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Chrysographic Tangut Golden Light Sutra.jpg
Buddhist scripture written in Tangut
Native to Western Xia
Ethnicity Tangut people
Era attested 1036–1502 AD
Tangut script
Official status
Official language in
Western Xia
Language codes
ISO 639-3 txg
Linguist list
Glottolog tang1334[1]

Tangut (also Xīxià or Hsi-Hsia or Mi-nia) is an ancient northeastern Tibeto-Burman language[2] once spoken in the Western Xia, also known as the Tangut Empire. It is classified by some linguists as a Qiangic language, which includes the Northern and Southern Qiang languages and the Rgyalrong languages, among others.

Tangut was one of the official languages of the Western Xia (known in Tibetan as Mi nyag and in Chinese as 彌藥 Míyào), which was founded by the Tangut people and obtained its independence from the Song dynasty at the beginning of the 11th century. The Western Xia were annihilated when Genghis Khan invaded in 1226.[3]

The Tangut language has its own script, the Tangut script.

The latest known text written in the Tangut language, the Tangut dharani pillars, dates to 1502,[4] suggesting that the language was still in use nearly three hundred years after the destruction of the Tangut Empire.


Modern research into the Tangut languages began in the early 20th century when G. Morisse first acquired a copy of the Tangut Lotus Sutra, which had been partially investigated by some unknown Chinese scholar. The majority of extant Tangut texts were excavated at Khara-Khoto in 1909 by Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov, and the script was identified as that of the Tangut state of Xixia. Such scholars as Aleksei Ivanovich Ivanov, Ishihama Juntaro (石濱純太郎), Berthold Laufer, Luo Fuchang (羅福萇), Luo Fucheng (羅福成), and Wang Jingru (王靜如) have contributed to research on the Tangut language. The most significant contribution was made by the Russian scholar Nikolai Aleksandrovich Nevsky (1892–1937), who compiled the first Tangut Dictionary and reconstructed the meaning of a number of Tangut grammatical particles, thus making it possible to actually read and understand Tangut texts. His scholarly achievements were published posthumously in 1960 under the title "Tangutskaya Filologiya" (Tangut Philology) and the scholar was eventually (and posthumously) awarded the Soviet Lenin Prize for his work. The understanding of the Tangut language is far from perfect: Although certain aspects of the morphology (Ksenia Kepping, "The Morphology of the Tangut Language", Moscow: Nauka, 1985) and grammar (Nishida Tatsuo, "Seika go no kenkyū", etc.) are understood, the syntactic structure of Tangut remains largely unexplored.

The Khara-Khoto documents are at present preserved in the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg. These fortunately survived the Siege of Leningrad, but a number of manuscripts in the possession of Nevsky at the time of his arrest by the NKVD in 1937 went missing, and were only returned, under mysterious circumstances, to the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in October 1991.[5] The collections amount to about 10,000 volumes, of mostly Buddhist texts, law codes and legal documents dating from mid-11th up to early 13th centuries. Among the Buddhist texts a number of unique compilations, not known either in Chinese or in Tibetan versions, were recently discovered. Furthermore, the Buddhist canon, the Confucian classics, and a great number of indigenous texts written in Tangut have been preserved. These other major Tangut collections, though much smaller in size, belong to the British Library, the National Library in Beijing, the Library of Beijing University and other libraries.


The connection between the writing and the pronunciation of the Tangut language is even more tenuous than that between Chinese writing and the modern Chinese varieties. Thus although in Chinese more than 90% of the characters possess a phonetic element, this proportion is limited to about 10% in Tangut according to Sofronov. The reconstruction of Tangut pronunciation must resort to other sources.

Pages from the Fanhan heshi zhangzhongzhu

The discovery of the Pearl in the Palm, a Tangut-Chinese bilingual glossary, permitted Ivanov (1909) and Laufer (1916) to propose initial reconstructions and to undertake the comparative study of Tangut. This glossary in effect indicates the pronunciation of each Tangut character with one or several Chinese characters, and inversely each Chinese character with one or more Tangut characters. The second source is the corpus of Tibetan transcriptions of Tangut. These data were studied for the first time by Nevsky (Nevskij) (1925).

Nonetheless, these two sources were not in themselves sufficient for a systematic reconstruction of Tangut. In effect, these transcriptions were not written with the intention of representing with precision the pronunciation of Tangut, but instead simply to help foreigners to pronounce and memorize the words of one language with the words of another which they could understand.

The third source, which constitutes the basis of the modern reconstructions, consists of monolingual Tangut dictionaries: the Wenhai (文海), two editions of the Tongyin (同音), the Wenhai zalei (文海雜類) and an untitled dictionary. The record of the pronunciation in these dictionaries is made using the principle of fǎnqiè, borrowed from the Chinese lexicographic tradition. Although these dictionaries may differ on small details (e.g. the Tongyin categorizes the characters according to syllable initial and rime without taking any account of tone), they all adopt the same system of 105 rimes. A certain number of rimes are in complementary distribution with respect to the place of articulation of the initials, e.g. rimes 10 and 11 or rimes 36 and 37, which shows that the scholars who composed these dictionaries had made a very precise phonological analysis of their language.

In distinction to the transcription in foreign languages, the Tangut fanqie makes distinctions among the rhymes in a systematic and very precise manner. Due to the fǎnqiè, we now have a good understanding of the phonological categories of the language. Nonetheless, it is necessary to compare the phonological system of the dictionaries with the other sources in order to "fill in" the categories with a phonetic value.

N. A. Nevsky reconstructed Tangut grammar and provided the first Tangut–Chinese–English–Russian dictionary, which together with the collection of his papers was published posthumously in 1960 under the title Tangut Philology (Moscow: 1960). Later, substantial contribution to the research of Tangut language was done by Nishida Tatsuo (西田龍雄), K.B. Kepping, Gong Hwang cherng (龔煌城), M.V. Sofronov and Li Fanwen (李範文). Marc Miyake has published on Tangut phonology and diachronics.[6] There are four Tangut dictionaries available: the one composed by N.A. Nevsky, one composed by Nishida (1966), one composed by Li Fanwen (1997, revised edition 2008) and one composed by E.I. Kychanov (2006).

There is growing a school of Tangut studies in China. Leading scholars include Shi Jinbo (史金波), Li Fanwen, Nie Hongyin (聶鴻音), Bai Bin (白濱) in mainland China, and Gong Hwang-cherng and Lin Yingjin (林英津) in Taiwan. In other countries, leading scholars in the field include E. I. Kychanov and his student K. J. Solonin in Russia, Nishida Tatsuo and Arakawa Shintaro (荒川慎太郎) in Japan, and Ruth W. Dunnell in the USA.


The Tangut syllable has a CV structure and carries one of two distinctive tones, flat or rising. Following the tradition of Chinese phonological analysis the Tangut syllable is divided into initial (声母) and rhyme (韻母) (i.e. the remaining syllable minus the initial).


The consonants are divided into the following categories.

Chinese Term Translation Modern Term Arakawa Gong Miyake
重唇音類 heavy lip bilabials p, ph, b, m p, ph, b, m p, ph, b, m
輕唇音類 light lip labio-dentals f, v, w v
舌頭音類 tongue tip dentals t, th, d, n t, th, d, n t, th, d, n
舌上音類 upper tongue alveolars ty', thy', dy', ny' tʂ tʂh dʐ ʂ
牙音類 ga-like velars k, kh, g, ng k, kh, g, ŋ k, kh, g, ŋ
齒頭音類 tooth tip dental affricates and fricatives ts, tsh, dz, s ts, tsh, dz, s ts, tsh, dz, s
正齒音類 true tooth palatal affricates and fricatives c, ch, j, sh tɕ, tɕh, dʑ, ɕ
候音類 laryngeals ', h ., x, ɣ ʔ, x, ɣ
流風音類 flowing air resonants l, lh, ld, z, r, zz l, lh, z, r, ʑ ɫ, ɬ, z, ʐ, r

The rhyme books distinguish 105 rhyme classes. These are in turn are classified in several ways, by grade (等), type (環), and class (攝).

Tangut rhymes occur in three types (環). These are seen in the tradition of Nishida, followed by both Arakawa and Gong as 'normal' 普通母音, 'tense'緊候母音, and 'retroflex' 捲舌母音. Gong leaves normal vowels unmarked, places a dot under tense vowels, and an -r after retroflex vowels. Arakawa differs only by indicating tense vowels with a final -q.

The rhyme books distinguish four vowel grades (等). In early phonetic reconstructions all four were separately accounted for, but it has since been realized that grades three and four are in complementary distribution depending on the initial. Consequently, the reconstructions of Arakawa and Gong do not account for this distinction. Gong represents these three grades as V, iV, and jV. Arakawa accounts for them as V, iV, and V:.

In general rhyme class (攝), corresponds to the set of all rhymes under the same rhyme type which have the same main vowel.

Gong further posits phonemic vowel length. The evidence he points to indicates that Tangut had a distinction that Chinese lacked, but does not include positive evidence that this distinction was vowel length. Consequently, other researchers have remained skeptical.


普通母音 緊候母音 捲舌母音
close i I u iq eq uq ir Ir ur
mid e o eq2 oq er or
open a aq ar

Miyake reconstructs the vowels differently: in his reconstruction, the 95 vowels of Tangut formed from a six-vowel system in Pre-Tangut due to processes of preinitial loss. (The two vowels in parentheses only appeared in loanwords from Chinese, and many of the vowels in class 3 were in complementary distribution with their class 4 equivalents.)

Class 1 Class 2 Class 3 Class 4
*u əu o ɨu iu
əəu oo ɨuu iuu
əụ ɨụ iụ
əuʳ iuʳ
*i əi ɪ ɨi i
əəi ɪɪ ɨii ii
əĩ ɨĩ ĩ
əị ɨị
əiʳ ɪʳ ɨiʳ
əəiʳ ɪɪʳ ɨiiʳ iiʳ
*a a æ ɨa ia
aa ææ ɨaa iaa
ã æ̃ ɨã
ɨạ iạ
æʳ ɨaʳ iaʳ
aaʳ ɨaaʳ iaaʳ
ə ʌ ɨə
əə ɨəə iəə
ə̣ ɨə̣ iə̣
əʳ ʌʳ ɨəʳ iəʳ
ɨəəʳ iəəʳ
*e e ɛ ɨe ie
ee ɛ ɨee iee
ɛ̃ ɨẽ iẽ
ɛ̣̃ ɨẹ̃ iẹ̃
ɛ̣ ɨẹ iẹ
ɛʳ ɨeʳ ieʳ
ew ɛw ɨew iew
ɨiw iw
eʳw i(e)ʳw
*o o ɔ ɨo io
oo ɔɔ ɨoo ioo
õ ɔ̃ ɨõ
ɔ̃ɔ̃ ɨõõ iõõ
ɔ̣ ɨọ iọ
ɔʳ ɨoʳ ioʳ
ooʳ iooʳ
õʳ iõʳ

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tangut". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ van Driem, George (2001). Handbuch Der Orientalistik. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-12062-9. 
  3. ^ "IDP News Issue No. 2" (PDF). IDP Newsletter (2): 2–3. January 1995. ISSN 1354-5914. Retrieved 2009-07-03. 
  4. ^ Frederick W. Mote (2003). Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press. pp. 257–. ISBN 978-0-674-01212-7. 
  5. ^ van Driem, George (1993). "Ancient Tangut manuscripts rediscovered" (PDF). Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area (La Trobe University, Australia) 16 (1): 137–155. ISSN 0731-3500. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 
  6. ^ Miyake, Marc. "Complexity from Compression: A Sketch of Pre-Tangut". Retrieved 2013-10-30. 


External links[edit]

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