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Tuvan language

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Tuvan language

тыва дыл tyva dyl
Native to Russia, Mongolia, China
Region Tuva
Ethnicity Tuvans
Native speakers
280,000  (1993–2010)[1]
Official status
Official language in
 Tuva (Russia)
Language codes
ISO 639-2 tyv
ISO 639-3 tyv
Glottolog tuvi1240[2]
Inscription in Kyzyl using Turkic script

Tuvan (Tuvan: тыва дыл, tyva dyl), also known as Tuvinian, Tyvan or Tuvin, is a Turkic language spoken in the Republic of Tuva in south-central Siberia in Russia. The language has borrowed a great number of roots from the Mongolian language, Tibetan and more recently from the Russian language. There are small diaspora groups of Tuvan people that speak distinct dialects of Tuvan in the People's Republic of China and in Mongolia.


Tuvan is linguistically classified as a Northeastern or Siberian Turkic language, closely related to several other Siberian Turkic languages including Khakas and Altai languages. Its closest relative is the moribund Tofa.

Tuvan, as spoken in Tuva, is principally divided into four dialect groups; Western, Central, Northeastern, Southeastern.

  • Central: forms the basis of the literary language and includes Ovyur and Bii-Khem subdialects.
  • Western: can be found spoken near the upper course of the Khemchik River. It is influenced by the Altai language.
  • Northeastern, also known as the Todzhi dialect, is spoken near the upper course of the Bii-Khem River. The speakers of this dialect utilize nasalization. It contains a large vocabulary related to hunting and reindeer breeding not found in the other dialects.
  • Southeastern: shows the most influence from the Mongolian language.

Other dialects include those spoken by the Dzungar, the Tsengel and the Dukha bands of Tuvans, but currently these uncommon dialects are not comprehensively documented.



Tuvan has 19 native consonant phonemes.

Consonant phonemes of Tuvan
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive unaspirated/
p t ɡ
Affricate (t͡s)2 t͡ʃ
Fricative voiceless (f)2 s ʃ x
voiced z ʒ
Flap ɾ
Approximant ʋ l j
  1. The distinction between initial bilabial and alveolar stops is based on aspiration for most speakers and voicing for others.
  2. /f/ and /ts/ are found in some Russian loanwords.


Vowels in Tuvan exist in three varieties: short, long and short with low pitch. Tuvan long vowels have a duration that is at least (and often more than) twice as long as that of short vowels. Contrastive low pitch may occur on short vowels, and when it does, it causes them to increase in duration by at least one-half. When using low pitch, Tuvan speakers employ a pitch that is at the very low end of their modal voice pitch. For some speakers, it is even lower and using what is phonetically known as creaky voice. When a vowel in a monosyllabic word has low pitch, speakers apply low pitch only to the first half of that vowel (e.g., [àt] 'horse'). This is followed by a noticeable pitch rise, as the speaker returns to modal pitch in the second half of the vowel.

The acoustic impression is similar to that of a rising tone (e.g., the rising pitch contour of the Mandarin second tone, although the Tuvan pitch begins much lower.) However, Tuvan is considered a pitch accent language with contrastive low pitch instead of a tonal language. When the low pitch vowel occurs in a multi-syllabic word, there is no rising pitch contour or lengthening effect (e.g., [àdɯ] 'his/her/its horse'). These low pitch vowels were previously referred to in the literature as either kargyraa or pharyngealized vowels. Phonetic studies have demonstrated that the defining characteristic of these vowels is low pitch. See Harrison 2001 for a phonetic and acoustic study of Tuvan low pitch vowels.

Vowel phonemes of Tuvan
Short Long Low Pitch
High Low High Low High Low
Front Unrounded i e ì è
Rounded y ø øː ø̀
Back Unrounded ɯ a ɯː ɯ̀ à
Rounded u o ù ò

Vowels may also be nasalized, in the environment of nasal consonants, but nasalization is non-contrastive.

Vowel harmony

Tuvan has two systems of vowel harmony which strictly govern the distribution of vowels within words and suffixes. Backness harmony or what is sometimes called 'palatal' harmony requires all vowels within a word to be either back or front. Rounding harmony or what is sometimes called 'labial' harmony requires a vowel to be rounded if it is a high vowel and it appears in a syllable immediately following a rounded vowel. Low rounded vowels [ø] [o] are restricted to the first syllable of a word, and a vowel in a non-initial syllable may only be rounded if it meets the conditions of rounding harmony (it must both be a high vowel [y] [u] and be preceded by a rounded vowel). See Harrison 2001 for a detailed description of Tuvan vowel harmony systems.



Tuvan builds morphologically complex words by adding suffixes. For example [teve] is 'camel', [teve-ler] (hyphens indicate morpheme boundaries) is 'camels', [teve-ler-im] is 'my camels', [teve-ler-im-den] is 'from my camels'.

Tuvan marks nouns with six cases: genitive, accusative, dative, ablative, locative, and allative. Each case suffix has a rich variety of uses and meanings, only the most basic uses and meanings are shown here.

Teve [teve] Nominative case 'camel' (no suffix)
Teve + /-NIŋ/ [teveniŋ] Genitive case 'of the camel' (the [ŋ] phonetic symbol is pronounced as English 'ng' in 'sing')
Teve + /-NI/ [teveni] Accusative case 'the camel' (definite meaning, direct object of verb, as in "I saw THE camel.")
Teve + /-KA/ [teveɡe] Dative case 'for the camel' or 'at the camel' (in the past tense)
Teve + /-DAn/ [teveden] Ablative case 'from the camel' or 'than a/the camel' (as in "taller than a/the camel")
Teve + /-DA/ [tevede] Locative case 'at the camel' or 'in the camel' (also used to show possession in some contexts)
Teve + /-Je/ [teveʒe] Allative case 'to(wards) the camel' (the phonetic symbol [ʒ] is pronounced as the 's' in English 'pleasure')
Teve + /-DIvA/ [tevedive] Allative case 'to(wards) the camel' (this is an obsolete or dialectical version of this case)

Verbs in Tuvan take a number of endings to mark tense, mood, and aspect. Auxiliary verbs are also used to modify the verb. For a detailed scholarly study of auxiliary verbs in Tuvan and related languages, see Anderson 2004.


Tuvan employs SOV word order. For example [teve siɡen tʃipken] (camel hay eat-PAST) "The camel ate the hay"


Tuvan vocabulary is largely Turkic in origin but marked by a large number of Mongolian loanwords. The language has also borrowed several Mongolian suffixes. In addition, there exist Ketic and Samoyedic substrata.

Writing system

The current Tuvan alphabet is a modified version of the Russian alphabet, with three additional letters: ң (Latin "ng" or International Phonetic Alphabet [ŋ]), Өө (Latin "ö", [ø]), Үү (Latin "ü", IPA [y]). The sequence of the alphabet follows Russian exactly, with ң located after Russian Н, Ө after О, and Ү after У.


а б в г д е ё ж з и й к л м н ң о ө п р с т у ү ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ы ь э ю я

The letters Е and Э are used in a special way. Э is used for the short /e/ sound at the beginning of words while Е is used for the same sound in the middle and at the end of words. Е is used at the beginning of words, mostly of Russian origin, to reflect the standard Russian pronunciation of that letter, /je/. Additionally, ЭЭ is used in the middle and at the end of words for the long /e/ sound.

Historic scripts

Mongol script

In the past, Tuvans used Mongolian as their written language.

Mongolian script was later developed by Nikolaus Poppe to suit the Tuvan language. This is the first known written form of the Tuvan language.[3]

Tuvan Latin

Example of Latin-based alphabet on the Tuvan People's Republic coat of arms. It says "PYGY TELEGEJNIŅ PROLETARLARЬ POLGAŞ TARLATKAN ARATTARЬ KATTЬƵЬŅAR".

The Latin-based alphabet for Tuvan was devised in 1930 by a Tuvan Buddhist monk, Mongush Lopsang-Chinmit (a.k.a. Lubsan Zhigmed). A few books and newspapers, including primers intended to teach adults to read, were printed using this writing system. Lopsang-Chinmit was later executed in Stalinist purges on December 31, 1941.[4]

A B C D E F G Ƣ I J K L M N N̨ O Ɵ P R S Ş T U V X Y Z Ƶ Ь

a в c d e f g ƣ i j k l m n n̨ o ө p r s ş t u v x y z ƶ ь

бирги тыва дылдың үжүктери Бүгү делегейниң пролетарлары болгаш дарлаткан араттары каттыжыңар!
First Tuvan language alphabet All the world's workers and oppressed peoples, unite!

By September 1943, this Latin-based alphabet was replaced by a Cyrillic-based one, which is still in use to the present day. In the post-Soviet era, Tuvan and other scholars have taken a renewed interest in the history of Tuvan letters.


There is no official transliteration standard for transforming the Cyrillic-based Tuvan alphabet into Latin. Common schemes in use by various media sources rely upon international standards for transliterating other Cyrillic languages such as Russian while scholars of Turkology generally rely upon common Turkic-styled spelling.


Tuvans in China, who live mostly in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, are included under the Mongol nationality.[5] Some Tuvans reportedly live at Lake Kanas in the northwestern part of Xinjiang in China where they are not officially recognized, are counted as a part of the local Oirat Mongol community that is counted under the general label 'Mongol'. Oirat and Tuvan children attend schools in which they use Chakhar Mongolian[6] and Chinese, native languages of neither group.


  1. ^ Tuvan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tuvinian". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Cf. Otgonbayar Chuluunbaatar: Einführung in die mongolischen Schriften. Buske Verlag, Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-87548-500-4, S. 70. “Daher wurde der Sprachforscher Nikolaus Poppe von der tuwinischen Regierung mit der Entwicklung eines für die eigene Sprache geeigneten Alphabets beauftragt. ”
  4. ^ Mänchen-Helfen, Otto (1992). Journey to Tuva. Los Angeles: Ethnographics Press University of Southern California. pp. 133n.  
  5. ^ Mongush, M. V. "Tuvans of Mongolia and China." International Journal of Central Asian Studies, 1 (1996), 225-243. Talat Tekin, ed. Seoul: Inst. of Asian Culture & Development.
  6. ^ "Öbür mongγul ayalγu bol dumdadu ulus-un mongγul kelen-ü saγuri ayalγu bolqu büged dumdadu ulus-un mongγul kelen-ü barimǰiy-a abiy-a ni čaqar aman ayalγun-du saγurilaγsan bayidaγ." (Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005: 85).


External links

  • English-Tuvan, Tuvan-English online talking dictionary
  • Тыва дыл кырында форум (An online forum in and about the Tyvan language)
  • Tuvan language and folklore materials
  • TyvaWiki Language Articles
  • Tuvan Alphabet
  • Research among the Tyvans (Tuvans) of South Siberia
  • Contemporary Legends and other Folklore-Texts from Tuva
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