"Shribe" in Mongolian historiography

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A couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with one of my former students at a tea/coffee shop (that's what I call 'em because I don't drink coffee very often, almost never).

We were talking about a controversy in Mongolian historiography.  It was a question of whether it is ever suitable to use a certain term to describe the social organization of the Mongols.  He kept saying a word that sounded to me like "shribe".  Since I didn't know that word, I asked him to elucidate various aspects of the problem, and he kept saying "shribe" this, "shribe" that, e.g., that one side of the debate says you can't use the word "shribe" with regard to Mongolian history because "shribes" can't form states, but then that would be to deny the possibility of state formation to the Mongols.  The other side says that "shribes" can form states, so the Mongols could form states even though they had "shribes" in their social organization.  Or something like that.

All the while I was thinking that my former student was using some technical term in anthropology or political science, one that may not even have been English.

He continued to repeat himself in different ways to clarify what he meant, and I kept hearing him say "shribe", but it made no sense.  I thought maybe it was a Mongolian word.  Or perhaps it was a variation of the Taylor Swift "Starbucks lovers" phenomenon (we at Language Log have long been enchanted by her magical lyrics).

Finally, out of sheer frustration, I had him spell the word.

The disconnect between his "tribe" and my "shribe" was due to a deficiency in my hearing ability, not in his speaking ability.  As I have pointed out before (see "Selected readings" below), I have suffered from severe tinnitus for more than half a century.  The disability from this affliction, at least in my case, results in the loss of hearing of most consonantal sounds. My previous posts on this subject have described how I compensate for the reduced acoustic acuity.


Selected readings



  1. Chris Button said,

    May 4, 2023 @ 6:55 am

    This post by John Wells on pronunciations of "train" covers the topic nicely:


  2. Peter B. Golden said,

    May 4, 2023 @ 10:05 am

    "Tribe" has become a hotly contested term in studies dealing with the peoples of Central Eurasia/Inner Asia. David Sneath's book "The Headless State" (NY: Columbia University Press, 20007) attacks notions of "tribe" etc. relegating it, in essence, to the category of politically incorrect terms. I wrote a sharp review of Sneath's book. The polemics continue over what terms to use to describe the politico-social divisions among peoples of Central Eurasia and how indigenous terms are to be translated.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    Additional note from Peter Golden:

    As I noted in my brief comments on Language Log [VHM: see above], this (the nation of “tribe,” kinship etc.) has become a big issue in the social science literature. Indeed, use of the word “tribe” had been virtually condemned in some quarters – "politically incorrect” as it were. The polemics stem from Sneath’s book “The Headless State,” which I criticized in a review in the Journal of Asian Studies 68/1 (February, 2009): 293-296 (followed by a response from Sneath and my response back). It has been critically reviewed by Anatoly Khazanov, the doyen of nomad studies (see https://www.socionauki.ru/journal/files/seh/2010_2/the_headless_state.pdf), Nikolai Kradin, Tatiana Skrynnikova and others who are well versed in nomadic, Mongolian and steppe studies. Others, including Chris Atwood whose work in Mongol studies I admire are more favorably disposed

    Sneath seems to be completely unaware of Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī’s masterwork, the Dīwān Luġāt at-Turk (Compendium of Turkic Dialects), written in the 1070s by an “insider” (perhaps a member of the Qarakhanid ruling clan) to explain the Turkic world to the Arabic-reading world of the Middle East. It is a goldmine of information on the Turkic languages and cultures and has much to say about the sociopolitical organization of the Turkic “tribes” (yes, let’s use the word) and peoples.

  4. rpsms said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:45 am

    Not being from Philadelphia originally, I noticed quickly (read: the late 80s) that some local accent variants have a tendency to morph the t into a sh/ch & t combo.

    Assuming this occurred in Phila, I don't think you need to blame it entirely on tinnitus

  5. David Scott Deden said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:03 pm

    "because "shribes" can't form states,"
    Ah, he means tribe.

    Tribes form highly porous states,
    nations form poorly porous states.

  6. Lindsay Costelloe said,

    May 8, 2023 @ 12:48 am

    This sounds like pronunciations I hear all the time from native speakers in Australia. Not "shribe" so much but "chribe" would be how it would come out. The t sound goes to ch and is particularly prevalent when t is followed by r. It seems o me I hear it in UK and American English native speakers on TV and the internet as well.

  7. Rodger C said,

    May 15, 2023 @ 6:10 pm

    Thanks to people for confirming that "tribe" can be pronounced some other way than "tchribe," a fact I've asserted here in the face of vigorous opposition.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2023 @ 10:23 pm

    From Lothar von Falkenhausen:

    Many Americans pronounce “Tr” very close to “Tsch”, as reflected, e.g., by the fact that “Trump” is often transcribed into Chinese as 川普, and—closer to home—the last name of the late Bruce G. Trigger as “Chuige’er” (not sure of characters). And it works vice versa as well: wasn’t there some corrupt Chinese-American political donor some years ago, 原来姓崔, who in America went by the last name of “Tree”?

    There may be a ramification into Vietnamese as well—all those Sino-Vietnamese words starting with “Tr-“. To be looked into by someone who actually knows that language.

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