Language groups in
In order to present here a clear description, we will
exclude two massive components:
► Indo-European languages in the west
► Chinese languages in the East
and will focus on the lesser known groups whose
speakers have had, and often still have, a major
role in the linguistic geography of Northern
► 1. The situation now
► 2. Documentary evidence
The situation now
Fenno-Ugric Samoyedic Tungusic Eskaleut
► Tungusic Uralo-Altaic ??
► Mongolic Altaic ?
► Eastern Siberic (Chukchee)
► Eskaleut (Eskimo+Aleut)
► Ket ???
Looking into the past
► 1. study historical documents
► 2. analyse older linguistic data
► 3. compare present linguistic data
We will give here an idea of points 1 and 2.
Studying historical documents
► They give precious indications about the
history of populations.
: Do older names indicate the ‘same
people’ as to-day ?
Population ‘layers’ in recent northern Eurasia
► The Russian colonization, since the 17th century;
► The Muslim influence, since the 8th century;
► The Chinese influence, since the beg. of CE.
All these ‘foreign’ intruders brought languages and
significantly modified the cultural landscape.
Before Russian colonization: the Dolgix map
V. O. Dolgix specialized in Samoyeds.
► He studied the first Russian documents about
► in administration reports and merchants’
► He organized his results in a famous map, that he
first published in 1960.
Dolgix’ map : Siberia in the 17th century
Light pink: Yukagir
Light green: Tungusic
Dark pink: Ieniseian
According to Dolgix’ map
► Yakuts were few in Yakutia
► Yukagirs were numerous and far into the
► Southern Samoyeds were still alive as such
► Yeniseian people were southerners
Let us compare the 17th century situation
with present time in two striking cases :
Yukagir in the 17th century acc. to Dolgix
Kets to-day Yukagir to-day
Ieniseian in the 17th century according to Dolgix
► Of course, it does not mean that all these people
► It means they encouraged their children in
learning the language of the more powerful
and in forgetting their own language.
In such cases, which have been fairly widespread at
all times, but have become more on more
frequent recently, the lineages remain on the spot,
while the older languages disappear.
Muslim and Chinese influence in Central Asia
► The first Turkic documents
(inscriptions on stone) give
a detailed account of the
relations with Chinese, in
the 8th century.
► Chinese reports and annals
help the understanding of
what happened in the
Muslim – Chinese clash in Talas : 751 CE
► Mediaeval geographers and historians, writing in
Chinese, Arabic and later in Persian, make us
realize how different the distribution of power then
► and along which lines local populations were
intrumentalized, and sometimes transported.
► For instance, it is important to realize that the
famous battle opposing Chinese and Muslim
armies, each with different Turkic allies, was
fought not so far from present Tashkent.
Talas: a passage between China and the West
Talas 751 CE
The technique for making paper is supposed to have been transmitted
from China to the West by Chinese prisonners at Talas.
At that time
► Documents in Turkic languages are known only
Mongolian speaking peoples were – maybe – living
in eastern Mongolia and present Manchuria.
► Most(known) people in Central Asia before the
Chinese/Muslim conflict were speaking Iranian
Muslim influence introduced Persian, an Iranian
language from the west. It slowly superseded the
eastern Iranian languages like Sogdian – the
famous language of the Silk Road merchants.
The other teaching
► Although the historical detail is fairly complicated,
► chronicles also bring to light a number of reasons
for the cultural shifts and/or population
► These deeper factors help us understanding what
forces were shaping the human landscape in a
more remote past – before the time of our
Herding and mobility
► Allpieces of evidence, from the inner Asian
groups themeselves or from their
► underline the contrast between mobile
herders, mounted on horses, and sedentary
contrast – at first sight – is graphically
summed up in the Great Walls of China.
Although the steppe corridor is not the only
important geographical feature in our zone,
it played a major role in the population
This was reinforced by the asymmetry between the
rich grazing in the west,
and the more dangerous climate of the eastern
– provoking the so-called Great Invasions that
ruined the (western) Roman Empire.
Herding and the steppe corridor
► The nomadic / sedentary contrast does not mean
the Wall was always high enough.
► The influence of the cities of the south was clearly
felt in the north, as we see from the graves, or
from the ruins in the steppes;
► And the ‘northern barbarians’ have been several
times in control of the south, in China as in Russia.
► This led to episodes of symbiosis.
Older linguistic data
Older linguistic data in Northern Eurasia
► [Germanic (runic inscr. since the 3rd c. CE]
► Turkic (c. 5th c., Orkhon inscr. are 8th c.)
► [Tibetan (since 7th c.)]
► Hungarian (since c. 1200)
► Mongolian (13th c., the Secret History is known
from a Chinese transcription)
► The development, in time and space, of
cultural and/or linguistic factors does not
always imply population movement.
► This is exemplified by the borrowing of the Semitic
writing, which crossed the whole continent from
the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
► And by the yoke and its name, which crossed the
whole continent from east to west.
From west to east : the Semitic alphabet
Syriac script, beginning of CE Uigur script Mongol script Manchu script
From east to west: the name for the yoke
André Haudricourt : Géographie et ethnologie de la voiture, 1948.
To sum it up in 3 steps : 1st step
► The present day linguistic map is far from being a
sufficient basis for ‘reconstructing’ the linguistic
past of Northern Eurasia.
► Even in the 17th c. – a period quite close to ours –
the situation was very different.
To sum it up : 2nd step
The history of language distribution in Eurasia is
heavily dependant on ethnological factors :
► herding has been a major factor since the
domestication of the horse;
► the grazing areas are not evenly distributed;
► relations between the steppe and the cities did
exist, either on a predatory or a trading mode;
► language replacement was a frequent feature,
linked with specific views about mobile
To sum it up: 3rd step
► The community of language (for instance the fact
that citizens of Turkey speak Turkic, or are
supposed to) captures only a part of the past
history – sometimes a deceptive part.
► The political innuendoes, or trumpets, behind
lanuage mapping are certainly not new.
► A language community should then be seen with
some feeling for historical details and, when
possible, with some tact.