direction of loaning is not entirely clear, but most researchers have supported an early loanword from pre-Indo-Iranian into Uralic.

    The root may have moreover been a widespread Wanderwort across Eurasia, cf. also e.g. Turkish kodak (“home”), Mongolian хот (khot, “town”), Ainu コタン (kotan, “village”), Tamil குடி (kuṭi, “house, abode, home, family, lineage, town, tenants”), Proto-Germanic *kut-, whence English cot, Dutch kot, German Kate; Ukrainian хата (xata, “house”) (alternatively reconstructed as Proto-Slavic *xata), whence Belarusian хата (xata), Czech chata, Polish chata, Russian хата (xata), Slovak chata.



    The descendants of this kot include words meaning "hut, tent, tepee" in Ugric (Hungarian, Khanty), Permic (Komi, Udmurt), Mari, Mordvinic…), Proto-Samic, and Proto-Finnic.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 2:54 pm

    @Marcel Erdal

    I was referring to the predecessors of the Iranian peoples.

  8. Judith Lerner said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 7:04 pm

    Ah, yes, now we see Sogdians everywhere! Thanks for alerting to Jin Xu's post (I have a strong allergy to Twitter though I just asked him what makes them Sogdians)
    But thanks to all here for the interesting discussion so far…

  9. Penglin Wang said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 9:03 pm

    In my 1992 article “On the origin of Middle Mongolian initial h- and the motivation for its loss” (Archív Orientální 60:389-408) I have connected the Altaic ordu ‘palace’ with Tokharian B ost and A waṣt ‘house’ by drawing on the sound change whereby Altaic rendered the Tokharian postvocalic obstruents (fricative here) as a liquid. In my view, the Xiongnu parallel to the Tokharian words is outuo (甌脫 Shiji 110:2889) meaning ‘border watching station (界上屯守處 jieshang tunshou chu)’ or ‘earthen pit (土穴 tuxue, which may also be translated as ‘cave dwelling’)’ could be traced back to Yueshi, and the Xiongnu speakers could have shared the word with those of Yueshi when they were adjacent to each other. If my proposition is tenable, this is a piece of testimony to the Tokharian ethnic and linguistic link with Yueshi. What does the Xiongnu border watching station or earthen pit look like? J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair (2000:87 The Tarim mummies, Thames & Hudson) have used a reconstructed illustration of a Xiongnu dwelling. Concerning the further continuation of the Xiongnu outuo, in their separate articles published some 30 years ago (by memory), He Xingliang (何星亮) and Chen Zongzhen (陳宗振) have connected it with Altaic ordu.

  10. martin schwartz said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 11:16 pm

    @Peter Golden: Peter, Szemerényi's etymology (as for much else) of the Skyth- name is hopeless; there is no evidence in Iranian for *sku∂a- 'shoot'; and the Scyths had no monopoly on archery.
    I prefer François Cornillot's explanation (in Studia Iranica? and
    Indo-Iranian Journal, with *sku∂a- '(tall) hat' (cf. OPers. Saka
    Tigraxauda- 'pointy-hatted Sakas' and the memorable image of captive Škunxa on the Behistun reliefs, and Wakhi skī∂ vel sim. 'hat').
    This would be an exonym (attested as Ašguz, Aškuz, Heb. *'šknz,
    Gr. Skythos) for the 'tall-hatted guys'.
    @Judith Lerner: Hi! I'm reminded of Jan Nattier's long ago producing bumper stickers saying "Sogdians are everywhere".
    As for the 'Hun' name, I can't say anything new and incisive,
    apart from bringing up Avestan x'iiaona-, Middle Persian Xyõn,
    and the Chionites (NB *xy-) whatever that's about–old hat!
    Martin Schwartz

  11. martin schwartz said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 11:46 pm

    p.s. make that Gr. skúthos and Heb. *'škwz, of course.

  12. martin schwartz said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 1:24 am

    My implication (for which I am not the first) was that
    Xiongnu is phonologically closer to *X(i)iyauna-, Xyõn than to the forms like "Hun". It may be –probably is–a coincidence that Avestan hunu-, cognate with Eng. son, means 'evil spawn, evil offspring'.
    Martin Schwartz

  13. liuyao said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 11:38 am

    The link is simply the archeological report on the tombs of two brothers Helian Shan 赫連山 and Helian Jian 赫連簡. It stops short of further study on the family, only listing other epitaphs of that clan name. One would recognize and wonder its connection with 賀蘭, not the mountain but the name of a more illustrious clan.

  14. Chau said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 10:58 pm

    The Hèlián 赫連 clan are not related to the Hèlán 賀蘭 (aka Hèlài 賀賴). The Hèlán 賀蘭 are listed in the History of Wei (Wèishū 魏書 'Book of Wei') among eight clans who were honored by the Wei court for their contributions to the founding of the Wei dynasty (Xūnchén pāxìng 勳臣八姓). The Hèlián 赫連 clan originally had another name, Tiěfú 鐵弗, which denoted this clan as descended from the union of a Xiongnu father and a Xianbei mother. One of the clan members Bóbó 勃勃 rebelled against the Wei and established a tribal kingdom called Dàxià 大夏. The new tribal king did not like the not-so-honorable ethnic designation Tiěfú 鐵弗 and so changed the clan name to Hèlián 赫連 (Weishu 95:2056).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 9:29 am

    From Frantz Grenet:

    Like Martin, I am sceptical about the original connection of the names Sughda / Saka.

    The late Xavier Tremblay (Pour une Histoire de la Sérinde, 2004, pp. 125, 132-135) rightly pointed to the fact that in its first occurrence, the list of “Aryan countries” in Vidēvdāt 1, suγδa– appears coupled with gauua-:

    gauua suγδō.šaiiana- “Gava inhabited by the Sughda”.

    If we take these names as a contrasting pair, this could mean “the cow grazing country ” (gauua-) inhabited by those from the ”burnt” mountains (suγδa-). Which is exactly the geographical reality of Sogdiana in Antiquity, before it shrunk to the Samarkand area: the marshy and pasture lowlands of the Zarafshan versus the red and black mountains in its upper valley and to the south.

  16. ohwilleke said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 4:46 pm

    It would be great to have some ancient DNA to tie into the individual making the ancestry claim.

  17. Chris Button said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 6:32 am

    @ Penguin Wang

    I have connected the Altaic ordu ‘palace’ with Tokharian B ost and A waṣt ‘house’ by drawing on the sound change whereby Altaic rendered the Tokharian postvocalic obstruents (fricative here) as a liquid.

    What’s the phonological/phonetic motivation for that change? I could see a devoiced nasal or liquid becoming a fricative, but this seems to be the opposite.

    @ Peter B Golden

    Regarding the Beckwith suggestion:

    as: “*Suŋda ~* Suŋla from earlier *Suɣda ~ *Suɣla, corresponding to the attested Eastern Scythian dialect forms Suɣda~Suɣla

    I could see /g/ being realized as a fricative or nasal in the voiced environment, but I wonder why a fricative would be “earlier” than a nasal. Shouldn’t we be talking about allophonic variation. Or perhaps we shouldn’t be taking about it at all (following Martin Schwartz’s comment).

  18. Chris Button said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 2:57 pm

    @ Penglin Wang

    Apologies for the typo in your name. I think I need to turn off autocorrect when posting to LLog!

  19. Penglin Wang said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 3:51 pm

    @ Chris Button

    What you are arguing for has been termed as sigmatism/zetacism in historical linguistics in contrast to rhotacism /lambdacism. In Altaic studies sigmatism/zetacism had been in vogue in the past, and the late Turcologist Talat Tekin was a representative figure in this domain. I have consistently adhered to the rhotacism /lambdacism in the postvocalic position by having presented a series of examples in my publications. As for its phonological/phonetic motivation, a liquid r / l is a sonorant segment whereas a fricative is not. So the sonorant pronunciation could be an underlying factor for rhotacism /lambdacism.

  20. Chris Button said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 7:37 pm

    @ Penglin Wang

    So are you thinking of something like when intervocalic “s” [z] became “r” in Latin? But was the “s” in “ost” voiced? Surely that would be a precondition for the change?

  21. Penglin Wang said,

    February 25, 2022 @ 1:45 pm

    I largely confine my discussion of rhotacism / lambdacism to Altaic and just occasionally go beyond it. I connected Dagur kuldur ‘spade’ with Old English costere ‘spade, shovel’ and lumped OE culter ‘colter’ together with Latin culter ‘plowshare’ and OE costere as doublets (Penglin Wang 2000:74 Lexical connections between Germanic and Mongolic. Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics and Semiotic Analysis 5.1:71-91). Sigmatism / zetacism cannot work in Altaic at least for two reasons. First, consider the Dagur rhotacism / lambdacism examples in comparison with Written Mongolian: WMo qabtasun ‘board’ and ağušgin ‘lung’ > Dagur kartəs ‘board’ and aurki ‘lung’, respectively. It is the obstruents, not fricative alone, undergo the change of rhotacism / lambdacism. Second, the direction of vocabulary diffusion matters. The Turkic and Mongolic alma ‘apple’ originated in Arabic asmār or its Persian borrowing as̤mār ‘fruits’. If this proposed connection is acceptable, the postvocalic fricative must be the original one in Arabic and Persian, because of their geographic location being a cradle of human civilization. Was the “s” in “ost” voiced? I guess it was not. But, according to Douglas Q. Adams (1988:10 Tocharian historical phonology and morphology. New Haven: AOS.), “The exact phonetics which lie behind these symbols is, of course, largely unknowable”. ‘these symbols’ refer to the Tocharian phonemes including s.

  22. Michael Watts said,

    February 26, 2022 @ 6:24 pm

    the Proto-Iranians separated from the Indo-Iranians in the mid-2nd millenium BCE

    I don't see how this can be true; by the mid-second millennium BC the Mittani rulers are already identifiably Indic rather than Indo-Iranian, so the separation must have occurred before then.

  23. Michael Watts said,

    February 26, 2022 @ 6:25 pm

    Forgive me; Mitanni.

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