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Prehistoric Civilizations Around the Silk Road: The Evidence from the Tocharian Languages

A Central Asia Initiative lecture by Melanie Malzahn, University of Vienna and Visiting Professor, UCLA Program in Indo-European Studies

Presented at the panel presentation: Red-headed Mummies and Indo-European Languages: The Archaeology and Linguistics of Migration in 'Chinese' Eurasia

November 12, 2009

Among the extinct languages merely known by manuscripts discovered along the Silk Road, the two languages Tocharian A and Tocharian B together constitute one of the twelve branches of Indo-European. Mostly dating from the period of the 5th/6th to the 8th/9th centuries CE, the Tocharian texts give us an insight into the monastic Buddhist culture of their speakers. But these documents keep quiet about pre-Buddhist culture. Internal linguistic probing can shed some light on the prehistory of the two languages, and enables us to reconstruct a common ancestor, i.e., Proto-Tocharian. Comparative linguistics can further tell us something about the relationship of Proto-Tocharian to the other branches of Indo-European. One popular linguistic theory states that Tocharian—much like Anatolian—has a special status among Indo-European languages by having branched off earlier from the common proto-language than all other branches such as Indo-Iranian, Greek, etc. However, recent research does not support this claim. Prof. Malzahn argues that the basic grammatical system and lexicon of Tocharian do not seem so different from those of the other branches of Indo-European. On the other hand, Tocharian A and B show some clear traces of influence from other languages, most notably Iranian languages. Moreover, to a certain extent they must have even undergone some influence from non-Indo-European languages—among them agglutinating ones—but the details about which language and what period are again hard to determine. Hence, while Tocharian has a significant impact on the reconstruction of the grammar of the Proto-Indo-European proto-language, the contribution of linguistics to reconstructing prehistoric civilization is, above all, by its own nature severely limited.

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