The surprising origin of Kyrgyzstan’s Altyn Arashan

Back in 2008, while traveling in the Karakol region of Kyrgyzstan, I visited the Altyn Arashan hot springs (as described here), but I didn’t think anything about the place-name other than that it was a golden (altïn) something. Years later, while reading Juha Janhunen’s recently-published presentation Mongolian, I was surprised to find the meaning of the word, and it took a long path to Kyrgyzstan.

The cover of Juha Janhunen’s book Mongolian (John Benjamins, 2012)While speaking of Mongolian’s historical tendency to avoid r- at the beginning of a word by prepending an a-, Janhunen mentions Khalkha Mongolian arshaan ‘hot spring’, where this process has taken place. The Mongolian word in fact originated in Sanskrit raṣāyana, a term of Indian traditional medicine.

Kyrgyzstan has historically had some Mongolian-speaking population, especially in this particular area. The Mongols also brought this word for ‘hot spring’ to Buryatia and Tuva. Some Indian loanwords in Mongolian came through Central Asian Iranian and Uyghur mediation, while others came through Tibetan mediation, though unfortunately I don’t have the references at home to determine by which route arshaan came.

More Kyrgyz from Hatto: the Lament for Jantay

While he spent most of his career studying medieval European epic, in his retirement the versatile scholar Arthur T. Hatto unexpectedly turned to Kyrgyz. I’ve covered his work on the Kyrgyz epic poem Manas here before.

However, those two volumes are not his only contribution. In Documenta barbarorum (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1983), a Festschrift for Walther Heissig’s 70th birthday, Hatto offers a translation and commentary on a Kyrgyz lament for a deceased chieftain named Jantay, originally written down by Wilhelm Radloff in the 19th century. This lament features the same fun features of the Kyrgyz epic, with hyperbolic repetitions and an obligatory dig at the jabbering Kalmyks. Here I’ll give only the Kyrgyz original and Hatto’s translation, but for Hatto’s extensive commentary with all kinds of cultural insights, see the book. Continue reading More Kyrgyz from Hatto: the Lament for Jantay

North Kipchak loans in South Kipchak

When I began studying the interaction of Uralic and Turkic languages in the Volga-Kama area, I assumed that existence of a feature in both Tatar and Kazakh was sufficient to prove that Tatar inherited it from Common Turkic and did not borrow it one of the languages of the Volga-Kama area. However, it turns out that contact between the Kipchak languages persisted long enough for North Kipchak to contribute some loanwords to South Kipchak.

The first example is Kazakh moncha ‘sauna’. According to Klára Agyagási in Ранние русские заимствования тюркских языков волго-камского ареала Ⅰ (Debrecen, 2005) p. 58, this ultimately derives from Russian баня, borrowed into Ancient Chuvash with the rounding of a typical for early Chuvash and the shift of b > m before nasals typical for Turkic in general, and finally taken up by the South Kipchaks sometime before the North Kipchak vowel shift (cf. Tatar munča).

The second example comes from a paper by András Róna-Tas, “Three Volga Kipchak Etymologies” in Studies in Chuvash Etymology I. (Szeged: Szeged University Press, 1982). He traces Tatar and Bashkir izge ‘holy, good’ back to a Volga Bulgarian form that produced modern Chuvash ïră. Kazakh izgi ‘kindly’ must therefore be a loanword from the Volga Kipchak languages.

Favours in Mari and Turkic

While sitting in a bookstore reading a travel guide to Kyrgyzstan, I was struck by the following sentence from the list of useful Kyrgyz phrases: Please write it down: Жазып берсеңчи /dʒʲazɨp berseŋči/. Here we have a construction where the request is expressed as a converb followed by the imperative of the verb ‘to give’.

A couple of hours later, in reading Chavain’s novel Elnet, I found that this construction exists in Mari as well:

Матвей Николасвичын мурымыжымат пеш колыштыч.

— Ынде Тамара Матвеевна мыланна иктаж-мом муралта, — адак пелештыде ыш чыте Василий Александрович.

— К сожалению, мый ом муро, Василий Александрович.

— Туге гын, иктажым декламироватлен пу.

They listened intently to Matvej Nikolavič’s singing.

Now Tamara Matveevna will sing us something, again Vasilij Aleksandrovič would not stay quiet.

Unfortunately, I won’t sing, Vasilij Aleksandrovič.

If that’s the case, recite some poetry for us.

In the last sentence we find декламироватлен пу deklamiroβatlen pu recite-conv give(imp).

Intrigued, I asked a Chuvash informant if this construction existed in his language as well. He said that it did, and he gave the following two example sentences: ман валли чаплă сĕтел туса пар-ха man valli čaplă sĕtel tusa par-xa ‘Make me a nice table, please’, ун валли чаплăраххине туса патăн un valli čaplăraxxine tusa patăn ‘You made a nicer one for him’. The latter sentence is helpful in showing that this construction doesn’t necessarily have to be in the imperative, but can be used in declarative sentences as well.

I was curious to know if this construction made the order more polite than a simple imperative, but both the Chuvash informant and a friend knowledgeable about Kyrgyz said that this construction implies only doing something for the benefit of another. The Chuvash informant pointed to the enclitic xa as the only element of politeness.

The construction is in Turkish too, yazıver ‘write down for me’, which lends support to the notion that it is pan-Turkic and not simply a Kipchak borrowing into Chvuash and Mari.


In the introduction to their Italian translation of the Manas epic (Manas: L’epopea del poplo della steppa, Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1997), Arnaldo Alberti and Begaim Nasserdinova contrast the Kyrgyz recitation of epic with that of other Turks by noting that the Tatars accompany recitation with a chatigan, a sort of zither. Their source here is certainly G. M. H. Shoolbraid’s The Oral Epic of Siberia and Central Asia, where we find on page 43:

In the performance of the [Kyrgyz] epic there is a large amount of mimicry and intonational play, and the story may be partly or totally sung. More than twenty melodies have been collected which the manaschi use. The accompaniment of Tatar heroic songs is generally by a stringed instrument, either a chatigan (a kind of zither), or a variety of lute. Radloff says that the ölöng, a recent type of lay, is accompanied, to some fourteen or fifteen melodies, by a two-stringed instrument resembling a balalaika, and this kind accompaniment is very common all over Central Asia. The kobuz, a three-stringed violin, is much in use, being described by Radloff and A. de Levchine (among the Kazakhs).

I had never heard of any such instrument as the chatigan among the Tatars before. There seem to be few references to it in the English-speaking world, to judge from Google Books and JSTOR. We find in Nora K. Chadwick’s article ‘Spiritual Ideas and Experiences of the Tatars of Central Asia’ from the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 66 (Jul.–Dec., 1936), pp. 291–329:

In addition to the human voice instrumental music is very commonly used as a means of communicating with spirits. The instruments employed are the zither or chatigan (jädigän) and the reed pipe or pipes.

There is also mention of the instrument in the book written by Nora K. Chadwick with her husband H. Munro Chadwick, The Growth of Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1940). In the third volume in the chapter ‘The Oral Literature of the Tatars‘, we find a description of the instrument:

Finally some reference is necessary to the musical instruments in use among the Tatars, though we can only mention one or two of the commonest. There can be no question that for the accompaniment of narrative poetry stringed instruments of some kind or other are in general use. The most elaborate of this is perhaps the chatigan (jädigän). […] This instrument – a kind of zither – consists of a long cylindrical or oblong box without a lid, sometimes hollowed out of a single piece of wood. The box is, as it were, laid bottom upwards, and the strings are stretched along the outside of the bottom. There are generally five to eight strings in the modern chatigan, but in the past it was probably a more ambitious instrument, for in the poems the static description is ‘forty-stringed chatigan’. A chatigan brought by Czaplicka from Siberia is in the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford. This specimen has six wire strings of equal length, variety of pitch being given by movable knuckle-bones of the reindeer, placed one under each string. The instrument is played by plucking the strings with the fingers of each hand. Probably the instrument is a rude imitation of a Russian gusli, though the shape is, of course, very different.

Well, that somewhat clears things up. Because of the mention of reindeer, we’re clearly not dealing with the Volga Tatars, and probably not even what are today called the Siberian Tatars, because the Chadwicks go on to recount how Maria Czaplicka had difficulties in buying her chatigan from a Sagay, that is, a speaker of Altay Turkic. Formerly these peoples were called Tatars in spite of their remoteness from Kazan’. But curiously, there are no search results in Russian-language scholarship for чатиган, leaving me puzzled about what the instrument is really called in that part of the world nowadays.

More mongolianisms in the Manas

Last October I wrote a post on some odd words attributed to the Kalmaks in the Kyrgyz poem Kökötöydün ašı. The manuscript of the Manas epic prepared by Wilhelm Radloff features these and more in a passage where the Kyrgyz lord Kökčö, hearing that Manas has moved his camp towards him, tries to gather intelligence from the Oirots and encounters the nobleman Almambet. Here’s the manuscript portion and a rough translation from Arthur T. Hatto’s edition The Manas of Wilhelm Radloff (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1990):

Kökčö bu sös aitkanda,
kara-töböl Bulandı mindi,
köl ailana kuš saldı
jarɣak taman kas aldı
kök ala moin son’ aldı
Kızıkkanınan kızıktı,
Isık-köldün jǟginä kirip bardı.
Ar jaɣında adırda,
kabılan tūɣan Almambet,
kaldaiɣan kara börük bašında,
čıɣıp keldi aldınan.
Kökčö anı körüp korktu.
Almambet kördü Kökčönü:
‘Altai? Altai?’ dep aittı,
‘Jabı? Jabı?’ dep aittı,
‘Möndü! Möndü!’ dep aittı.
‘Kalakai kaška?’ dep aittı.
‘Bičik solōn?’ dep aittı.
Kökčö turup mını aittı:
‘“Altai?” kebiŋ bilbäimin,
“Jabı?” kebiŋ bilbäimin,
“Kalakai?” kebiŋ bilbäimin.’
Kabılan tūɣan Alambet
Isık-köldün bašına
ailanıp salıp baradı.
‘Atıŋnın bašın bura-tur, Kökčö,
kak astıma tura-tur, Kökčö!’
Kabılan tūɣan Almambet
Kökčö jakka baradı.
‘Altai? Altai?’ dep aittı,
‘Jabı? Jabı’ dep aittı,
‘Kalakai kaška?’ dep aittı,
‘Bičik solōn?’ dep aittı.—
Kökčö turup mını aitat:
‘Bu kebiŋdi bilbäimin!’
Anda aittıŋ Almambet:
‘“Altai? Altai” degänim—
“Amansıŋbı?” degänim,
“Jabı? Jabı?” degänim—
“Jakšısıŋbı” degänim,
“Kalakai kaška?” degänim—
“Kanıŋ barbı” degänim,
“Bičik solōn?” degänim—
“Töröŋ barbı?” degänim!
Bu dǖnödön ötköndö,
a dǖnögö jetkändä,
biskä jol barb’ekän?’

On uttering these words, Kökčö rode Bulan-of-the-black-blaze, and, rounding the Lake, cast his falcon, he took the web-footed geese and the duck with blue-mottled necks. With mounting excitement he entered the margins of Lake Issyk. On the far side of the ride, tiger-born Almambet, his black cap towering on his head, loomed into view. At the sight of him Kökčö was startled. Then Almambet saw Kökčö.

‘Altai? Altai?’ he asked, and ‘Jabı? Jabı? Möndü! Möndü! Kalakai kaška? Bičik solōn?’ is what he said.

Kökčö standing there answered him: ‘I do not understand your word “Altai?” or your word “Jabı?” or “Kalakai?”’.

Tiger-born Almambet rode briskly round the head of Lake Issyk. ‘Turn your horse’s head and halt, Kökčö, halt now before me, Kökčö!’ And tiger-born Almambet rode towards him. ‘Altai? Altai?’, said he, and ‘Jabı? Jabı? Kalakai kaška? Bičik solōn?’

Kökčö standing there answered him: ‘I do not understand those words of yours!’

Then, Almambet, you said: ‘When I said “Altai? Altai?” I meant “I hope you are well?”. When I said “Jabı? Jabı?” I meant “Are you all right?”. And when I said “Kalakai kaška?” I meant “Have you a Khan?” And when I said “Bičik solōn?” I meant “Have you a lord” When we pass from this world and attain that Other, is there a Path for us?’

There follows a rather lame bit where Kökčö converts Almambet to Islam with remarkably little effort. Now, Hatto offers the following commentary on this passage:

Of these ‘Oirot’ words, only Möndü! (cf. Kalm. mendə ‘well’, Mong. mendü ‘health(y)’ — a first word in greeting) is genuine. Genuine ‘Sain!’ (cf. Kalm. sǟn ‘healthy’, ‘fine’) occurs in other ‘Kalmak’ contexts.

It’s one thing to attribute a mono- or bisyllabic utterance to your neighbours, like the ‘bar-bar’ of Greek barbaros. But it is rather curious that the Kyrgyz would come up with fully formed greetings on no basis at all. Hatto further gives a reference to a paper of his published in Central Asiatic Journal in the early 1970s which I will have to seek out. Perhaps it will provide further answers.

Kyrgyz mocking the Mongolians in the Manas

Arthur T. Hatto is an interesting character. Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of London, his interest in epic led him to study, of all things, Turkic linguistics. He edited two important collections of Kirghiz poetry. The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy-khan (Oxford University Press, 1979) is an edition of a manuscript prepared in 1865 of the Kökötöydün ašı, a poem on its way to being incorporated into the Manas cycle. (I discussed the Manas and this particular story in a April 2008 post.)

In the Manas, the Kyrgyz people are always depicted in competition with neighbouring peoples, especially the Mongol Kalmaks. Bards often peppered their recitals with Kalmak words that must have seemed stereotypical to Kyrgyz audiences. While Hatto glosses most of the Kalmak vocabulary, I was baffled about two items, jaba and möndü. Here’s a typical passage where these are used to mock the Kalmak. Here the Kalmak have crashed the party, taking off the food provided and disrespecting Manas’ role as master of ceremonies:

‘jaba jaba jaba!’ dep
jabılıp jatkan köp Kalmak,
‘möndü möndü möndü!’ dep
bülünüp jatkan köp Kalmak
‘etniŋ bıšırayın!’ bıštay
čiykideyin čiykidey alıšıp
bir birine berišip
‘etti alıp kača tur!’
Kalmaktardıŋ bu ašın
Er Manas körüp turdu, — dedi
ačuwu katuu keldi. — dedi
Manastayın baatırdıŋ
kara közün kan čalıp,
kanduu betin sur čalıp
kayratı jaman keldi. — dedi
tal čıbıktay boyloru
alačıktay ürpöydü,
sakalı ketti serbeyip,
murtu ketti arbıyıp.
asıy atnıŋ terisin
örmö kılgan buldursun,
kunan ögüz terisin
özök kılgan buldursun,
kayaša bergen katındı
kaykaŋdatkan buldursun,
konok bermes saraynı
kokuylatkan buldursun,
‘jaba’ degen Kalmakniŋ
jagın ayra čaptı. — dedi
‘möndü’ degen Kalmaknıŋ
bašın ayra čaptı. — dedi
uy-tügündöy kepirdi
kemegeniŋ bašından
künčülük jerge ayrıp taštadı — dedi

With a ‘Jaba, jaba, jaba!’ crowds of Kalmak came running in a tumult, with a ‘Möndü, möndü, möndü!’ swarms of Kalmak came running in a turmoil—‘I’m going to cook some meat!’ they puffed. They took the raw meat all raw as it was and gave it to one another with ‘Take some meat and be off with you!’

Watching this Kalmak feast Er Manas flew into a passion. The blood shot into his black eyes, darkness overcast his ruddy face, he was beside himself with rage. His willowy frame was all ruffled like a herdsman’s yurt. His beard dwindled away while his moustaches grew large and stiff. He brought down his great last plaited from the hide of a five-year-old horse, his lash with its core made from the hide of a three-year-old ox, with its handloop made of the hide of a dun calf that sucked two mothers—the lash which makes a snappish woman cringe, makes courts that turn away the guest lament!—brought his great lash down and cut open the sides of the Kalmak that gabble ‘Jaba!’, cut open the heads of the Kalmak that jabber ‘Möndü!’ Vehemently he beat back the Infidel, innumerable as hairs in a cow’s coat, from the heads of the hearths to the space of a day’s ride.

I spoke to Prof Juha Janhunen here at the university, an illustrious scholar of the Mongolic languages. He explained that möndü is transparently recognizable, a common greeting like ‘hello’ still in use today. The meaning of the other word jaba, however, is uncertain. Prof Janhunen could only conjecture it was some form of the verb ‘to go’.

Manas and the joys of Kyrgyz

If you are even in the least bit interested in Central Asian languages and cultures, I cannot recommend enough the ‘Music of Central Asia’ recordings out on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a joint effort of the Smithsonian Institution and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Each installment features authentic folk traditions played by enthuasiastic and still young performers, without any of the World music crossover gimmickry that one must usually fear in these sort of productions. The liner notes include lyrics both in the original language (written in transliteration) and in English translation, and there’s plenty of background information on the instruments and musical styles involved.

When I acquired Volume 1, Tengir-Too: Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan, the linguistic benefits were immediate. Kyrgyz too must be a descendant of Proto-Turkic *taɣ ‘mountain’, so Kyrgyz features loss of final ɣ with rounding of the preceding vowel (undoubtedly through ɣ > w) and then lengthening. From the title of a old hymn to the newly established Soviet state, Kengesh, I know now that Mari kaŋaš ‘council’ is a Turkic loan. The same goes with Mari pölek ‘gift’, judging from the presence of music here entitled Belek.

But what really fascinated me is Rysbek Jumabaev’s recitation from the Manas, the Kyrgyz epic recounting the life story of its eponymous hero. I’ll reproduce here the text of the extract present on this recording.

Kečee jurt atasy kan Kökötöi ölgöndö
Kairylgys jaidy kairan kiši körgöndö
Ošondo Kökötöidün uulu Bokmurun
Atama aš berem dep oolugup
Ošondo Karkyranyn talaaga
Ürkünčünün boiuna
Üč-Kapkaktyn boiunaa kelip konup
Ošondo kan Manasty Talastan čakyrtpai
Je kan Košoidun tilin albai.

Ošondo baiagy jaš Aidardy
Manikerdi mingizip
Tögöröktun tört burčuna čaptyryp.
Ošondo eldi aška čakyrtty deit Bokmurun.
Ošol kezde karasang
Ordoluu šaiyk kökjeke
Orčong, Kokon, Margalang
Kokondordon Kozubek
Margalangdan Malabek
Alty šaardan Alybek kelip
On eki kan košo kelip.

Ošol kezde karasang
Kakančynyn kanynan
Šailanyp tuu čygaryp
Kebez bel boo, keng ötük
Kečildin kany Kongurbai
Kelbersingen čirkin ai
Manjunun kany Neskara
Ošol kalmaktardan kan Joloi
Solondordon Oiokyr kelip.

Ošol kezde karasang
Karkyranyn talaasy
Kytaj-kalmakka kyjyldap tolup
Aš berüüčü kyrgyzdy takyr čaap koioordo
Ošondo kasiettüü kan Košoi arman kylyp
Kapyrai ee, bul kyrgyz Manastyn bardygyndai bolboit dep.

Bir adamga bilgizbei, bir adamga tuiguzbai
Ošondo jaš Aidardy Manikerge mingizip
Jylgynduu Talaska
Özüng körgön jaryktyk Manaska
Čaptyrdy deit ošondo.

Ošol kezde baiagy Neskara oolugup
Kökötöidün Bokmurunga:
Atangdyn körü, sen burut
Aitkanyma kön, burut
Andai-myndai debeimin
Tartkan ašyng jebeimin
Menin čykkan jerim Bakburčun
Kökötöidün Maniker
Karabaiyr kazanat
Kaiypka čalyš mal eken
Berender minip belsenip
Beejinde jürör mal eken
Atangdyn körü, dünüiö
Sende öčüm bar, düinö
Ušul turgan Maniker
Beejindin kara kanyna meni alyp ketčü jönü bar.

Dep ošentip turganda
Kökötöidün Bokmurun bileginen sap ketip
Jürögünön kap ketip
Asmandan allanyn künü bürköldü
Kökötöidün Bokmurun balaga
Ošondo altymyš müškül bir keldi.

Since Kökötöi-khan, the father of the nation, died recently,
And his poor soul saw the place from which nobody returns,
His son Bokmurun
Has been carelessly eager to throw a memorial feast.
On Karkyra steppe
He settled by the banks of the Ürkünchü,
And by the banks of the Üch-Kapkak.
He did not invite Khan Manas from Talas;
He did not listen to Koshoi-khan’s advice.

Bokmurun gave young Aidar
Maniker, his father’s horse,
And sent him to the four corners of the world,
Carrying an invitation to Kökötöi’s memorial feast.
Before long,
The campsite was beautifully decorated.
Guests came from Orchong, Kokand, Margelan.
From Kokand came Kozubek;
From Margelan, Malabek;
From the Six Cities came Alybek,
And twelve khans came along.

At the same time,
The Khan of Kakanchy
Elected a delegate, who was carrying his flag
And wearing a cotton waist sash and wide boots.
He was Kongurbai, Khan of Kechil,
Of proud looks indeed.
Neskara, Khan of Manju, came.
From the Kalmyks, Joloi-khan.
From the Solon tribe came Oiokyr.

And at the same time,
The steppe of Karkyra
Was filled with multitudes of Chinese and Kalmyks,
Who almost overwhelmed the Kyrgyz at the feast.
So Koshoi-khan said in despair:
‘Truly, the Kyrgyz people will never live in peace without Manas!’

Discreetly Koshoi-khan
Dispatched young Aidar hastily
Upon the deceased’s horse, Maniker,
To the tamarisk-rick region of Talas,
To fetch the beloved Manas.

Back at the feast Neskara raged
And said to Bokmurun, son of Köktöi:
‘Hey, you Burut!*
Do as I say, you Burut.
I will not beat around the bush.
I will not take your offering of meat.
I am from Bakburchun.
Kökötöi’s horse Maniker is
A humble yet exquisite thoroughbread;
An ethereal steed,
Worthy of warriors to ride.
It is an animal worthy of Beijing.
Oh, this cunning world,
I have a grudge against you!
This very Maniker is able to carry me
To the true khan of Beijing.’

As Neskara spoke,
The strength left Bokmurun’s hands,
And fear seized his heart.
In the sky Allah’s sun hid behind the clouds;
And to Kökötöi’s son
Sixty worries came at once.

* Burut is a Sino-Kalmyk name for the Kyrgyz.

It’s nice to find such a long text in Kirghiz to mine for linguistic interest that also has significant literary value. Elmira Köçümkulkïzï, while a Ph.D. Candidate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington (Seattle), translated several other selections from the epic. A ‘complete’ translation by Walter May is rumoured to be easily available on the streets of Bishkek, and I hope to acquire that next month when I’m in Kyrgyzstan.