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Alternative Names. Tokharian B, Kuchean, West Tocharian.

Name Origin. Tocharian derives from Tokharoi, a tribe mentioned by the Greeks as having emigrated from Central Asia to Bactria (Afghanistan) in the second century BCE. It was assumed by late 19th and early 20th century scholars, without any real basis, that the Thokharoi were the same people that spoke 'Tocharian'.

Overview. Tocharian B is one of the easternmost Indo-European languages, being spoken in ancient times in city-oases of Central Asia. It was not discovered until the turn of the 20th century, as a result of archaeological expeditions to Chinese Turkestan. Tocharian is not closely related to other branches of Indo-European. It has archaic features that suggest it separated early from Proto-Indoeuropean, probably after the Anatolian languages. In contrast to Tocharian A, Tocharian B is attested by documents of diverse nature, had a greater geographical extent, and showed dialectal and/or socio-linguistic variation, all of which implies it was a vernacular spoken language.

Classification. Indo-European, Tocharian. Tocharian A and Tocharian B constitute, on their own, an independent branch of the Indo-European family.

Distribution. Tarim River Basin (modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, China), in the area of Kucha, a city-oasis in the Silk Road, and also further east, up to Turfan.

Status. Extinct. Attested between 500-800 CE.  It probably ceased to be spoken at the end of the first millennium when it was displaced by Turkic languages.

Varieties. Related to Tocharian A but considered separate languages. Tocharian A and Tocharian B have some differences in morphology and more substantial in vocabulary.

Main Documents. Tocharian B is attested from the 5th to the 8th centuries. Documents include monastery records, caravan passes, medical and magical texts, cave graffiti, and Buddhist texts.


Vowels (7). There is uncertainty about the precise phonetic value of Tocharian central vowels, particularly the mid one which here is, tentatively, shown as a schwa. Tocharian B, in contrast to Tocharian A, had several diphthongs: ay, aw, oy.


  1. Note: [ɨ] is transliterated ä, [ə] is transliterated a, [a] is transliterated ā.

Consonants (15). The most remarkable development in the sound system of Tocharian was the collapse of the three series of Indo-European stops (voiceless unaspirated and aspirated, voiced unaspirated) into just one series (voiceless unaspirated). Besides, some consonants were palatalized.

    In contrast to Asiatic branches of Indo-European, like Iranian and Indic, Tocharian is a centum language, i.e., in it the number 100 is written with an initial k (känt). In satem languages, 100 is written with an initial s. The centum/satem isoglosses are the result of a different evolution of the original Proto-Indoeuropean palato-velars: in the centum languages they merged with the velar stop, in satem languages with the fricatives.


Script. Tocharian was written with a variety of the Indian alphabet Brāhmī.


  1. Nominal. Tocharian nouns and adjectives were inflected for case, gender and number.

  1. case: Tocharian had three primary cases inherited from Proto-Indoeuropean (nominative, accusative or oblique, genitive) and secondary cases formed by adding suffixes (former postpositions) to the accusative. The secondary cases were instrumental, perlative, comitative, allative, ablative and locative. The instrumental marked the instrument or means of an action, the perlative indicated path of movement and agent, the comitative expressed company, the allative indicated direction, the ablative source. These secondary cases are probably due to the influence of neighboring Turkic languages.

  1. gender: masculine and feminine, as well as neuter which was of limited use (in pronouns only). Some nouns had ‘alternating’ gender, having masculine endings in the singular and feminine endings in the plural. This was the result of the dissimilar merger of the neuter gender: with the masculine in singular nouns and with the feminine in plural nouns.

  1. number: singular, dual, plural. There is a special dual form, called paral, employed for naturally occurring pairs. Tocharian B has also a plurative to express ‘one by one’, ‘individually’.

  1. Verbal.

  2. person and number: The Tocharian verb distinguishes three persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and three numbers (singular, dual, plural). However, the dual is usually restricted to the 3rd person.

  1. tense: present, imperfect, preterite (derived from Proto-Indoeuropean perfect). Tocharian had no future tense, the subjunctive acting as such.

  1. voice: active, medio-passive.

  1. mood: indicative, subjunctive, optative, imperative.

  1. derivative conjugation: causative. It may be formed by reduplication, palatalization and, particularly, by adding an specific suffix.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, verbal noun, present participle, preterite participle, gerundive I (obligation), gerundive II (possibility).     


In prose Tocharian had a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) order, but in verse it was more flexible. Like typical SOV languages, it used postpositions. It was a right- headed language in which adjectives and genitives preceded nouns.


Tocharic vocabulary was influenced by Iranian languages (especially Khotanese), Sanskrit and Prakrits, the latter two a source of Buddhist terminology.  Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur contributed in a lesser degree.

Basic Vocabulary

one: se

two:  wi

three: trai/tarya

four: śtwer/śtwāra

five: piś

six: ṣkas

seven: ṣukt

eight: okt

nine: ñu

ten: śak

hundred: kante

woman: sana

father: pacer

mother: macer

brother: procer

sister: ser

daughter: tkacer

eye: ek

voice: wec

cow: keu

horse: yakwe

dog: ku

sow: suwo

earth: kem

fire: puwar

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Tocharische Grammatik. E. Sieg, W. Schulze & W. Siegling. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht (1931).

  2. -Tocharian Historical Phonology and Morphology. D. Q. Adams. American Oriental Series, vol. 71. American Oriental Society (1988).

  3. -Tocharisches Elementarbuch. Band I: Grammatik. W. Krause & W. Thomas. Winter (1960).

  4. -Tocharian Online. T. B. Krause & J. Slocum. University of Texas, Linguistics Research Center:


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Tocharian B

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