Tangut language

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Buddhist scripture written in Tangut

Tangut (also Xīxià or Hsi-Hsia or Mi-nia) is an ancient northeastern Tibeto-Burman language[1] once spoken in the Western Xia, also known as the Tangut Empire. It is classified by some linguists as a Qiangic language, which includes the Northern and Southern Qiang languages and the Rgyalrong languages, among others.

Tangut was one of the official languages of the Western Xia (known in Tibetan as Mi nyag and in Chinese as 彌藥 Míyào), which was founded by the Tangut people and obtained its independence from the Song dynasty at the beginning of the 11th century. The Western Xia were annihilated when Genghis Khan invaded in 1226.[2]

The Tangut language has its own script, the Tangut script.

The latest known text written in the Tangut language, the Tangut dharani pillars, dates to 1502,[3] suggesting that the language was still in use nearly three hundred years after the destruction of the Tangut people.


Modern research into the Tangut languages began in the late 19th century and early 20th century when S. W. Bushell, Gabriel Devéria, and Georges Morisse separately published decipherments of a number of Tangut characters found on Western Xia coins, in a Chinese-Tangut bilingual inscription on a stele at Wuwei, Gansu, and in a copy of the Tangut translation of the Lotus Sutra.

The majority of extant Tangut texts were excavated at Khara-Khoto in 1909 by Pyotr Kozlov, and the script was identified as that of the Tangut state of Xixia. Such scholars as Aleksei Ivanovich Ivanov, Ishihama Juntaro (石濱純太郎), Berthold 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 Nikolai Aleksandrovich Nevsky (1892–1937), 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 posthumously in 1960 under the title "Tangutskaya Filologiya" (Tangut Philology) and the scholar was eventually (and posthumously) awarded the Soviet Lenin Prize for his work. The understanding of the Tangut language is far from perfect: although certain aspects of the morphology (Ksenia Kepping, The Morphology of the Tangut Language, Moscow: Nauka, 1985) and grammar (Tatsuo Nishida, Seika go no kenkyū, etc.) are understood, the syntactic structure of Tangut remains largely unexplored.

The Khara-Khoto documents are at present preserved in the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg. These survived the Siege of Leningrad, but a number of manuscripts in the possession of Nevsky at the time of his arrest by the NKVD in 1937 went missing, and were returned, under mysterious circumstances, to the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts only in October 1991.[4] The collections amount 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 Chinese 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 Library, the National Library in Beijing, the Library of Beijing University and other libraries.


  1. van Driem, George (2001). Languages of the Himalayas, Volume One. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-12062-9. 
  2. "IDP News Issue No. 2" (PDF). IDP Newsletter (2): 2–3. January 1995. ISSN 1354-5914. Retrieved 2009-07-03. 
  3. Frederick W. Mote (2003). Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press. pp. 257–. ISBN 978-0-674-01212-7. 
  4. van Driem, George (1993). "Ancient Tangut manuscripts rediscovered" (PDF). Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area. La Trobe University, Australia. 16 (1): 137–155. ISSN 0731-3500. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 


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