Manchu (Manchu: ᠮᠠᠨᠵᡠ
ᡤᡳᠰᡠᠨ manju gisun) is a severely endangered Tungusic language spoken in Manchuria; it was the native language of the Manchus and one of the official languages of the Qing dynasty (1636–1911) of China. Most Manchus now speak Mandarin Chinese. According to data from UNESCO, there are 10 native speakers of Manchu out of a total of nearly 10 million ethnic Manchus. Therefore, many Manchus began to learn the language over the years. Now several thousands can speak Manchu as a second language through governmental primary education or free classes for adults in classroom or online.
Manchu language enjoys high historical value for historians of China, especially for the Qing dynasty. They supply information that is unavailable in Chinese and, when both Manchu and Chinese versions of a given text exist, they provide controls for understanding the Chinese.
Like most Siberian languages, Manchu is an agglutinative language that demonstrates limited vowel harmony. It has been demonstrated that it is derived mainly from the Jurchen language though there are many loan words from Mongolian and Chinese. Its script is vertically written and taken from the Mongolian alphabet (which in turn derives from Aramaic via Uyghur and Sogdian). Although Manchu does not have the kind of grammatical gender that many Indo-European languages do, some gendered words in Manchu are distinguished by different stem vowels, as in ama "father" vs. eme "mother".
The Manchu language uses the Manchu script, which was derived from the traditional Mongol script, which in turn is based on the vertically written pre-Islamic Uyghur script. Manchu is usually romanized according to the system devised by Paul Georg von Möllendorff in his Manchu grammar. Its ancestor, Jurchen, used the Jurchen script, which is derived from the Khitan script, which in turn was derived from Han characters. There is no relation between the Jurchen script and the Manchu script
Chinese Characters can also be used to transliterate Manchu. All the Manchu vowels, and the syllables commencing with a consonant, are represented by single Chinese characters, as are also the syllables terminating in i, n, ng, and o; but those ending in r, k, s, t, p, I, m, are expressed by the union of the sounds of two characters, there being no Mandarin syllables terminating with these consonants. Thus the Manchu syllable am is expressed by the Chinese characters a-muh (8084, 7800) (阿木 a mù), and the word Manchu is, in the imperial Manchu dictionary, spelt in the following manner: Ma (7467) -a (8084) gan (2834) (瑪阿安 mǎ ā ān) —Man; —choo (1303) a (11767) (諸烏 zhū wū) chu; —Manchu.
Mongols learned their script as a syllabary, dividing the syllables into twelve different classes, based on the final phonemes of the syllables, all of which ended in vowels. The Manchus followed the same syllabic method when learning Manchu script, also with syllables divided into twelve different classes based on the finals phonemes of the syllables. Today, the opinion on whether it is alphabet or syllabic in nature is still split between different experts. In China, it is considered syllabic and Manchu is still taught in this manner. The alphabetic approach is used mainly by foreigners who want to learn the language. Studying Manchu script as a syllabary takes a longer time.
Despite the alphabetic nature of its script, Manchu was not taught phoneme by phoneme per letter like western languages are; Manchu children were taught to memorize all the syllables in the Manchu language separately as they learned to write, like Chinese characters. Manchus when learning, instead of saying I, a---la; I, o---lo; &c., were taught at once to say la, lo, &c. Many more syllables than are contained in their syllabary might have been formed with their letters, but they were not accustomed to arrange them otherwise. They made, for instance, no such use of the consonants I, m, n, and r, as westerners do; hence if the Manchu letters s, m, a, r, t, are joined in that order a Manchu would not able to pronounce them as English speaking people pronounce the word smart.
The Qing dynasty referred to the Manchu language in various Chinese titles such as "Qingwen" 清文, or "Qingyu" 清語 ("Qing language") and Guoyu 國語 ("national language"), which was used by previous non-Han dynasties to refer to their languages. The "national" was also applied to the Manchu writing as in Guowen 國文 in addition to Guoyu 國語. In the Manchu language version of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the term "Chinese language" (Dulimbai gurun i bithe) referred to all three Chinese, Manchu, and Mongol languages, not just one language. Guoyu now refers to Standard Chinese.
While Northern Tungus languages like Evenki retain traditional structure, the Chinese language is a source of major influence upon Manchu, which is southern Tungusic, altering its form and vocabulary.
Manchu began as a primary language of the Qing dynasty Imperial court, but as Manchu officials became increasingly sinicized, many started losing the language. Trying to preserve the Manchu identity, the imperial government instituted Manchu language classes and examinations for the bannermen, offering rewards to those who excelled in the language. Chinese classics and fiction were translated into Manchu, and a body of Manchu literature accumulated.  As the Yongzheng Emperor (reigned 1722–1735) explained, "If some special encouragement … is not offered, the ancestral language will not be passed on and learned." Still, the use of the language among the bannermen was in decline throughout the 1700s. Historical records report that as early as 1776, the Qianlong Emperor was shocked to see a high Manchu official, Guo'ermin, not understand what the emperor was telling him in Manchu, despite coming from the Manchu stronghold of Shengjing (now Shenyang). By the 19th century even the imperial court had lost fluency in the language. The Jiaqing Emperor (reigned 1796 to 1820) complained about his officials being good neither at understanding nor writing Manchu.
By the end of the 19th century the language was so moribund that even at the office of the Shengjing (Shenyang) general, the only documents written in Manchu (rather than Chinese) would be the memorials wishing the emperor long life; at the same time period, the archives of the Hulan banner detachment in Heilongjiang show that only 1% of the bannermen could read Manchu, and no more than 0.2% could speak it. Nonetheless, as late as 1906–1907 Qing education and military officials insisted that schools teach Manchu language, and that the officials testing soldiers' marksmanship continue to conduct an oral examination in Manchu.
The use of the language for the official documents declined throughout the Qing history as well. Especially at the beginning of the dynasty, some documents on sensitive political and military issues were submitted in Manchu but not in Chinese. Later on, some Imperial records in Manchu continued to be produced until the last years of the dynasty, which was overthrown in 1912. A large number of Manchu documents remain in the archives, important for the study of Qing-era China. Today, written Manchu can still be seen on architecture inside the Forbidden City, whose historical signs are written in both Chinese and Manchu.
Another limited use of the language was for voice commands in the Qing army, attested as late as 1878.
The Qianlong Emperor commissioned projects such as new Manchu dictionaries, both monolingual and multilingual like the Pentaglot. Among his directives were to eliminate directly borrowed loanwords from Chinese and replace them with calque translations which were put into new Manchu dictionaries. This showed in the titles of Manchu translations of Chinese works during his reign which were direct translations contrasted with Manchu books translated during the Kangxi Emperor's reign which were Manchu transliterations of the Chinese characters.
The Pentaglot was based on the Yuzhi Siti Qing Wenjian 御製四體清文鑑 ("Imperially-Published Four-Script Textual Mirror of Qing"), with Uyghur added as fifth language. The four language version of the dictionary with Tibetan was in turn based on an earlier three language version with Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese called the 御製滿珠蒙古漢字三合切音清文鑑 ("Imperially-Published Manchu Mongol Chinese Three pronunciation explanation mirror of Qing"), which was in turn based on the 御製增訂清文鑑 ("Imperially-Published Revised and Enlarged mirror of Qing") in Manchu and Chinese, which used both Manchu script to transcribe Chinese words and Chinese characters to transcribe Manchu words with fanqie.
A number of European scholars in the 18th century, frustrated by the difficulties in reading Chinese, with its complicated writing system and the classical writing style, considered Manchu translations, or parallel Manchu versions, of many Chinese documents and literary works as a great help to understanding them. Among them was de Moyriac de Mailla (1669–1748), who benefited from the existence of the parallel Manchu text when translating the historical compendium Tongjian Gangmu (Tung-chien Kang-mu; 《通鑒綱目》); Amiot (1718–1793) consulted Manchu translations of Chinese works as well, and wrote that the Manchu language "would open an easy entrance to penetrate … into the labyrinth of Chinese literature of all ages."
Study of the Manchu language by Russian sinologists started in the early 18th century, soon after founding of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijing, to which most of early Russian sinologists were connected. Illarion Kalinovich Rossokhin (Razsokhin) (died 1761) translated a number of Manchu works, such as The history of Kangxi's conquest of the Khalkha and Oirat nomads of the Great Tartary, in five parts (История о завоевании китайским ханом Канхием калкаского и элетского народа, кочующего в Великой Татарии, состоящая в пяти частях), as well as some legal treatises and a Manchu–Chinese dictionary. In the late 1830s, Georgy M. Rozov translated from the Manchu the History of the Jin (Jurchen) Dynasty. A school to train Manchu language translators was started in Irkutsk in the 18th century, and existed for a fairly long period.
A European author remarked in 1844 that the transcription of Chinese words in Manchu alphabet, available in the contemporary Chinese–Manchu dictionaries, was more useful for learning the pronunciation of Chinese words than the inconsistent romanizations used at the time by the writers transcribing Chinese words in English or French books.
In 1930, the German sinologist Eric Hauer argued forcibly that knowing Manchu allows the scholar to render Manchu personal and place names that have been "horribly mutilated" by their Chinese transliterations and to know the meanings of the names. He goes on that the Manchu translations of Chinese classics and fiction were done by experts familiar with their original meaning and with how best to express it in Manchu, such as in the Manchu translation of the Peiwen yunfu. Because Manchu is not difficult to learn, it "enables the student of Sinology to use the Manchu versions of the classics […] in order to verify the meaning of the Chinese text".
Currently, very few native Manchu speakers remain; in what used to be Manchuria virtually no one speaks the language, the entire area having been completely sinicized. As of 2007, the last native speakers of the language were thought to be 18 octogenarian residents of the village of Sanjiazi (Manchu: ᡳᠯᠠᠨ
ᠪᠣᡠ᠋; Möllendorff: ilan boo; Abkai: ilan bou), in Fuyu County, in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province. A few speakers also remain in Dawujia village in Aihui District of Heihe Prefecture.
The modern custodians of the language are the Xibe (or Sibe) who live near the Ili valley in Xinjiang and were moved there by the Qianlong Emperor in 1764. Modern Xibe is very close to Manchu, although there are a few slight differences in writing and pronunciation.
However, recently, there have been increased efforts to revive the Manchu language. Revivals movements are linked to the reconstruction of ethnic Manchu identity in the Han-dominated country. The Manchus mainly lead the revival efforts, with support from the state, NGOs and international efforts.
Revivalism began in the post-Mao era when non-Han ethnic expression was allowed. By the 1980s, Manchus had become the second largest minority group in China. People began to reveal their ethnic identities that had been hidden due to 20th century unrests and the fall of the Qing Empire.
Language revival was one method the growing numbers of Manchus used in order to reconstruct their lost ethnic identity. Language represented them and set them apart from other minority groups in the “plurality of ethnic cultures within one united culture”. Another reason for revivalism lay in the archives of the Qing Empire – a way to translate and resolve historical conflicts between the Manchus and the state. Lastly, the people wanted to regain their language for the rituals and communication to their ancestors – many shamans performing do not understand the words they use.
The Manchus conducted most revival efforts. Manchu associations can be found across the country, as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Consisting of mostly Manchus and Mongols, they act as the link between the people, their ethnic leaders and the state.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide large support through “Manchu classes”. Manchu is now taught in certain primary schools as well as in universities. It was reported that Heilongjiang University Manchu language research center in no.74, Xuefu Road, Harbin, listed Manchu as an academic major. It is taught there as a tool for reading Qing Dynasty archival documents. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that the language is offered (as elective) in one university, one public middle school, and a few private schools. There are also other Manchu volunteers in many places of China who freely teach Manchu in the desire to rescue the language. Thousands of non-Manchu speakers have learned the language through these measures. Despite the efforts of NGOs, they tend to lack support from high-level government and politics.
The state also runs programs to revive minority cultures and languages – Deng Xiaoping promoted bilingual education. However, many programs are not suited to the ethnic culture or to passing knowledge to the younger generations. The locals often look at programs run by the government with distrust.
Other support can be found internationally and through the use of the internet. Post-Cultural Revolution reform allowed for international studies to be done in China. The dying language and ethnic culture of Manchus gained attention, providing local support for reviving the Manchu language. Websites facilitate communication of language classes or articles. Younger generations also take to the internet to spread and promote their unique identity through popular media.
Despite the increased efforts to revive the Manchu language, there are many obstacles standing in the way. Even with increased awareness of ethnic identities, many Manchus choose to give up their language – some opting to learn Mongol instead. Manchu language is still thought of as a foreign language in a Han- dominated Chinese speaking country. Obstacles are also found when gaining recognition from the State. Resistance through censorship prevented the performing of Baijin festivals, a festival in recognition of a new reconstructed Manchu identity, in Beijing.
The Chinese Northern Mandarin dialect spoken in Beijing had a major impact on the phonology of the dialect of Manchu spoken in Beijing, and because Manchu phonology was transcribed into Chinese and European sources based on the sinified pronunciation of Manchus from Beijing, the original authentic Manchu pronunciation is unknown to scholars.
The Manchus of Peking (Beijing) were influenced by the Chinese dialect spoken in the area to the point where pronouncing Manchu sounds was hard for them, and they pronounced Manchu according to Chinese phonetics, whereas the Manchus of Aigun (in Heilongjiang) could both pronounce Manchu sounds properly and mimick the sinified pronunciation of Manchus in Peking (Beijing), because they learned the Pekinese (Beijing) pronunciation from either studying in Peking or from officials sent to Aigun from Beijing, and they could tell them apart, using the Chinese influenced Pekinese pronunciation when demonstrating that they were better educated or their superior stature in society.
Manchu phrases are all head-final. This means that the head-word of a phrase (e.g. the noun of a noun phrase, or the verb of a verb phrase) always falls at the end of the phrase. Thus, adjectives and adjectival phrases always precede the noun they modify, and the arguments to the verb always precede the verb. As a result, Manchu sentence structure is subject–object–verb (SOV). The grammars of Korean, and Mongolian bear resemblance to that of Manchu, which would, according to the now discredited Altaic hypothesis, be due to a genetic relatedness.
Manchu uses a small number of case-marking particles that are similar to those found in Korean, but also has a separate class of true postpositions. Case-markers and postpositions can be used together, as in the following sentence:
In this example, the postposition emgi, "with", requires its nominal argument to have the genitive case, and so we have the genitive case-marker i between the noun niyalma and the postposition.
Manchu also makes extensive use of converb structures, and has an inventory of converbial suffixes that indicate the relationship between the subordinate verb and the finite verb that follows it. For example, given the following two sentences (which have finite verbs):
These two sentences can be combined into a single sentence using converbs, which will relate the first action to the second. For example,
Manchu has five cases. The cases are marked by particles. that can be written either with the noun to which they apply or separately. The particles do not obey the rule of vowel harmony, yet they are also not truly postpositions.
accusative (be) – one of the principal syntactic cases; indicate participants/direct object of a sentence. Direct objects can sometimes also take the nominative. It is commonly felt that the marked accusative has a definite sense, like using a definite article in English. Written separate from the word it follows. Accusative can be used in the following ways:
i boo be weile-mbi
he house ACC build-IMPF
“He builds a house”
fe kooli be dahame yabu-mbi
old regulations ACC according.to act-IMPF
“(Someone) acts according to old regulations”
Its primary function is to indicate the possessive one.
e.g. possessor of an object
boo i ejen
house GEN master
“the master of the house”
e.g. persons relationships
han i jui
khan GEN child
“the khan’s child”
Other functions of genitive are:
The primary function is to indicate semantic role of recipient:
ere niyalma de bu-mbi
this man DAT give-IMPF
“(Someone) gives to this man”
e.g. starting point in space or time
“(Someone) went away from the house”
e.g. comparison of objects
ere erin ci oyonggo ningge akū
this time ABL important SBSTR COP.NEG (there.is.not)
“There is no time more important than the present”
deri-form - used in Classical Manchu; different scholars have specified different meanings:
encu hehe-ši (ma. hehe-si) deri fulu tua-mbi (ma. tuwa-mbi)
other woman-PL from better consider-IMPF
“(He) began to consider her better than other women”
Less used cases:
In addition, there were some suffixes, such as the primarily adjective-forming suffix -ngga/-ngge/-nggo, that appear to have originally been case markers (in the case of -ngga, a genitive case marker), but which had already lost their productivity and become fossilized in certain lexemes by the time of the earliest written records of the Manchu language: e.g. agangga "pertaining to rain" as in agangga sara (an umbrella), derived from Manchu aga (rain).
Written Manchu was close to being called an "open syllable" language because the only consonant that came regularly at the end of native words was /n/, similar to the situation in Beijing Mandarin, Northeastern Mandarin, Jilu Mandarin and Japanese. This resulted in almost all native words ending in a vowel. In some words, there were vowels that were separated by consonant clusters, as in the words ilha ('flower') and abka ('heaven'); however, in most words, the vowels were separated from one another by only single consonants. This open syllable structure might not have been found in all varieties of spoken Manchu, but it was certainly found in the southern dialect that became the basis for the written language. It is also apparent that the open-syllable tendency of the Manchu language had been growing ever stronger for the several hundred years since written records of Manchu were first produced: consonant clusters that had appeared in older forms, such as abka and abtara-mbi ('to yell'), were gradually simplified, and the words began to be written as aga or aha (in this form meaning 'rain') and atara-mbi ('to cause a commotion').
|Nasal||m||n||ɲ 1||ŋ 2|
|Plosive||aspirated||pʰ 9||tʰ 10||tʃʰ 3||kʰ 8|
|unaspirated||p 9||t 10||tʃ 4||k 8|
|Fricative||f||s||ʃ 5||x 6|
Manchu has twenty consonants, shown in the table using the usual transcription conventions (and the IPA values of the consonants where they differ). The consonant /p/ was rare and found mostly in loanwords and onomatopoeiae, such as pak pik ('pow pow'). Historically, many ps appear to have occurred in ancient forms of the language; however, they had been changed over time to f. The phoneme /ŋ/ was also found mostly in Chinese loanwords and onomatopoeiae and there was no Manchu letter to represent it; it was written as a digraph nk using the Manchu letters for n and k. The palatal nasal consonant, [ɲ], is usually transcribed with a digraph, "ni", and has thus often been considered a phonemic sequence of /n/ followed by /j/ though work in Tungusic historical linguistics suggests that the Manchu palatal nasal, like Spanish "ñ" ([ɲ]) has a very long history as a single segment.
Early Western descriptions of Manchu phonology, particularly those made by speakers of languages such as French, in which the primary contrast between "b" and "p", "d" and "t", or "g" and "k" is truly one of presence vs. lack of voicing (rather than lack of vs. presence of aspiration, or lenis vs. fortis), labelled Manchu b as "soft p", Manchu d as "soft t", and Manchu g as "soft k", whereas Manchu p was "hard p", t was "hard t", and k was "hard k". This suggests that the phonological contrast between the so-called voiced series (b, d, g, j) and the voiceless series (p, t, k, c) in Manchu as it was spoken during the early modern era was actually one of aspiration and/or tenseness, as in Mandarin.
The /s/ of the Manchu language is peculiar in that many speakers habitually affricated it, pronouncing it like [ts] in some or all contexts.
Some scholars analyse the velar (or palatal?) consonants and the uvular consonants as two separate sets of phonemes. They were distinguished in spelling, but this may have been merely a carryover from earlier alphabets.
In this vowel system, the "neutral" vowels (i and u) were free to occur in a word with any other vowel or vowels. The lone front vowel (e, but generally pronounced like Mandarin [ɤ] ) never occurred in a word with either of the regular back vowels (o and a). The relatively rare vowel transcribed ū (possibly pronounced [ʊ]) was usually found as a back vowel; however, in some cases, it was found occurring along with the front vowel e. Much disputation exists over the exact pronunciation of ū. Erich Hauer, a German sinologist and Manchurist, proposes that it was pronounced as a front rounded vowel initially, but a back unrounded vowel medially. William Austin suggests that it was a mid-central rounded vowel. The modern Shibe (Xibe) pronounce it identically to u.
Remarkably Manchu was able to absorb a large number of nonnative sounds into the language from Chinese. There were special symbols used to represent the vowels of Chinese loanwords. These sounds are believed to have been pronounced as such, as they never occurred in native words. Among these, was the symbol for the high unrounded vowel (customarily romanized with a y) found in words such as sy (Buddhist temple) and Sycuwan (Sichuan). Chinese affricates were also represented with consonant symbols that were only used with loanwords such as in the case of dzengse (orange) (Chinese: chéngzi) and tsun (inch) (Chinese: cùn). In addition to the vocabulary that was borrowed from Chinese, the Manchu language also had a large amount of loanwords from other languages such as Mongolian, for example the words morin (horse) and temen (camel).
The vowel harmony found in the Manchu language was traditionally described in terms of the philosophy of the I Ching. Syllables with front vowels were described as being as "yin" syllables whereas syllables with back vowels were called "yang" syllables. The reasoning behind this was that the language had a kind of sound symbolism where front vowels represented feminine objects or ideas and the back vowels represented masculine objects or ideas. As a result, there were a number of word pairs in the language in which changing the vowels also changed the gender of the word. For example, the difference between the words hehe (woman) and haha (man) or eme (mother) and ama (father) was essentially a contrast between the front vowel, [e], of the feminine and the back vowel, [a], of the masculine counterpart.
The Manchu language was spoken in the Korean film War of the Arrows. Ryu Seung-ryong, cast in the role of Jyushinta, and Moon Chae-won, who played Choi Ja-in, speak Manchu often in the film. It was also spoken in the film Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, in which it was called Tartar.
Learning texts of historical interest
For readers of Chinese
Alphabet: Some scholars consider the Manchu script to be a syllabic one.
Alphabet: Some scholars consider the Manchu script to be a syllabic one. Others see it as having an alphabet with individual letters, some of which differ according to their position within a word. Thus, whereas Denis Sinor aruged in favor of a syllabic theory,30 Louis Ligeti preferred to consider the Manchu script and alphabetical one.31()