Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turkish & Mongolian Loanwords

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  sku-bde-rigsgang-zag, chol-kha, 'jam, thu-lum, na-so, no-kar, pag-shi, beg-tse, sbe-ka, tshan, she-mong, hor-dud, and am-chi.  I know the letters are small, so double-click on the image to enlarge it.
In times gone by, musk was the most popular Tibetan product in the whole world. Now that the musk deer is considered endangered it’s been replaced by synthetics, so much so that now Tibet’s biggest money maker is Buddhism, which seems to be facing the same fate. The Mongolian is kuderi, and the Tibetan borrowing of it gives it Tibetanizing spellings that make it seem to mean family of healthy bodies, but using very honorable language. Why would Tibetans ever think to borrow yet another word when they already had such a perfect one of their own for it, gla-ba? I have no idea.

Gang-zag is a tricky word, since its usual meaning is person (Sanskrit pudgala), not pipe.

I know I once claimed that sbe-ka had something to do with the Sanskrit word for frog, and now all of a sudden I’m contradicting myself finding an Old Mongolian origin for it in a word for wrestler. I admit I was probably wrong, although come to think of it I could have been right. For more on the frog read further.

You may well wonder what metal ingots might have to do with whole animal pelts. Well, even if you weren’t wondering: In ancient times in the Middle East and elsewhere, there was a practice of pouring molten metal into whole animal skins immersed in water. The result would be an ingot with four short legs that made the very heavy objects a lot easier to for two people to handle.

Emchi is nowadays a most common Tibetan word for physician, entirely suitable for addressing your doctor in person. Goldstein's dictionary even records the spelling em-rje, one of those cute (and endearing) Tibetanizing spellings since the 2nd syllable means lord, making it all that much more respectful.

I imagine all, or at least most, of these loanwords from Mongolian entered Tibetan during the time of the Mongolian Empire or at least not before. I doubt you will find any of them in the Dunhuang documents or other pre-Mongol period sources, but Tibetanists can test this for themselves at the OTDO.

Here is a photo of a horse-hair thug, a traumatic symbol of Mongolian terror in the late 12th-13th centuries that we mentioned in an earlier blog. Still today, Tibetans use it to mark the location of gönkhang chapels where fear is (ideally) taken onto the Path.

The Tibetan words here are, to transcribe them into Wylie, in order:  khol-po, cog, chu-ba (or phyu-ba), 'cham, thug, sbal-kha, yol, gshang, and sag-ri.

Many of these words you see here, taken from Turkic languages, are not commonly encountered in Tibetan and a few are extremely rare (the names of Turkic gods, cog and yol only occur in long-forgotten Old Tibetan documents), although others such as chu-ba and 'cham are everyday words.

Here is a home video that shows you not only how to wrap your chuba, but throws in momo steaming as well. What a bargain! There is plenty of evidence for what early Uighur outfits looked like in donor portraits. Look here. Find a discussion of the word-connections for the clothing here (but please do correct the picture label there to read "Tibetan Chuba").

On the Turkic words for both the masked performers and the bell (just below), see Emel Esin's A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Culture (Istanbul 1980), p. 107.

The gshang bell, used primarily by followers of Bön, but also by some Kagyü Lamas and spirit mediums, looks like this:

For the Tibetan word for that shagreen that helps you keep a nice and tight slip-free grip on knives and swords, have a look at this March 2009 blog entry of Sitahu where C.C. and I had a lot of fun discussing it. I have to say, I have nothing more to say about it, and I admit this much to my great chagrin.

I’ve found that you can find a lot more Tibetan words lifted from Mongolian in a convenient list — with discussion — in the 2008 doctoral dissertation of Tóth Erzsébet (Elisabeth Toth), Mongol–Tibeti Nyelvi Kölcsönhatások (found online here), pp. 13-34. It’s interesting that the Tibetan name used in recent times for Russia, ཨུ་རུ་སུ་, was taken from Mongolian. It would appear that Rgya-ser/ རྒྱ་སེར་ ['Yellow Expanse'?] is the more genuinely Tibetan name for this northern vastness, but it, too, doesn’t seem to date back more than a few centuries, so I very much doubt it could have anything to do with the Khazars.  I think it could very well have something to do with the memory of the Golden Horde.

All these vocabulary connections are provisional and merit prolonged study, reflection and discussion.


Postscript!  (January 18, 2015)

The more I travel the less I know. No need to search afar for something so close to home. These wise adages (or something close) are often repeated and never heeded. But I had a funny experience today that brought it all home for me. I was digging in the back of the refrigerator and came up with a good proof of that ages-old wisdom (wisdom being something I do believe can be found at home, after all). It's been ages since that change of flights in Istanbul, over a month now, but I found the leftovers of something purchased in the duty free there. I hope you won't be offended if I show it to you. I must warn you it is slightly smelly, but not in such a bad way:

Notice those words on the label “Tulum Peyniri.” That means ‘cheese’ (peyniri, evidently the same word you find in palak paneer!) made in a tulum. That’s right, this cheese was traditionally (at least) made inside of a complete skin of a four-legged animal, the same word tulum that Tibetans borrowed at one time or another. A search of the internet came up with this exact cheese, suggesting we ought to mix it with walnuts, and this turned out to be a very good idea. Go ahead and go here and read what it says. I couldn’t find any pictures of how the cheese is or was made in Turkey, although I did find some nice photos of Jordanian Bedouin women showing how it’s supposed to be done.  Go here and here (I didn’t want to swipe the photos, since it’s a commercial site intending to make money... Follow the links, but beware of buying!)

By the way, a quick search of the e-text repository at TBRC immediately turned up 272 matches for ཐུ་ལུམ་ (thu-lum). So it is a word that is encountered in Tibetan literature from time to time (I’ve encountered it mainly in colophons... I remember I once mistranslated it as ‘cannonball.’  Live and learn. See you later. Take it easy.).

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Oh, I forgot to say that tulum is also a modern Turkish word for the bagpipe. I imagine it has something to do with the way they used to be made. And we really shouldn't leave the subject of inflatable skin bags (a subject that has been interesting me lately for other reasons) without mentioning their use for floating on the water. There is a remarkable Assyrian frieze depicting a man using a skin bag for floating in the water supposed to date from circa 800 BCE.  And the use of flotation devices is well known from Tibetan travel accounts, and in older Tibetan literature we have the very interesting Tibetan words rkyal (རྐྱལ་) used both for the float and for the storage bag and phyal (ཕྱལ་) more with the meaning of a float or a buoy.* To judge from the Englished version, the preparation of flotation devices for crossing rivers was something Padampa used as a metaphor for helping other people to get beyond suffering.**
(*The Rangjung Yeshe Wiki entries I've linked for you don't have either of these meanings with the meanings I've given for them, but that ought to be no great cause for surprise or concern. Longchenpa loved to use the word phyal metaphorically for floating freely with nothing to hold you in place.  **Blue Annals, Roerich tr., p. 922; but now that I check the original text, there is no word for any flotation device there.  It uses the word skya-gdos, སྐྱ་གདོས་, a compound of the words for oars and mast, both of them locomotive rather than flotation devices.  Which goes to show, it can be a problem to rely on translations, even when done by humans as competent as Gendun Choephel, who used the same woodblock printing of the Blue Annals as I do. So don't blame the different readings on variant readings.)


  1. Dear Dan,
    Thank you for this very interesting post. As soon as I read the word no-kar my interest was peeked as this word is commonly used in Hindi (naukar) (and in Persian too). My first thought, I must confess, is that it can't be entirely right that it's Mongolian derived. A quick google search did the trick, though, and it turns out that I should not have doubted you. However, Dirk Kolff informs us on the Mongolian origins of this words in his Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market of Hindustan(2002, p. 196): "Naukar was originally a Mongolian word meaning retainer, comrade, a soldier in the service of a Mongolian clan he did not belong to by birth, a free warrior. In the latter sense it was still used in Turkish in nineteenth-century Khiva and Bokhara. In Persian it was used at least since the thirteenth century." It appears that only later on in the Indian subcontinent the word started to mean "servant". So, if indeed the Tibetan word no-kar has the sense of "servant", then while the origin of the word is no doubt Mongolian, it seems perhaps more likely that the word made its way into the Tibetan language via the subcontinent and not via the Mongolian tribes. What do you think about this?

    sMad yul ma

  2. Dear Sm,
    A good point. Let's think about it.
    Another relevant question to ask is if the word was used much if at all in Tibetan. My impression is that it was of local use, and probably in Ladakh, which would support your idea that it may have come into Tibetan via India. I just did a search of TBRC's etext repository, and didn't come up with a single real example of its use. Of course, we have to keep in mind that not every kind of Tibetan text is necessarily well represented there, but still, it makes you wonder... My only testimony for its existence in Tibetan is in Francke's "Antiquities of Indian Tibet," vol. 2, p. 146, and he says it was borrowed from Urdu, along with quite a few other borrowings that can be found in the Royal History of Ladakh (ལ་དྭགས་རྒྱལ་རབས་). So yes, as far as this word is concerned, you're completely right. It very probably did not go directly from Mongolian to Tibetan and likely went through Persian and Urdu. And in Tibet it was of limited use if it was used at all. This is not the case with most of the other words in the list, however! Thanks for writing and let me know what you think/

  3. Hello, I d like to have some input. Originally Turkish And Marrying A Very Fine Lady From Tibet We found out some similar words used in both cultures

    Chu - Su - Water
    Chok-ii (A Ladys Name Usually)- Chock Iyi - Very Good
    Tilek - Dilek - Good Wish
    Tamgha - Damga - Stamp
    Katshoo - Katcha - How Much?
    Tsong - Sogan - Onion
    ta- at- horse
    chat- chati- roof

    and further south from tibet, especially in india, thanks to Urdu language, much more similar words appear..

  4. Dear Anon, Thanks for writing! Of all these things you mention the one that interests me the most is Tibetan tham-ka, ordinarily with the meaning of 'seal' (as in a sealed letter or other document). I'm fairly sure this entered Tibetan during the Mongol period, although I should look into this further and try and figure if this is really the case. It would go together with the borrowing 'jam, for the postal system the Mongols introduced throughout their Eurasian empire. But the original Mongolian meaning of tamga is, I believe, those curious clan symbols you can still see in use in Mongolia today. I think I have a photo I took of a monument with these symbols all over it. Let me go try and find it.
    Thanks for writing.

  5. Dear Dan, very interesting stuff. Just two tiny points: (a) If thu lum is a loanword, it must have been lent rather early. We encounter words such a lcags kyi thu lum in Indian works in Tibetan translation, i.e. as a Tibetan translation of Sanskrit ayoguḍa. (b) In my mother tongue, something spherical is called tu lum pi = thu lum pi. This seems to be somehow related with thu lum. Dorji

  6. Dear Dorji, Hope you had a pleasant trip. You're right, I just checked and found Mvy. no. 4943, lcags-kyi tho-lum, "tho-lum of iron," with the tho-lum corresponding to Sanskrit guḍa. Checking the Vienna site there are quite a few occurrences (many more with the spelling thu-lum than tho-lum) in very many types of scriptures and treatises, so no doubt you're right, it had to have been an old borrowing, likely going back to at least the early 9th century. I should move it out of the Mongolian loanwords and into the Turkic list, therefore. I'd have to study all the examples closely to be sure, but by far the most common usage is in phrases about how painful and undesirable it would be to swallow an iron thu-lum that is blazing hot, and this suffering often appears to be associated with a specific hell. (It occurs in the Mvy. in a section on hell terminology.) It's remarkable, for sure, but I don't think we ought to be too amazed to find such an early borrowing from Turkic tongues. There are some examples in the Dunhuang documents, after all, like the cog and yol I mentioned. But even accepting it as an early loanword, it isn't necessarily the case that Tibetans in those times understood it in the same way as the Turks. I mean, it doesn't seem likely that anything so huge as an animal-skin ingot could reasonably be introduced into something so small as the human digestive system! Maybe translating as cannonball or something of the same shape only smaller would make more sense here, do you think?

  7. I was reconsidering if it might not be possible, as Anon. suggested in his comment, that Tibetan bde-legs (in the common greeting Tashi delek!) might be a disguised (or 'Tibetanizing') borrowing from a Turkic language. I'm still thinking about it. Something about it feels right (but what to do with Mvy. 2747?).

  8. Hi there,

    as for the word gang zag as pipe, a Lama from Ladakh once told me the following story: Once a trader from Baltistan came to Ladakh for business and came across two monks who were were heatedly debating about "gang zag". On his way back they were still fighting, so he approached them and gave each of them a pipe (for smoking), saying "now you each have one gang zag, don't quarrel anymore!"
    The story was to show the practicality/straightforwardness of Baltistan people.
    I assume actually that the word is from Indic gañjā; hemp.


  9. Dear Anon.,
    I liked the story, which rings like truth even if it is meant to be a joke (truth = joke? That works for me).
    I'm not so sure, though, that the hemp theory holds water. The only discussion I know about is G. Kara's in his essay "A Sbra-nag Glossary in Grum-Grzimajlo's Travel," glossary no. 218 on p. 354. He has it coming to Tibetan via Amdo area, and indirectly coming there from China via Mongolia. I don't get any sense of the time frame, but it may have happened in recent history. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the story.

    PS: One problem with investigating this word is that when and if you try to word-check for it in Tibetan-languages databases you get a zillion hits on the gang-zag that means 'person.'

    PPS: I forgot to say, Kara's essay was published in Louis Ligeti, ed., Tibetan and Buddhist Studies: Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Koros, Munshiram Manoharlal (Delhi 2000, reprint of 1984 ed.), vol. 1, pp. 321-362.

  10. Larry Clark's article "The Turkic and Mongol Words in William of Rubruck's Journey," Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 93, no. 2 (Apr 1973), pp. 181-189, has a little discussion about bogta and related terms. Bogta was borrowed into Tibetan as 'bog-to, and used for special hats worn by some of the lesser officials of the Lhasa government (an instance of a word being borrowed along with the object it denotes).

  11. Here are the words that I found since I have a Tibetan Family
    Tibetan : Kang - Snow
    Turkish : Kar - Snow
    Tibetan : Chu - Water
    Turkish : Su - Water
    Tibetan : Ninni - Go To Sleep
    Turkish : Ninni - To Sleep
    Tibetan : Katsooe - How Much
    Turkish : Katcha - How Much
    Tibetan : Telek - Wish
    Turkish : Dilek - Wish
    Tibetan : Tashe : Good
    Turkish : Yahshe : good
    Tibetan : Ama - Mother
    Turkish : Ana - Mother
    Tibetan : Tsoung - Onion
    Turkish : Tsogan - Onion
    Tibetan : Chockh - Many
    Turkish : Chockh - Many

  12. how about:

    yurt / ger / གུར་ ?

  13. Hi Dirk, Well, you tell us. Do you think the vowel difference between the Mongolian and Tibetan words could be a result of Mongolian or Turkic vowel harmony? As I understand the phenomenon shifts between front and back vowels do take place. But if it's a single-syllable word, there is no other verb for it to harmonize with, and no reason for the shift to take place. I'm not terribly clear on those points, or if it makes sense to speculate along those lines. But yes, I think the Mongolian ger (in Russian yurt) may really connect to Tibetan gur. We'll let the historical linguists hammer out the details. As always, thanks for writing and hope to hear more from you.



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