Manchu language

The Manchu language is the only existant representative of the Tungusic branch of the Altaic family; it is the language of the Manchu. It is an agglutinizing language that demonstrates limited vowel harmony, and it has been demonstrated that it is essentially identical to the Jurchen language. Its script is vertically written and taken from Mongolian (which in turn derives from Aramaic via Uighur and Sogdian).

According to the Veritable Records (manju-i yargiyan kooli, Chinese: 滿洲實錄), in 1599 the Manchu leader Nurhaci decided to convert the Mongolian alphabet to make it suitable for the Manchu people. He decried the fact that while illiterate Chinese and Mongolians could understand their respective languages when read aloud, that was not the case for the Manchus, whose documents were recorded by Mongolian scribes. Overriding the objections of two advisors named Erdeni and G'agai, he is credited with adapting the Mongolian script to Manchu. The resulting script was known as "tongki fuka aku hergen" ("script without dots and circles"). In 1632, Dahai added diacritical marks to clear up a lot of the ambiguity present in the original Mongolian script; for instance, a leading k, g, and h are distinguished by the placement of no diacritical mark, a dot, and a circle respectively. This revision created the Standard script, known as "tongki fuka sindaha hergen" ("script with dots and circles"). As a result, the Manchu alphabet contains little ambiguity.

Historically, the Manchu language is important in that Europeans were exposed to and familar with Manchu before they encountered the Chinese language. Manchu began as the primary language of the Qing dynasty Imperial court, but by the 19th century even the imperial court had lost fluency in the language. Nevertheless, until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, all Imperial documents were drafted in both Manchu and Chinese. Today written Manchu can still be seen in Qing dynasty architecture such as the Forbidden City whose historical signs are written in both Manchu and Chinese characters, and Manchu records are important in the study of Qing-era China.

Very few native Manchu speakers remain; in what used to be Manchuria virtually no one speaks the language with the entire area having been completely sinicized. In fact, the modern custodians of the language are actually the Sibe who live near the Ili valley in Xinjiang and were moved there by Qianlong Emperor in 1764. Modern Sibe is very close to Manchu, although there are a few slight differences in writing and pronunciation; however, the Sibe consider themselves to be separate from the Manchus.

See also: Languages of China

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