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Niya Tocharian: language contact and prehistory on the Silk Road

Final Report Summary - NIYA TOCHARIAN (Niya Tocharian: language contact and prehistory on the Silk Road)

Niya Prakrit or Niya Gandhari is a Middle Indic language from the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.
Having its origins in Northern Pakistan, it came to the southern oases of the Tarim Basin in present-day North-West China, where it was the administrative language of the Shànshàn kingdom, a short-lived state on the Silk Road between China and the Iranian world. The language is named after the archaeological site Niya in the Shànshàn area, where over 750 documents were found, written in the Niya Prakrit language and in the Kharoshthi script.
Although obviously of Indian origin, Niya Prakrit also shows influences of its new Central Asian homeland. Spelling mistakes as well as many non-Indic words and numerous foreign names even justify the conclusion that the Shànshàn people had a different mother tongue, which as a substrate language influenced Niya Prakrit in its pronunciation, in the grammar, and in the lexicon.
In 1935 Thomas Burrow set up the hypothesis that the substrate language that influenced Niya Prakrit was a form of Tocharian. Two varieties of Tocharian are known so far: Tocharian A and Tocharian B, attested from the 5th century CE in the north of the Tarim Basin. Although a Tocharian substrate as an explanation of the peculiarities of Niya Prakrit is plausible in itself, most of Burrow’s word and grammar comparisons are too vague for definitive conclusions, which is due in particular to the fact that Tocharian was still poorly investigated at the time.
In the project “Niya Tocharian” the lexicon of Niya Prakrit has been investigated in order to determine the possible origins of all lexical items, in particular those not deriving from Indian. It could be confirmed that Niya Prakrit contains unmistakenly Tocharian elements. However, these are altogether too few to prove that Niya Prakrit was the administrative language of native speakers of a Tocharian language, as argued by Thomas Burrow. It seems that the Iranian element is finally still more important than Burrow had imagined. Nevertheless, the saliant and systematic differences between Niya Prakrit and the related variant of Khotan, which may be termed Khotan Prakrit, shows that the differences between Niya Prakrit and literary Gandhari as attested in manuscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan, cannot be explained by the influence of the native language of Khotan, Khotanese.