Tocharian Bilingualism and Language Death in the Old Turkic Context

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Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-seventh issue:

“Tocharian Bilingualism, Language Shift, and Language Death in the Old Turkic Context,” by Hakan Aydemir.



The death of a language is a sad and dramatic event. It is, however, a fact that many languages died out in the past and are now dying out as well. However, although we often know the time and causes of present or recent language deaths and have a relatively large amount of information about them, we often do not know the time and causes of past language deaths, or our knowledge of these processes is very limited. In other words, the very limited written sources or linguistic material make it very difficult to study “language shift” or “language death” phenomena in historical periods.

This is also true for Tocharian languages named A and B of Indo-European origin that are extinct. Namely, we do not know at all what happened to the Tocharians, when, how, and why they disappeared, or when the Tocharian languages died out. This study tries to solve these fundamental questions from the perspective of Turkic historical linguistics. In connection with this, the Turkic background of Tocharian-Turkic interethnic and linguistic contact is first examined in order to understand how the Tocharian-Turkic language contact came about in the first place and how long it lasted. Based on the most current archaeological, historical, philological, and linguistic data, the study tentatively divides these relationships into three major stages, which better describe the spatial and temporal dimensions of Tocharian-Turkic relations. However, only the last period (ninth–thirteenth centuries) is subjected to detailed examination in the study. It examines what kinds of historical, socio-cultural, socio-political, sociolinguistic, and other extralinguistic factors were responsible for the process of Turkization of Tocharians. It also gives a detailed description of every stage of the language shift and language death processes in the Old Turkic context, both factually and theoretically, using all available evidence. Some of the linguistic output of these processes in Turkic is also briefly discussed.

The study also identifies a previously unknown Tocharian A tribe, the Argu, which has so far escaped the attention of researchers. Argu (< Argi < *Arki > Ārśi) was a bilingual Karakhanid Turkic tribe in the late eleventh century. They were undoubtedly the descendants of Yuezhi (i.e., Tocharian A speakers) in the south of the Ili Valley, where Chinese sources mention Yuezhi, who migrated there from Gansu (China) in 162 bce.

Keywords: Tocharian, Tocharians, Yuezhi, Old Turkic, Uyghurs, language contact, language shift, language death, historical linguistics.


This and all other issues of Sino-Platonic Papers are available in full for no charge.

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Selected readings on Tocharian

The language, the people, and their history

Archeology and language

The origin of the Tocharians and their relationship to the Yuezhi (月氏) have been debated for more than a century, since the discovery of the Tocharian language. This debate has led to progress on both the scope and depth of our knowledge about the origin of the Indo-European language family and of the Indo-Europeans. Archaeological evidence supporting these theories, however, has until now sadly been lacking

There are many other Language Log posts that mention Tocharian and the Tocharians.  Readers are encouraged to search for them in various contexts.

Selected readings on PIE

Two by Hamp

  • Eric P. Hamp, with annotations and comments by Douglas Q. Adams.  "The Expansion of the Indo-European Languages: An Indo-Europeanist’s Evolving View".  Sino-Platonic Papers, 239 (August, 2013), 1-14.
  • Hamp, E. P. (1998). “Whose were the Tocharians?: Linguistic subgrouping and diagnostic idiosyncrasy,” in The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia, ed. V. H. Mair, 1: 307–346.  Washington and Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Man and the University of Pennsylvania Museum.


  1. martin schwartz said,

    December 21, 2023 @ 9:05 pm

    Re Prof. Aydemir's last paragraph, one should not forget W.B. Henning's
    seminal "Argi and the Tokharians", BSOS 1938. Perhaps a Turcological
    reader can tell me if Aydemir = 'Moon-iron'.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    December 22, 2023 @ 2:20 pm

    "The death of a language is a sad and dramatic event". I wonder in what sense the author is using "dramatic" here. It seems to me that most languages die (excluding those that are murdered), "not with a bang but with a whimper", and such a death, while undoubtedly sad, does not strike me as particularly dramatic.

  3. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 22, 2023 @ 3:52 pm

    Like Philip Taylor, I'd think most languages die quietly.

  4. Eiríkr Útlendi said,

    December 27, 2023 @ 11:59 pm

    @martin schwartz, if the Turkish Wiktionary entry at is anything to go by, one of the senses is:

    marangozla­rın kullandığı kavisli bir keser çeşidi, doğramacı keseri, Ay biçiminde balta

    a type of curved adze used by carpenters, joiner's adze, crescent-shaped ax

    So presumably "iron moon" would be a correct parsing, referencing the material of the tool and its shape.

  5. Klimenok said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 2:54 pm

    Having read first 20 or so pages and browsed through the end, I dare to ask: isn't it fringe scholarship (not in the sense of 'Hollywood Fringe' but pseudo-science, sadly)?
    As first omen, conspicuous self-appraisal ("a detailed description of every stage … both factually and theoretically, using all available evidence"), insistance on 'factual', 'facts' ("undisputed, well-known") etc.
    Then the "study also identifies a previously unknown Tocharian A tribe" that happened to be bilingual (!) and "were undoubtedly (!) the descendants of Yuezhi". Just being discovered — et voilà, we know everything.
    Then, the "results of my ethnotoponymic research" that "suggest that the Proto-Tocharians first expanded from the valleys of today’s Altai Krai to the Mongolian Altai region, then to the Gobi Altai, and then to the central and southeastern Mongolian regions up to the Sükhbaatar Province". It is a magnificent claim, the itinerary Proto-Tocharians has been traced in detail — but in an article yet to be published.
    And similarly, lots of other details that are given passim, like dates ("Twenty-eight–third centuries BC"), autonyms ("Tokarak, Tukarak, Tugrak, etc. = TochB"; "Ārśi [arɕi], the well-known self-designation of the TochA speakers" — with IPA transcription! "where Arki changed to Arči over time"; "Yarki = Yuezhi 月氏"), migrations (Proto-Tocharians mentioned earlier, then Sekel Turks) and so on.
    Sorry if it looks like nitpicking, I'm not qualified to assess the linguistic substance of the treatise, so I skim what I can understand. But has this been peer-reviewed?
    As Sally Thomason noted earlier on LLog, 'it would be nice if controversial hypotheses were presented with more caution'.

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