Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Silk Road Language Web

A linguistic prehistory of the Tarim Basin in Northwest China

2024 - 2029
Michaël Peyrot

On the crossroads between China, India and the Eurasian Steppes, the Tarim Basin in present-day Northwest China was a crucial part of the famous Silk Road trading network. Today, the main languages of the area are Uyghur and Mandarin, but numerous manuscript finds are proof of a past rich in entirely different languages. Next to literary languages like Sanskrit, the local vernaculars were Middle Indic, Tocharian, and the Iranian languages Khotanese and Tumšuqese. All Indo-European and hailing ultimately from the west, these languages show the effects of intricate patterns of long-term influence, thus forming a network of linguistic contact: the Silk Road Language Web.

The Tarim Basin and its local vernaculars in the 1st millennium CE

The interpretation of this intriguing linguistic complex has been dominated by the narrative that the Tocharians are to be identified with the Bronze Age “Tarim Mummies”, to the detriment of other groups. However, in concordance with genetic evidence, the linguistic findings of the PI’s ERC-Starting Grant and NWO-VIDI projects show that the Tocharians arrived much later, while the Iranians arrived earlier and spread over a larger area than previously assumed. Thus, an entirely new approach to the linguistic past of the Tarim Basin is called for.

Based on the evidence from long-term language contact contained in the Silk Road Language Web, this project will unravel the linguistic past of the Tarim Basin to make a groundbreaking contribution to the linguistic and migrational prehistory of Eurasia. Reconstructing the dates of the splits and spreads of Khotanese, Tumšuqese and Tocharian, it will establish their routes and dates of entry into the Tarim Basin. Further, Khotanese and Tocharian vocabulary of unclear origin will be scrutinised for traces of languages of the earlier Bronze Age populations. Finally, the linguistic developments will be followed into historical times, tracing how the attested languages were eventually shaped by the later formative impact of Middle Indic and Middle Iranian.

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