Saka language

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Khotanese, Tumshuqese
Native to Kingdom of Khotan, Tumshuq, Murtuq and Kashgar[1]
Region Tarim Basin (current China)
Ethnicity Saka
Era 100 BC – 1000 AD[2]
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 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]


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.


Khotanese and Tumshuqese are closely related Eastern Iranian languages.[10]


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.[citation needed] 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Saka at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  3. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Saka". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. britanica
  5. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  6. Masson], [editors, A.H. Dani, V.M. (1992). History of civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO. p. 283. ISBN 92-3-103211-9. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  8. Litvinsky 1999: 432
  9. Bailey, H W (1970). "The Ancient Kingdom of Khotan". British Institute of Persian Studies. 8: 68.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Ronald Emmerick, "Khotanese and Tumshuqese", in Gernot Windfuhr, ed., The Iranian Languages, Routledge, 2009



International Dunhuang Project

Further reading

  • Bailey, H W (1979) Dictionary of Khotan Saka, Cambridge University Press
  • Encyclopædia Iranica "Iranian Languages"
  • Emmerick, R. E., & Pulleyblank, E. G. (1993). A Chinese text in Central Asian Brahmi script: new evidence for the pronunciation of Late Middle Chinese and Khotanese. Roma: Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente. (On connections between Chinese and Khotanese, such as loan words and pronunciations)
  • Litvinsky, Boris Abramovich; Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya, M.I (1999). "Religions and religious movements". History of civilizations of Central Asia. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 421–448. ISBN 8120815408.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>