The Dongxiang Mongols and Their Language

by Oliver Corff

April 3rd, 1996

NB: Due to technical reasons, throughout this article, only a very rough approximation of the IPA symbols could be adopted. A printed version of this article with correct symbols is available directly from the author.


The Dongxiang are a Mongol nationality living mainly in the Dongxiang Autonomous County , an area of about 1462 square km in size located within the Linxia Huizu Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu province in the West of China. According to the census of 1982, they have a population of 279,300 of which the majority (145,000) lives in the Autonomous County. The remainder lives in Xinjiang (40,000), Lanzhou (the Capital of Gansu), Qinghai, Ningxia etc.

The Dongxiang call themselves Sarta while the name Dongxiang until 1950 had a purely geographical connotation. The region of Linxia which used to be known as Hezhou was divided into four areas: East and West, North and South Villages. The Dongxiang derived their name from the East Village (=dong xiang). Historically they were not considered a proper nationality but were thought to be part of the locally dominating Muslim population (Huihuizu ). Only after 1949 they were granted nationality status. In 1950, the Dongxiang Autonomous Region ( ) was founded which was renamed Autonomous County in 1955.


The Dongxiang language belongs to the Mongol branch of the Altaic languages. The spoken language does not make a distinction between short and long vowels. Except for a limited number of cases there is no vowel harmony, and the harmonic rules governing the suffix pronouncation are by far not as strict as those of Mongolian. There are no dialects in strict sense, but three local varieties (tuyu ) can be found: Suonanba (ca. 50% of all Dongxiang speakers), Wangjiaji (ca. 30% of all Dongxiang speakers) and Sijiaji (ca. 20% of all Dongxiang speakers).


The number of vowels is 7:
i e u w o a e^
[e^] is a retroflex vowel which frequently forms its own syllable, especially in loan words.

The vowels can form diphtongs.


The number of consonants is 28:
b p m f 
d t n l r 
dz ts s
dzh tch ch
dsh tsh sh
g k x
X G q
h j w
As in Mongolian, [q] and [k], [G] and [g] form allophonic pairs (examples taken from LIU: p. 2-5 and 109-121):
	Dongxiang	Mongol		meaning

	qara		xar-a		black
	Goni		xoni		goat
	kun		kümün		man
	gie		ger		home
The only consonant in final position is /n/ which results in numerous "lostword endings, e.g.:

	Dongxiang	Mongol		meaning

	bula		bulaG		well, fountain
	mungu		mongGol		Mongol


Unlike Mongol, the stress is usually placed on the last syllable of a word. Thus we find:
	Dongxiang	meaning

	a'na		mother
	e'ne		this
	u'su		water
	na'ran		sun
	dara'sun	wine
There are only a few words where the position of stress helps to distinguish between otherwise similar words:
	shen'dzw	shirt (Chinese:  shanzi)
	'shendzw	fan (Chinese:  shanzi)
Vowels in (Mongol) initial position tend to be dropped in Dongxiang as well as consonants closing syllables, the latter even within words:
	Dongxiang	Mongol		meaning

	musu-		ämüskü		to wear
	mata-		martaxu		to forget
	tedzhu		tobci		button

Vowel Harmony

Due to the relaxed vowel harmony, distinct Mongol words merge into Dongxiang homonyms:
	Dongxiang	Mongol		meaning

	xodun		1. ödü		feather
			2. odu		star

	boro		1. boru		brown
			2. bögär-ä	kidney

Old consonant Initials

On the other hand, Dongxiang is remarkably conservative when old consonant initials which were lost in the transition from Old Mongolian to Middle Mongolian are concerned (taken from LIU: p. 109-121):

	Dongxiang	Mongol		meaning

	xulan		ulaGan		red
	hamura-		amuraxu		to rest
	haron		arban		ten
	xodun		odu		star
	huntura-	untaGaxu	to sleep
	xulasun		uliyasu		willow
	xon		on		year
	fuda		uGuta		bag
	fugie		ükär		cow
	fudu		urtu		long
	xodeu		ötög		maggot
	fure		üür		seed

Origin of Words

Mongolian Stock

A substantial portion of the Dongxiang lexicon shares its roots with the other Mongolian languages. For the basic vocabulary, we can only observe the regular sound shifts taking place between e.g. Mongol, Tuzu, Bao'an, Eastern Yugur and Dagur while the basic meaning of these words remains the same:
Dongxiang	Mongol	Tuzu	Bao'an	Ea Yugur	Dagur	meaning

mori		mori	more	more	moor		mori	horse
niere		när-ä	nere	nare		nere	ner	name	
nasun		nasu	nase	nason	nas		nas	age
The Dongxiang language preserves elder Mongolian forms which can be found in the Hua Yi Yi Yu :
Dongxiang	Hua Yi Yi Yu		Mongol	meaning

tuma		tu'erma 	luubang	carrot
mo		mo'er 		zam	way

Chinese Loans

The Dongxiang language has a remarkable proportion of Chinese words which can even be found in the realm of function words, e.g. copulae, ordinal numbers (LIU:54) etc. Thus, the Chinese copula shi (Dongxiang: shw) can be used in the following manner (LIU:4):
	Dongxiang: 	ene shw xulanni wo.
	Mongol:		ene ulaan (bain-a).
	English:	This is red.
Some Chinese words in Dongxiang probably have been borrowed a certain while ago as the sound patterns show; so, modern Chinese [ji-] (like in jiao, etc.) is not palatalized but preserved as [gi-]. For Chinese loans, LIU (p. 22) distinguishes between early and recent borrowings with the limit between the two set to 1949 (jiefang qian/hou). Though this limit may be useful in judging semantic groups of words in is certainly not a good limit for examining sound shifts.

Examples of Chinese words in Dongxiang (taken from LIU: p. 109-121):

Dongxiang	Char.	Pinyin		English

kan			kang		sugar
fei			fei		lung
zhenmin			renmin		people
ishun			yisheng		medical doctor
fanfa			fangfa		method
je			yao		medicine
nanfan			nanfang		south
unmo			wenmo		scholarly educated
tshon			chuan		ship
dzhiatshien		jiaqian		money, price
nainiu			nainiu		milch cow
shu			shu		book
inshin			yingxiong	hero
shi			xi		west
golo			jiaoluo		corner
tshien			qian		thousand
tsunmin			congming	intelligent
Some words (like the one above) are borrowed directly; others are followed by an indigenous classifier:

pingo		pingguo	> pingo alima	apple
sunshu		songshu > sunshu mutun	pine	
Besides the major Chinese influx, words of the following origin can be found in Dongxiang: Persian (e.g. aswman heaven), Arabic (e.g. Guran Quran) and Turkic (e.g. tashw stone).


As in Mongolian, the plural of nouns is not necessarily indicated if the word in question is preceded by a number. If a number is not explicitely stated the plural is generally formed by adding -la to the word:
	Singular	Plural		meaning

	kun		kun-la		man
	mori		mori-la		horse
	mutun		mutun-la	tree
The system of personal pronouns is fairly complex since a clear distinction is made between inclusive plural forms and exclusive plural forms for the first person.
				1st		2nd	3rd

Singular			bi		tshw	tere

		exclusive	bidzhien
Plural   <					ta	terela
		inclusive	matan


Bükä nar nayiraGulba: Düngsiyang kälän-ü ügä kälälgä-yin materiyal. MongGol töröl-ün kälä ayalGun-u sudulul-un cuburil 009. Öbür MongGol-un arad-un käbläl-ün xoriy-a käblägülbä. 1987 (Buhe deng bian: Dongxiangyu huayu cailiao . Nei Menggu Renmin Chubanshe 1987). 354 p.

This book contains oral transcripts of 20 situational dialogues, over 20 folk tales and riddles, all recorded from about 10 different Dongxiang speakers. The material is presented in three lines, the first being Chinese, the second being the phonetic transcript, the third being an approximation in written Mongol. Whenever a Dongxiang word is without proper Mongol equivalent, hints to the meaning are given in brackets.

Bükä nar nayiraGulba: Düngsiyang kälän-ü ügäs. MongGol töröl-ün kälä ayalGun-u sudulul-un cuburil 008. Öbür MongGol-un arad-un käbläl-ün xoriy-a käblägülbä. 1983 (Buhe deng bian Dongxiangyu Cihui Nei Menggu Renmin Chubanshe 1983). 192 p. This book contains a Dongxiang glossary comprising well over 4,000 entries arranged in phonetical order. For each entry the authors attempt to indicate the etymological origin and if appropriate, the Mongol or Chinese root is stated, too. In addition, also roots of Uighur, Tibetan, Persian and Arabian origin are mentioned, as well as words which can be found in the Secret History of the Mongols and the Hua Yi Yi Yu .

Bükä nayiraGulun zokiyaba. Coyizungzab kinan üzäbä: Düngsiyang kälä ba mongGol kälä. (Buhe bianzhu, Quejingzhabu jiaoyue : Dongxiangyu he Mengguyu ) MongGol töröl-ün kälä ayalGun-u sudulul-un cuburil 007. Öbür MongGol-un arad-un käbläl-ün xoriy-a käblägülbä. 1986. 265 p. Mongolian cover, Chinese text.

The author makes a thorough comparison of Dongxiang and Mongol in the fields of sounds, parts of speech, syntax and vocabulary. In the first section (sounds) the author uses many statistical data. References to other Mongol languages (e.g. Oirat) and historical sources (Hua Yi Yi Yu , Secret History of the Mongols ) are widely exploited.

Liu Zhaoxiong bianzhu: Dongxiangyu Jianzhi . Zhongguo Shaoshu Minzu yuyan Jianzhi Congshu . Minzu Chubanshe 1981. 122 p.

Liu's data (notably on population figures, etc.) are sometimes a bit outdated which is understandable when the history of this book is regarded more closely. The first draft was written in 1964, but it was not until 1977 that the author could review his manuscript on location in Linxia.

Ma Zixiang zhu : Dongxiangzu . Minzu Zhishi Congshu . Minzu Chubanshe 1987. 82 p.

The author is of Dongxiang nationality.

Manduxu ämkidgän Galiglazu tayilburilaba: mongGol i üi toli bicig. Menggu Yi Yu Cidian. . ündüsün-ü käbläl-ün xoriy-a 1995. Minzu Chubanshe 1995.

This book is the fruit of an exhaustive attempt to annotate and translate the Mongolian portions of a whole collection of titles bundled under the category of "Barbarians' Glossaries" as the dictionaries for the languages of the Non-Han nationalities were dubbed. It serves as a good source for matching those older words which have only survived in languages like Dongxiang but are not found in any of the "modern" Mongol dialects any more, e.g. Chakhar and Khalkha.

Sun Zhu zhubian , Zhaonasutu Chen Naixiong Wu Junfeng Li Keyu bian Menggu yuzu yuyan cidian . Qinghai Renmin Chubanshe 1990. 844 p. About 3,000 entries. Compares in tabular manner 11 Mongol dialects ( Barin West Banner Old Bargha Buryat Darxan Xarqin East Sunid Alashan ) Dagur Eastern Yugur Tuzu Dongxiang Bao'an and Cyrillic, followed by English and Chinese glossae. With Mongol, Chinese and English Index.

Author's Note

This short article can hardly be called more than an appetizer for the interested reader. The author virtually completely ignored syntax and had a strong focus on sounds and words only.