Saka language

For the Northern Turkic language spoken in Sakha Republic, Russian Far East, see Sakha language.
Not to be confused with Makhuwa language or Scythian languages.
Khotanese, Tumshuqese
Native to Kingdom of Khotan, Tumshuq, Murtuq and Shule Kingdom[1]
Region Tarim Basin (current China)
Ethnicity Saka
Era 100 BC – 1000 AD[2]
  • Khotanese
  • Tumshuqese
Brahmi, Kharosthi
Language codes
ISO 639-2 kho
ISO 639-3 Either:
kho  Khotanese
xtq  Tumshuqese
Linguist list
kho (Khotanese)
  xtq (Tumshuqese)
Glottolog saka1298[3]
Khotanese animal zodiac BLI6 OR11252 1R2 1
Khotanese Verses BLE4 IOLKHOT50 4R1 1
Book of Zambasta BLX3542 OR9614 5R1 1

(Eastern) Saka or Sakan is a variety of Eastern Iranian languages, attested from the ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Khotan, Kashgar and Tumshuq in the Tarim Basin, in what is now southern Xinjiang, China. It is a Middle Iranian language.[4] The two kingdoms differed in dialect, their speech known as Khotanese and Tumshuqese.

Documents on wood and paper were written in modified Brahmi script with the addition of extra characters over time and unusual conjuncts such as ys for z.[5] The documents date from the fourth to the eleventh century. Tumshuqese was more archaic than Khotanese,[6] but it is much less understood because it appears in fewer manuscripts compared to Khotanese. Both dialects share features with modern Pashto and Wakhi. The language was known as "Hvatanai" in contemporary documents.[7] Many Prakrit terms were borrowed from Khotanese into the Tocharian languages.[8]


Main article: Saka

The two known dialects of Saka are associated with a movement of the Scythians. No invasion of the region is recorded in Chinese records and one theory is that two tribes of the Saka, speaking the two dialects, settled in the region in about 200 BC before the Chinese accounts commence.[9]

The Saka language became extinct after invading Turkic Muslims conquered the Kingdom of Khotan in the Islamicisation and Turkicisation of Xinjiang.

In the 11th century, it was remarked by Mahmud al-Kashgari that the people of Khotan still have their own language and script and did not know Turkic well.[10][11] According to Kashgari some non-Turkic languages like the Kanchaki and Soghdian were still used in some areas.[12] It is believed that the Saka language group was what Kanchaki belonged to.[13] It is believed that the Tarim Basin was linguistically Turkified by the end of the 11th century.[14]


Khotanese and Tumshuqese are closely related Eastern Iranian languages.[15]


Other than an inscription from Issyk kurgan that it is tentatively identified as Khotanese (although written in Kharosthi), all of the surviving documents originate from Khotan or Tumshuq. Khotanese is attested from over 2,300 texts preserved among the Dunhuang manuscripts, as opposed to just 15 texts in Tumshuqese. These were deciphered by Harold Walter Bailey. The earliest texts, from the fourth century, are mostly religious documents. There were several viharas in the Kingdom of Khotan and Buddhist translations are common at all periods of the documents. There are many reports to the royal court (called haṣḍa aurāsa) which are of historical importance, as well as private documents. An example of a document is Or.6400/2.3.


  1. Mallory, J.P. "Bronze Age languages of the Tarim Basin" (PDF). Expedition. 52 (3): 44–53. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  2. Saka at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Saka". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. britanica
  5. Bailey, H W (1970). "The Ancient Kingdom of Khotan". British Institute of Persian Studies. 8: 65–72. doi:10.2307/4299633.
  6. Masson], [editors, A.H. Dani, V.M. (1992). History of civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO. p. 283. ISBN 92-3-103211-9.
  7. Bailey, H W (December 1939). "The Rama Story in Khotanese". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 59 (4): 460. doi:10.2307/594480.
  8. Litvinsky 1999: 432
  9. Bailey, H W (1970). "The Ancient Kingdom of Khotan". British Institute of Persian Studies. 8: 68.
  11. Scott Cameron Levi; Ron Sela (2010). Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources. Indiana University Press. pp. 72–. ISBN 0-253-35385-8.
  12. Scott Cameron Levi; Ron Sela (2010). Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources. Indiana University Press. pp. 72–. ISBN 0-253-35385-8.
  13. Ahmad Hasan Dani; B. A. Litvinsky; Unesco (1 January 1996). History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The crossroads of civilizations, A.D. 250 to 750. UNESCO. pp. 283–. ISBN 978-92-3-103211-0.
  14. Akiner (28 October 2013). Cultural Change & Continuity In. Routledge. pp. 71–. ISBN 978-1-136-15034-0.
  15. Ronald Emmerick, "Khotanese and Tumshuqese", in Gernot Windfuhr, ed., The Iranian Languages, Routledge, 2009



International Dunhuang Project

Further reading

Look up Khotanese in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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