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Manchu language

Manchu is a Tungusic language spoken in Northeast China; it used to be the language of the Manchu, though now most Manchus speak Mandarin and there are fewer than 70 native speakers of Manchu out of a total of nearly 10 million ethnic Manchus. Although the Xibe language, with 40,000 speakers, is in almost every respect identical to classical Manchu, Xibe speakers, who live in Liaoning and far western Xinjiang, are ethnically distinct from Manchus and lay claim to the distinctiveness of their language.

It is an agglutinative language that demonstrates limited vowel harmony, and it has been demonstrated that it is derived in the main 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). Manchu, like Hindi, Russian, etc., employs grammatical gender, through the use of vowel inflections.

Writing system

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. It might also use the Jurchen script, which is derived from Khitan script, which in turn was derived from Han characters. There's no relation bewteen Jurchen script and Manchu script.

History and significance

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 various rewards to those who excelled in the language. As 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, Emperor Qianlong was shocked to see a high Manchu official, Guo'ermin, not to understand what the emperor was telling him in Manchu, despite coming from the Manchu stronghold of Shengjing (now Shenyang) himself. 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, most Imperial documents were drafted in both Chinese and Manchu, and at least some 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.

Historically, the Manchu language is also important in that some Europeans were exposed to and familiar with Manchu before they encountered the Chinese language. A number of 18th-century European scholars, frustrated by the difficulties in reading Chinese, with its hanzi 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 Moyria de Mailla (1669-1748), who benefited from the existence of the parallel Manchu text when translating the historical compendium, 通鑒綱目 (Tongjian Gangmu); 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". An 1844 European author remarked that the transcription of Chinese words in Manchu alphabet, available in the contemporary Chinese-Manchu dictionaries, was more useful for learning pronunciation of Chinese words than the inconsistent romanizations used at the time by the writers transcribing Chinese words in English or French books.

Nowadays, 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. As of 2007, the last native speakers of the language were thought to be 18 octogenarian residents of the village of Sanjiazi, located 50 km north of Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province.

In fact, the modern custodians of the language are actually the Sibe (Xibe) who live near the Ili valley in Xinjiang and were moved there by the Qianlong Emperor in 1764. Modern Sibe (Xibe) is very close to Manchu, although there are a few slight differences in writing and pronunciation; however, the Sibe (Xibe) consider themselves to be separate from the Manchus.

Various regional governments around China have taken to teaching Manchu in more recent times.



Manchu phrases are all head-last. 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). Japanese have much resemblance to Manchu grammar. German linguist, Johann Joseph Hoffmann noticed the systematic relationship between Japanese, Mongolian and Manchu.

Manchu uses a small number case-marking particles that are similar to those found in Japanese, but also has a separate class of true postpositions. Case-markers and postpositions can be used together, as in the following sentence:

I that person+GEN with go+PAST
I went with that person

In this example, the postposition , "with", requires its nominal argument to have the genitive case, and so we have the genitive case-marker between the noun and the postposition.

Manchu also makes extensive use of converb structures, and has a rich 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):

that woman house ABL go.out+PAST.FINITE
That woman came out of the house

that woman town DAT go+PAST.FINITE
That woman went to town

These two sentences can be combined into a single sentence using converbs, which will relate the first action to the second. For example,

that woman house ABL go.out+PAST.CONVERB, town DAT go+PAST.FINITE
That woman, having come out of the house, went to town

that woman house ABL go.out+IMPERFECT.CONVERB, town DAT go+PAST.FINITE
That woman, coming out of the house, went to town

that woman house ABL go.out+CONCESSIVE.CONVERB, town DAT go+PAST.FINITE
That woman, though she came out of the house, went to town

Manchu cases

Manchu has six cases, though one of them occurs only occasionally in Classical Manchu. The cases are marked by particles, which can either be written together with the noun they apply to, or else separately. The particles do not obey the rule of vowel harmony, yet they are also not truly postpositions.

  • nominative - used for the subject of a sentence, it is marked by a zero suffix.
  • accusative - used for the direct object of a sentence, it is sometimes marked by the particle be, but it may also be unmarked. It is commonly felt that the marked accusative has a definite sense, like using a definite article in English. There are, however, sentences in Classical Manchu that use both the marked and unmarked accusative, indicating that the marked accusative might have a slightly different thematic meaning than the unmarked accusative. For example:

that place+GEN people skin+ACC boot+ZERO.ACC make+IMPERFECT.FINITE
The people of that place make boots out of skin

In this example, "boots" and "skin" are separately marked with the two forms accusative, and they have different thematic relationships to the verb. In other cases, however, it seems the two forms of the accusative can be used interchangeably.

  • genitive-instrumental - used to indicate possession or means by which something is accomplished, it is marked by the particle i or the allomorph ni if coming after a word ending in -ng. For instance, abka-i cira (the emperor's countenance, literally "the face of heaven") vs. wang-ni moo (the king's tree). Less intuitively, the genitive case marker is also used in Manchu to mark a noun that is the object of a simile (i.e., the thing to which the subject or the subject's action is being likened), e.g. akjan-i adali durgi-mbi ("to roar like thunder").
  • dative-locative - used to indicate location, time, place, or indirect object, it is marked by the particle de. In the modern spoken Manchu dialect of the Sibe (Xibe), this particle is normally used to mark the locative, but not the dative.
  • ablative - used to indicate the origin of an action or the basis for a comparison, it is marked by the particle ci. In the modern spoken Manchu dialect of the Sibe (Xibe), this particle is used to mark the dative.
  • prolative - used to indicate the origin of an action, it is marked by the particle deri. This case is used infrequently in Classical Manchu. In the modern spoken Manchu dialect of the Sibe (Xibe), this particle is used to mark the ablative.

Less used cases:

  • initiative - used to indicate the starting point of an action. suffix -deri
  • terminative - used to indicate the ending point of an action. suffix -tala/-tele/-tolo
  • indef. allative - used to indicate 'to a place, to a situation' when it is unknown whether the action reaches exactly to the place/situation or around/near it. suffix -si
  • indef. locative - used to indicate 'at a place, in a situation' when it is unknown whether the action happens exactly at the place/situation or around/near it. suffix -la/-le/-lo
  • indef. ablative - used to indicate 'from a place, from a situation' when it is unknown whether the action is really from the exact place/situation or around/near it. suffix -tin
  • distributive - used to indicate every one of something. suffix -dari
  • formal - used to indicate a simile ("as/like"). suffix -gese
  • identical - used to indicate that something is the same as something else. suffix -ali/-eli/-oli (apparently derived from the word adali, meaning "same")
  • orientative - used to indicate "facing/toward" (something/an action), showing only position and tendency, not movement in. suffix -ru
  • revertive - used to indicate "backward" or "against (something)". From the root 'ca' (see cargi, coro, cashu-n, etc.) suffix -ca/-ce/-co
  • translative - used to indicate change in the quality/form of sth. suffix -ri
  • in. accusative - used to indicate that the touch of the verb on the object is not surely complete. suffix -a/-e/-o/-ya/-ye/-yo

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 since the only consonant that came regularly at the end of native words was “n", which is similar to the situation in the Japanese language. 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 was the standard dialect and 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 (rain; heaven) and abtara-mbi (to yell, to scream; to cause a commotion, to make a commotion, to cause a row), were gradually simplified, and the words began to be written as aga or aha (in this form meaning only "rain") and atara-mbi (now meaning only "to cause a commotion").

Manchu consonants

Labial Dental Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɲ 1 ŋ 2
Stop and
voiceless p t ʧ 3 k
voiced b d ʤ 4 g
Fricative f s ʃ 5 x 6
Rhotic r
Approximant l j 7 w

  1. romanized as
  2. romanized as
  3. romanized as or
  4. romanized as
  5. romanized as <š>, <ś> or
  6. romanized as
  7. romanized as

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 in onomatopoeia, such as pak pik "pow pow". Historically, many p's 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 onomatopoeia 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 as a phonemic sequence of [n] followed by [j], but, in reality, it was pronounced as a single segment, like Spanish "ñ" ([ɲ]). Work in Altaic historical linguistics suggests that the Manchu palatal nasal consonant has a very long history and should not be considered as a mere combination of [n] and [i] or [n] and [j], despite the Manchus' own writing system.

Also, it should be noted that 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 aspiration vs. presence of aspiration (or perhaps lenis vs. fortis), labelled Manchu b as "soft p," Manchu d as "soft t," and Manchu g as "soft k," while Manchu p was "hard p," t was "hard t," and k was "hard k," which 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 the Mandarin language.

The [s] of the Manchu language is peculiar in that many speakers habitually affricated it, pronouncing it like [ʦ] in some or all contexts.

There is scholarly controversy over whether the velar consonants actually existed in two allophonic forms, a forward palatal set and a rearward uvular set, or whether this was merely a carryover in spelling from earlier alphabets.

Manchu vowels

neutral front back
i o
u ʊ (ū)
e a

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 e or Korean eo/ŏ) never occurred in a word with either of the regular back vowels ([o] and [a]). The vowel [ū] (pronounced as [ʊ] or somewhat like the Korean vowel eu/ŭ) 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]. One scholar proposes that it was pronounced as a front rounded vowel initially, but a back unrounded vowel medially. The modern Sibe (Xibe) pronounce it identically to [u].


Remarkably Manchu was able to absorb a large amount 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 a 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).

Vowel harmony

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 while 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.


  • Gorelova, Liliya M. 2002. Manchu Grammar. Brill Academic Publishers ISBN 9-0041-2307-5
  • Haenisch, Erich. 1961. Mandschu-Grammatik. Leipzig: Veb Verlag Enzyklopadie
  • Li, Gertraude Roth. 2000. Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-2206-4
  • Möllendorff, Paul Georg von. 1892. A Manchu Grammar: With Analysed Texts. Shanghai.
  • Norman, Jerry. 1974. "Structure of Sibe Morphology", Central Asian Journal.
  • Norman, Jerry. 1978. A Concise Manchu-English Lexicon, University of Washington Press, Seattle.
  • Ramsey, S. Robert. 1987. The Languages of China. Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey ISBN 0-691-06694-9


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