Khitan language

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Native to China
Region northern
Extinct c. 1243 (Yelü Chucai, last person known who could speak and write Khitan)
Altaic (controversial)
Khitan large script and Khitan small script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 zkt
Linguist list
Glottolog kita1247[2]

The Khitan language (also known as Liao and Kitan (ISO 639-3); Chinese: 契丹語) is a now-extinct language once spoken by the Khitan people (AD 388 – 1243). Khitan is generally deemed to be genetically linked to the Mongolic languages.[3] It was written using two mutually exclusive writing systems known as the Khitan large script and the Khitan small script. The language was the official language of the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) and Kara-Khitan Khanate (1124–1218). Janhunen states "A better term for Khitan than Mongolic would be Para-Mongolic, implying that it was probably a language collateral to the ancestor of all the Mongolic languages."[4] Presently the theory of the Mongolic, rather than Tungusic, affiliation of Khitan is more and more commonly accepted by both eastern and western scholars.[5] The Khitans had two scripts of their own and many Mongolic words are found in their half-deciphered writings that are usually found with a parallel Chinese text (for example, nair = sun, sair = moon, tau = five, jau = hundred, m.r = horse, im.a = goat, n.q = dog, = silver, ju.un = summer, = autumn, u.ul = winter, heu.ur = spring, tau.l.a = rabbit, t.q.a = hen and m.g.o = snake).[6] There is no doubt regarding the Khitan being proto-Mongolic.[7]


The History of Liao (Liao Shi) contains a volume on Khitan language words transcribed in Chinese characters in a volume titled "Glossary of National Language" (國語解). It is found in Chapter 116 - 遼史/卷116.

The Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor erroneously identified the Khitan people and their language with the Solons, leading him to use the Solon language to "correct" Chinese character transcriptions of Khitan names in the History of Liao in his "Imperial Liao Jin Yuan Three Histories National Language Explanation" (欽定遼金元三史國語解) project.

The Liao dynasty referred to the Khitan language with the term Guoyu 國語 which meant "National language", which was also used by other non-Han dynasties in China to refer to their languages, like the Manchu language during the Qing dynasty, the Mongolian language during the Yuan dynasty, the Jurchen language during the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), and the Xianbei language during the Northern Wei.


There are several closed systems of Khitan lexical items for which systematic information is available.[8] The following is a list of words in these closed systems that are similar to Mongolic. Mongolian equivalents are given after the English translation:


Khitan Translation Mongolian script
heu.ur spring qabur
ju.un summer jun autumn namur
u.ul winter ebül


Khitan Translation Mongolian script second *jir 'two' third gurba 'three'
durer/duren fourth dörben
tau five tabun fifth tabu-daki seventh dololga 'seven'
is nine yesü
jau hundred jagun
ming thousand minggan

Compared with Khitan, The Tungusic numerals of the Jurchen language differ significantly: three=ilan, five=shunja, seven=nadan, nine=uyun, hundred=tangu.


Khitan Translation Mongolian script
te.qo.a chicken taqiya
ni.qo dog noqai falcon sibuga
em.a goat imaga rabbit taulai; in Tungusic rabbit=gulmahun or tuksaki
mo.ri horse mori
uni cow üniye
mu.ho.o snake mogoi


Khitan Translation Mongolian script
ud.ur east doruna left jegün
bo.ra.ian right baragun
dau.ur.un middle dumda
xe.du.un horizontal köndelen
ja.cen.i border jaqa


Khitan Translation Mongolian script
suni night söni
un.n/un.e now,present önö

Personal relations[edit]

Khitan Translation Mongolian script blood cisu
mo ku female eme
deu younger brother degü friend nayija uncle nagaca
s.ia/s.en good sayin
g.en.un sadness, regret "genü-" means 'to regret' in the letter of Arghun Khan)
ku person kümün

Tribal administration[edit]

Khitan Translation Mongolian script
cau.ur war cagur, as in "tsa'urgalan dairakh"
nai/nai.d heads, officials "-d" is a plural suffix=noyan, noyad for plural
t.em- to bestow a title temdeg 'sign'
k.em decree kem kemjiye 'law/norm' letter üseg
ui matter üile
qudug blessed qutug part, section, province keseg military unit of thousand minggan

Basic verbs[edit]

Khitan Translation Mongolian script
p.o become bol-
p.o.ju raise(intr.) bos- fall una- transfer kür-ge-
u- give ög-
sa- to reside sagu-
a- be a- 'live', as in "aj ahui"

Natural objects[edit]

Khitan Translation Mongolian script
eu.ul cloud egüle dew sigüderi
sair moon sara, in Tungusic moon="biya"
nair sun nara
m.em/ silver mönggö

The Liaoshi records in Chapter 53:


In the national (Khitan) language this day (5th day of the 5th lunar month) is called 'Tao Saiyier'. 'Tao' means five; 'Saiyier' means moon.

'Tao Saiyier' corresponds to Mongolian 'tavan sar' (fifth moon/month). The Turkic equivalent would be 'beshinchi ay' while the Tungusic equivalent would be 'sunja biya'.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Linguist List entry for Kitan
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kitan". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Janhunen, Juha (2003): Para-Mongolic. In: Juha Janhunen (ed.): The Mongolic languages. London: Routledge: 391-402.
  4. ^ Janhunen 1996, pp. 145-146
  5. ^ Cf. Franke. In Sinor ed., 1990, p. 407, and note. 6; Liu, Fengzhu 1992, p. 1; Janhunen 1996, p. 143.
  6. ^ Frederick W. Mote, Imperial China 900–1800, p.405
  7. ^ Herbert Franke, John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett, Roderick MacFarquhar, Denis Twitchett, Albert Feuerwerker. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 3: Sui and T'ang China, 589–906. Part 1, p.364
  8. ^ Kane, Daniel The Kitan language and script 2009, Leiden, The Netherlands

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]