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Niya Tocharian: language contact and prehistory on the Silk Road

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Languages of the Silk Road

An EU team studied a Silk Road country called Shanshan and its official language, which had been corrupted compared to usage elsewhere. The corrupting influence may have been Tocharian, or Iranian elements, but was not Khotan.


Niya Prakit, also called Niya Gandhari, was a member of the Indian language family, used during the third and fourth centuries CE. Originating in Pakistan, the language formed the administrative basis of Shanshan, a Silk Road kingdom on the edge of China. Yet, apparently the people of Shanshan had their own language as well, which may have affected their usage of Niya Prakit. The EU-funded NIYA TOCHARIAN (Niya Tocharian: Language contact and prehistory on the Silk Road) project studied such influence. The Shanshan usage of Niya Prakit contained mistakes, plus introduced many foreign words and names. The team investigated a 1935 hypothesis that the influencing local language was a form of Tocharian. The latter language was used further west along the Silk Road, but still in the general area of Shanshan, during the fifth century CE. Tocharian has two known forms. Researchers confirmed the theory’s plausibility, but did not reach a definitive answer because of the vagueness of the 1935 study. Project members studied the origins of foreign terms in the Shanshan version of Niya Prakit. The study confirmed the unmistakeable presence of Tocharian elements, although too few to prove the 1935 hypothesis. The team also identified the presence of Iranian elements. Comparison with a related variant of Niya Prakit, called Khotan, led researchers to conclude that the influencing Shanshan language had not been Khotan. The study helped reconstruct the language history of the central Asian region.


Languages, Silk Road, Shanshan, Niya Prakit, NIYA TOCHARIAN, prehistory

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