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Tocharian and the Tocharians

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Qizil grottoes, Kucha region

Qizil grottoes, Kucha region

The Silk Road, the famous network of trade routes connecting China to the West, was essential not only for the transfer of material goods, but also for the exchange of language and culture. Along with many other Central Asian civilizations, Tocharian A and Tocharian B could so come to flourish as literary languages in the wake of the spread of Buddhism in the middle of the first millennium CE.

Although Tocharian was spoken in Kucha and Turfan along the northern edge of the Tarim Basin in North-West China (= present-day Xinjiang), it is not related to Chinese. Instead, Tocharian A and Tocharian B constitute a separate branch of the so-called Indo-European language family, which comprises ancient languages such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, as well as modern languages like English and Spanish.

Tocharian manuscript

Tocharian manuscript (IOL Toch 1)

Towards the end of the first millennium, Tocharian became extinct: it is now only known from documents that could be preserved over a period of more than 1000 years thanks to the arid climate of the Taklamakan Desert. The documents were discovered during a series of archaeological expeditions undertaken from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, and transferred to museums in China, Japan, and Europe.

Through the decipherment of these thousands of manuscripts precious insights into the civilization of the speakers of Tocharian can be gained: on the one hand, profane documents give information about every-day life; on the other hand, Buddhist religious and scientific texts are evidence of a highly developed literary culture.

It is the aim of our project to make all Tocharian texts available to everyone interested, by providing photographs, text transcriptions, and English translations with a commentary on the respective linguistic, philological, and cultural aspects. The text material is made accessible through a database with various search options, both grammatical and philological.

This project has started in February 2011 and was generously funded by the START Program of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) (Y492) until January 2017. It is currently maintained by the Department of Linguistics, University of Vienna.