Skip to comments.Fragments Of The Tocharian
Posted on 01/30/2008 8:39:28 AM PST by blam
Fragments of the Tocharian
Between 1902 and 1914 the German Ethnological Institute sent repeated expeditions into the great Taklamakan desert of Central Asia, in search of ancient manuscripts that had survived destruction due to the arid climate of the Tarim Basin.
One expedition brought back fragments of a manuscript written in a hitherto unknown language but employing a familiar North Indian script. Later dubbed Tocharian A, the language was deciphered by two linguists at Germany's Gottingen University, Emil Siel and Wilhem Siegling. The parchment turned out to be part of the Maitreyasamiti-Nataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist work in the Mahayana canon that foretells the coming of the Buddha.
In the mid-thirties a budding Chinese linguist, Ji Xianlin, arrived in Gottingen to study Sanskrit with Siel. Before receiving his Ph.D. in 1941, he also mastered Tocharian and a handful of other obscure languages. After the conclusion of World War II, he returned to China and began a long career as one of China's top specialists in ancient Indian languages and culture. In the late '90s, he published his own analysis and translation of newly discovered fragments of a Tocharian-language Maitreyasamiti-Nataka discovered in 1974 in the city of Yanqi in China's Xinjiang province.
Only a handful of people in the world can read Tocharian; mastering the language is not a path to notoriety. But Ji, the author of numerous books and monographs, has other claims to fame. Perhaps most amazingly, he secretly translated the entire Indian epic, "The Ramayana," from the original Sanskrit into Chinese, while experiencing the travails that afflicted nearly all Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.
Earlier this week, the Indian government bestowed one of its greatest honors, the Padma Bushan award, on the 97-year-old Ji, in honor of his contributions to cross-cultural understanding. In the realpolitik of Chinese-Indian diplomacy, the move was immediately interpreted as as indicating a positive direction in the relationship between the two countries.
Symbolically speaking, the theory has some merit. Ji has long been a believer in the transformative virtue of translation. When he received a lifetime achievement award in China in 2006 for his contributions to the field of translation, he observed that "The reason our Chinese culture has been able to remain consistent and rich throughout its 5,000 years of history is closely linked to translation. Translations from other cultures have helped infuse new blood into our culture."
How the World Works applauds such sentiments. And although, to be honest, I had no idea that the Tocharian language even existed 24 hours ago, after becoming curious about it when reading up on Ji, I now see the mysterious Tocharians as prototypical agents of globalization.
Why mysterious? Because hard evidence on who the Tocharians were or where they came from is scarce. Ethnically speaking, they are believed to be a Caucasian race that flourished for thousands of years in Central Asia before before being swallowed up almost without a trace by their Turkic neighbors, sometime around the end of the first millennium (Recently discovered well-preserved corpses of European-looking bodies have even been cited by present-day Uighur Turk separatists as proof that China has no claim to Xinjiang.)
Tocharian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, but is distinguished by having traveled further East than any other Indo-European subgroup. Intriguingly, it shares some similarities with the most far-western Indo-European languages, such as Celtic. For early 20th century linguists, incorporating the new Tocharian data required a complete rethinking of theories of Indo-European linguistic migration.
With a civilization clustered around the oasis entrepots that marked the Silk Road connecting West to East, the Tocharians are thought to have played a major role in spreading Buddhism from India to China. That alone is an earthshaking event. Much earlier, theorized one archaeologist, the Tocharians might have introduced the wheeled chariot into China. The Mandarin words for lion and honey are thought by some linguists to be loan words from Tocharian (The word "Mandarin," incidentally, is Sanskrit in origin.)
Much more than that, we really don't know, although we can hope that somewhere in the desert caches of as-yet undiscovered manuscripts hold more clues to how culture and language spread across the globe in ancient times. The more we know about such interflows, the closer the ties that bind us all together. Or, as Ji Xianlin put it:
The river of Chinese civilization has kept alternating between rising and falling, but it has never dried up, because there was always fresh water flowing into it. It has over history been joined by fresh water many times, the two largest inflows coming from India and the West, both of which owed their success to translation. It is translation that has preserved the perpetual youth of Chinese civilization. Translation is hugely useful!"
German was my first foreign language to study, then Spanish and Russian.
I just took up Farsi, for several reasons.
It is so interesting to study that language, knowing that it, too, is an Indo-European language.
However, so far, I have not been using the Arabic script, but am using Cyrillic, like the Tajiks do. I think it is somewhat fitting that an Indo-European language should use an Indo-European script. I’ll try to work on the Arabic script later on for my Farsi studies, but it’s real convenient to use a familiar script for note-taking from the Pimsleur course I’m using.
The Chinese are cunning linguists?.............
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Good idea to learn American Indian sign language as well ~ it's just like Shang Dynasty characters and a good guide to ideographs with non Chinese, non Sumerian origins (like Windows).
It is really difficult to learn a new language and a new script at the same time. I know, I have sort of done it. Emphasis on sort of.
New Family Tree Is Constructed For Indo-EuropeanUsing a new computer program, or algorithm, the scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have sifted through the myriad possibilities and come up with what they believe is the general shape of the tree. According to their picture, the first to split off from Proto-Indo-European was Anatolian, an extinct group of languages, including ancient Hittite, which were once spoken in Turkey... Dr. Melchert cautioned that the data fed into such a model were always open to interpretation and dispute. He, for one, strongly disagrees that the scientists have verified that Anatolian was the first to split away from Proto-Indo-European. This theory, the Indo-Hittite hypothesis, has been debated for years... Dr. Ringe noted that before this study, he believed, contrary to his findings, that the Indo-Hittite hypothesis was wrong. "It might even be fair to say that I was biased against it," he said. "So you can imagine how startled I was when the algorithm kept turning up Anatolian as one first-order branch of the family, and everything else as the other first-order branch -- exactly what the hypothesis says." ...The first surprise was that in all four trees, the Anatolian language group immediately split away from Proto-Indo-European, just as the Indo-Hittite hypothesis has held.
by George Johnson
The New York Times
January 2, 1996
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> (like Windows)
Ah! Here are three of them in one post, still seeking the fourth one:
Hey, and here’s the fourth one:
related topic from a while ago:
Answers.com | unknown
Posted on 07/26/2006 4:11:31 PM EDT by blam
True. For any culture. Which makes it interesting to note that there are fewer foreign works (both technical and non-technical) translated into Arabic every year than into any other language. The Arabic-speaking countries have very little input from other cultures that is in their own language.
How do you say “Look honey, I found the remote” in Cantonese?
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