Hüis Tolgoi

Lately there has been some news about the Hüis Tolgoi inscription. In particular that it was interpreted as Mongolic.
For some background, Hüis Tolgoi inscription is a stele discovered in Mongolia (here is the is the exact location at Google maps) in 1975 featuring vertical Brahmi writing. Lately it was a subject of an expedition which produced the following four draft papers (available at academia.edu):
The Khüis Tolgoi inscription – signs and sounds  – by Dieter Maue
Khüis Tolgoi inscription – On the discovery, the whereabouts, condition of the stones, and our expedition – by Mehmet Ölmez
The Historical context to the Hüis Tolgoi inscription – by Etienne de la Vaissière
Interpretation of the Hüis Tolgoi Inscription – by Alexander Vovin


The authors are likely to be familiar to readers that keep up with “Altaic” and Asian linguistics in general. Despite great work they did here and elsewhere, I’d like to express my doubts regarding the interpretation of the language as (para)-Mongolic. These considerations are probably nothing new for the authors, but I’d like to publicize them anyways.

The first objection I have is to the idea that velars and uvulars are distinguished in writing and designate vowel harmonic class of the word. This would seem like a good idea because qağan, darqan and digīn (my transcription), recognizable Central Asian titles found in the inscription, exhibit three different guttural sounds. However, in the whole text ğ is found only in qağan, which I’d say makes it likely to be a foreign sound in the language of HT, perhaps a voiced velar fricative. The other problem is that no (front-vowel) k is found in the text. It appears to me a simpler solution to presume that we’re dealing with a single pair of velars that don’t correspond to any vowel harmonic distinction.

Yet my proposition is not without problems either. Why is q written with a special glyph instead of Brahmi k, and why does it correspond to Uighur Brahmi back q? My solution is that /k/ was spirantized in the language of HT, which would also explain why qağan and darqan are written in Karakhanid with Arabic   /x/. Of course this would mean that the glyph transcribed as x cannot be /x/, but I have no better suggestions, perhaps it is another fricative or consonant vowel combination like /ku/, which would square well with Vovin’s idea that -x could be the Mongolic nomen futuri.

As I find the idea of the text possessing an “Altaic” typology doubtful, I also have to question the decision to read all ambiguous initial (r)u- signs as /u-/, although this particular constraint does seem to have a wider distribution, so it might as well turn out to apply to the language of HT as well. Another unexpected typological feature is initial consonant clusters found in two words (kranyaguń and dro) which are strictly prohibited in both Mongolic and Turkic, perhaps they could be results of a syncope, as suggested, or maybe graphical devices to signify some vowel or consonant distinction, however I’d say they surely decrease the likelihood of the inscription being Mongolic.

As to Vovin’s idea that the language of HT is closer to Middle Mongolian than Khitan or Xianbei, it seems somewhat peculiar to me, because I’d expect from a much older language (HT precedes MM by around 600 years) to be closer to the common ancestor of the family and thus other older varieties. Instead, the reconstruction presented here is more phonologically innovative than MM, it features apocope, syncope, metathesis and contraction of (some) MM *-VxV- sequences into monopthongs. Of course this isn’t impossible, Khitan appears to be more innovative than MM on some points, yet it does again significantly reduce the likelihood of this reconstruction.

An overarching problem with Vovin’s glosses is that most convincing ones have cognates that are first attested in Turkic, this includes *töre- ‘be born’, *uka- ‘understand’, *te– ‘say’ (not even attested in Mongolian!), *katun (likely Sogdian), *dörö ‘law’, *tayi (from Turkic *tap-) and *jula ‘torch’. Others may have dubious ad hoc sound changes such as metathesis of vowels or random changes in vowel quality.

Morphology seems to be the strong point of this reconstruction. Seeing -ba, -ju, -n, -x, -un and -d, one really can’t help but think of Mongolic, but with liberties taken on every level of the reconstruction, incidental matches can happen. Even if the text looks somewhat plausible, I certainly wouldn’t put the matter “beyond reasonable doubt”.

All in all, I’m feeling kinda pessimistic if this is the best that top researchers in the field can get from this inscription, although I understand that this is merely a draft and that there are more Brahmi inscriptions to decypher. Presumably the language won’t turn out to be Turkic or Indo-European, or researchers would have identified it as such already, but I am certain that further investigation will illuminate the history of languages of the region.