Tangut language

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ISO 639-1:none
ISO 639-2:
ISO 639-3:txg

Tangut (also Xixia or Hsi-Hsia) is an ancient northerneastern Tibeto-Burman language once spoken in the Tangut Empire. By some linguists it is classified as one of the Qiangic languages, among which one also finds Qiang and rGyalrong. It is distantly related to Tibetan and Burmese, and possibly also to Chinese.

Tangut was the official language of the Tangut empire (known in Tibetan as Mi-nyag and in Chinese as Xixia 西夏), inhabited by the Tangut people, which obtained its independence from the Chinese Song dynasty at the beginning of the 11th century, and was annihilated by Činggis Qaɣan (commonly known as Genghis Khan) in 1227.

The Tangut language has its own script, namely the Tangut script. Occasionally, for religious documents, the Tangut language was written in Tibetan script.


The latest text (a piece of Buddhist sutra) we can find written in the Tangut language dates to 1502, which means that the language was still in use three hundred years after the annihilation of the Tangut Empire.

The majority of extant Tangut texts were excavated at Khara-Khoto in 1908 by Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov, and these documents are at present preserved in the Saint Petersburg branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. The collections amounts 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 Museum, National Library in Beijing, Library of Beijing University and other libraries.

The research of Tangut script began as early as the early 20th century when M. Maurisse first acquired a copy of the Tangut Lotus Sutra, which was partially researched by some unknown Chinese scholar. After the discovery of the Khara-Khoto library by P. K. Kozlov, the script was identified as that of the Tangut state of Xixia, and actual research began. Such scholars as A. I. Ivanov, Ishihama Juntaro (石濱純太郎), B. 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 N. A. Nevskij, 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 in 1960 under the title "Tangutskaya Filologia" (Tangut Philology) and the scholar was eventually awarded the Soviet Lenin State Prize for his work. As of late the understanding of the Tangut language is far from perfect: although certain issues of morphology (Ksenia Kepping, "The Morphology of the Tangut Language" (Moscow: Nauka, 1985)and grammar (Nishida Tatsuo, "Seika bun no kenkyu", etc)had been resolved, the syntax structure of Tangut still remains largely unexplored.


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 languages. Thus although on 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.

Enlarge picture
A page from the Fanhan heshi zhangzhongzhu

The discovery of the Fanhan heshi zhangzhongzhu (Chinese: 番漢合時掌中珠 "Tangut-Chinese timely handy pearl"), a Tangut-Chinese bilingual glossary, permitted Ivanov (1909) and Laufer (1916) to propose initial reconstructions and to study 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, consist 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 fanqie, 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 or 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 make distinctions among the rhymes in a systematic and very precise manner. Due to the fanqie, 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 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, Hwang-cherng Gong (龔煌城), M.V. Sofronov and Li Fanwen (李范文). As of now, there are three Tangut dictionaries available: the one composed by N.A. Nevsky, the other two composed by Li Fanwen and E.I. Kychanov respectively.

As of now, 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 Hwang-cherng Gong 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 CVC 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
重唇音?heavy lipbilabialsp, ph, b, mp, ph, b, m
軽唇音?light liplabio-dentalsf, v, w
舌頭音?tongue tipdentalst, th, d, nt, th, d, n
舌上音?upper tonguety', thy', dy', ny'
牙音?ga-likevelarsk, kh, g, ngk, kh, g, ?
歯頭音?tooth tipdental affricates and fricativests, tsh, dz, sts, tsh, dz, s
正歯音?true toothpalatal affricates and fricativesc, ch, j, shtɕ, tɕh, dʑ, ?
候音?laryngeals', h., x, ?
流風音?flowing airresonantsl, lh, ld, z, r, zzl, lh, z, r, ?

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

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 be realized that grades three and four are in complimentary distribution depending on the initial. Consequenlty 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 (摂), corresponds to the set of all rhymes under the same rhzme 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? 緊候母? 捲舌母音
closedi I uiq eq uqir Ir ur
mide oeq2 oqer or


  • Shintaro Arakawa. 荒川新太郎 1997. "西夏語通韻字典" [Tangut Rhyme Dictionary]. 『言語学研究』 [Linguistic Research] Vol. 16: 1-153.
  • _____. 1999. "夏藏対音資料からみた西夏語の声調" [A Study on Tangut Tones from Tibetan Transcriptions]. 『言語学研究』 [Linguistic Research] Vol. 17-18: 27-44.
  • _____ . 2001."西夏語の脚韻に見られる韻母について―『三世属明言集文』所収西夏語詩" [About the rhymes in Tangut verses: Reanalysis of Tangut rhyming poetry in San shi shu ming yan ji wen]. 『京都大学言語学研究』 [Linguistic Research of the Kyoto University] Vol. 20: 195-224.
  • _____. 2003. "東京大学所蔵西夏文断片について - 西夏語訳『大智度論』断片" [Tangut Fragments preserved in the University of Tokyo - The Tangut Version of the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa]. 『京都大学言語学研究』 Vol 22: 379-390.
  • Gong Hwangcherng. 龔煌城 1999. 〈西夏语的紧元音及其起源〉 [Tense vowels and their origin in Xixia]. 《中央研究院历史语言研究所集刊》 [Collected Papers of the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica] 70.2: 531-558.
  • _____. 2001. 〈西夏语动词的人称呼应音韵转换〉 [Rime transformation and person agreement in Xixia verbs]. 《语言暨语言学》 [Language and Linguistics] 2.1: 21-67.
  • Ivanov, A. 1909. Zur kenntnis der Hsi-hsia Sprache. Izvestia Akademii nauk.
  • Kepping, Ksenia B. 1971. "A category of aspect in Tangut," trans. E. Grinstead. Acta Orientalia 33: 283-294.
  • _____. 1975. "Subject and object agreement in the Tangut verb". trans. J. A. Matisoff. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 2.2:219-232.
  • _____. 1979. "Elements of ergativity and nominativity in Tangut." in Ergativity: towards a theory of grammatical relations, ed. Frans Plank, 263-277. London: Academic Press.
  • _____. 1979. Sun' tszy v tangutskom perevode: Faksimile ksilografa. Izdanie teksta, perovod, vvedenie, kommentarii, grammaticheskii ocherk, slover' i prilozhenie (Pamiatniki pis'mennosti vostoka 49) [Sun Tsz in Tangut translation: Facsimile of xylograph. Publication of text, translation, introduction, commentary, grammatical sketch, dictionary, and appendices (Literary texts of the East 49)]. Moscow: Nauka.
  • _____. 1981. "Agreement of the verb in Tangut". Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 6. 1:39-48.
  • _____. 1982. "Deictic motion verbs in Tangut." Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 6.2:77-82.
  • _____. 1982. "Once again on the agreement of the Tangut verb." Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 7. 1:39-54.
  • _____. 1989. 西夏语的结构 [The structure of the Tangut language]. 中国民族史研究 [Studies on the history of the nationalities of China] 2, ed. Bai Bin, Shi Jinbo, Lu Xun, and Gao Wende, 312-326. Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Xueyuan Chubanshe.
  • Kepping, Ksenia B., V. S. Kolokolov, E. I. Kychanov, and A. P. Terent'ov Katanskii. 1969. More pis'men: Faksimile tangutskikh ksilografov. Perevod s tangutskogo, vstupitel'nye stat'i i prelozheniia [Sea of characters: Facsimile of Tangut xylographs. Translation from Tangut, and intruductory articles and appendices (Literary texts of the East 16)]. Moscow: Nauka.
  • Laufer, B. 1916. "The Si-hia Language, a study in Indo-Chinese Philology". T'oung Pao Vol. 17.
  • Li Fanwen. 1980. 西夏研究论集 [A Compilation of Xixia Studies].Ningxia: 宁夏人民出版社 [Ningxia People's Press].
  • _____. 1998. 夏汉词典 [Xixia-Chinese Dictionary]. Beijing: 中国社会科学院出版社 [Chinese Academy of Social Science Press].
  • Nevsky, N.A. 1925. A brief manual of the Si-hia characters with Tibetan transcriptions. 大阪東洋学會研究評論 [Research Review of the Osaka Asiatic Society].
  • Sofronov, M.V. 1968. Grammatika tangutskogo jazyka [Grammar of the Tangut language]. Moscow: Nauka.

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