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Tungusic Languages 


Tungusic (Manchu-Tungus) languages belong to the Altaic family together with the Turkic and Mongolian language groups, and possibly with Korean and Japanese. They spoken by fewer than 80,000 people scattered across a vast region of central and eastern Siberia, the Russian Far East, as well as China and Mongolia.

Tungusic Branch of the Altaic Language Family
29,000 China, Russia, Inner Mongolia
30,000 (few monolinguals) China
7,000 Russia
11,500 Russia
1,200 China
500-1,000 Russia
Oroch 100-150 Russia
Udehe 800, 50 monolinguals Russia
Negidal 156 China, Russia
Manchu 60 China

In large part due to the Soviet policy of russification and oppression of minorities, most of the Tungusic languages are in various stages of endangerment and are facing an extremely uncertain future. Today, they are spoken at home mostly by older people. Education is conducted in Russian, so that most speakers of these languages are proficient in Russian, and only a very few older people are monolingual. Even is one of the official languages of Yakutia which makes it eligible for support in culture and education. Nanai is an indigenous minority people of the Russian Federation.

For more information see The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire and especially Endangered Languages of the Indigenous Peoples of Siberia.


Despite a small number of speakers, Tungusic languages tend to have a many dialects, due to the fact that the people who speak them have lived in small tribal communities or clans in relative isolation from each other. For instance,

  • Evenki with only 29,000 speakers varies considerably and is divided into three large dialect groups: northern, southern and eastern which, in turn, are further divided into minor dialects.
  • Even has up to 20 dialects and sub-dialects united in three local vernaculars (eastern, middle and western.
  • Nanai has three dialects: Upper Amur , Middle Amur and Lower Amur.
  • Udehe has two dialects: Khorsko-Anyuiski and Bikinsko-Imansky. The differences between the two dialects have to do mostly with pronunciation and vocabulary.


Sound system
The sound systems of Tungusic languages have the following features:


  • Vowel inventory
    The vowel inventory varies from language to language. For instance, Even is reported to have 18 vowel distinctions, as opposed to Xibe with eight andManchu with six.
  • Phonemic vowel length
    This means that two otherwise identical words can have different meanings depending on whether the vowel is long or short, e.g., in Oroqen /a:kin/ ‘liver’ with a long /a:/ and /akin/ ‘older sibling’ with a short /a/.
  • Vowel harmony
    Vowel harmony operates along the parameters of vowel rounding and vowel tenseness. For example, when a rounded vowel such as [o] or [u] occurs in the root, all the vowels that follow it must also be round.
  • Avoidance of consonant clusters
    This means that few syllables start or end with more than one consonant.

Tungusic languages are agglutinative, which means that each affix retains its form when added to a root or to another affix. This makes words easy to segment, since each segment carries one piece of grammatical information, unlike languages in which these segments are fused, e.g., in Russian, the grammatical ending –aja in krasnaja ‘red’ stands for adjective + feminine + singular + nominative case. Here is an example from Evenki.

third person singular possessive
‘to his wife’

Noun phrase
Tungusic languages have a richly developed case system ranging from five in Manchu to thirteen in Evenki. All languages share five core case: nominative,dativeaccusativelocativeinstrumental. The accusative is split into definite (when a noun is specific and identifiable from context) and indefinite (when it is not specific and cannot be identified from context). The locative case (similarly to Uralic languages) can be split into several cases that specify location more precisely.

Verb phrase
Tungusic verbs are marked for tense and aspect. Depending on the language, there may be as many as seven tense markers and as many as fifteen aspect markers. The markers are strung together in a certain order. Here is an example from Oroqen:

third person
‘They left.’

Word order
The usual word order is Subject – Object -Verb, although there is some variability depending on the emphasis the speaker places on a particular word in the sentence. Adjectives, numerals, and relative clauses precede the nouns they modify, and adverbs precede verbs.

The basic vocabulary of most Tungusic languages has little in common with Mongolian and Turkic languages, although all three groups are considered to be members of the Altaic language family. Each Tungusic language shows a somewhat different picture of external influences. Those spoken on the territory of Russia, for instance, show an overwhelming influence of Russian. Those spoken in China, reflect the influence of Chinese. For instance, Xibe has a large number of Chinese loanwords, particularly in the area of social terminology.


Tungusic languages are written with a variety of alphabets.

  • Those spoken on the territory of Russia, are mostly written in Cyrillic. For instance, Evenki spoken in Siberia is written with a Cyrillic-based alphabet, while Evenki spoken in in China uses the Mongolian alphabet.
  • Xibe, spoken in China, is written with an adapted version of the Manchu script.
  • Scripts for some languages have not been standardized, for instance Even is written with slightly different versions of the Cyrillic alphabet in different parts of Siberia. The Cyrillic-based alphabet for Udehe has never been standardized.
  • Some languages never had a writing system, e.g., Oroch.

Manchu alphabet
The letters of the Manchu alphabet are based on the Mongolian alphabet while the phonetics are based on Jurchen, an earlier Manchu script.The Manchu alphabet was created at the end of the 16th century. It is written in vertical columns running from top to bottom and from left to right. Each letter has an initial, medial and final form.

Below is the text of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Even.

Статья 1
Бэйил бокэтчур омэн зилкич пяе урумкэр балдаритио, теми нонардук эгдьэн ни-да ачча. Бэйил бэкэтчур мэн долан акагчимур биннэтын.

Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Tungusic languages?
There is no information on the difficulty level of Tungusic languages.

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