The Tofa Language

General Information on the Language

The Main Ethnonym of the Ethnic Group

Bibliography on the Tofa Language

Self-ethnonym of Tofalar – Tofa (тоъфá), while since the 1930s up to the present day they have been called Karagas. This ethnonym originated from distorted name of one of Tofalar clans кара-һааш, mentioned already by M.A. Castrén and V.V. Radlov. The fact that the people call themselves Tofa тофа was stated by U.P. Stubendorf in the mid-XIX century.

The Name of Language

Tofalar call their language тоъфа дыл. This is the only variant used. By its genetic affiliation, it belongs to Turkic languages. In his classification of Turkic languages, generally recognized in Russia, N.A. Baskakov attributes Tofalar language to Uighur Tukyuy subgroup of Uighur Oguz group of Turkic languages. He also includes Tuvinian, along with ancient languages of Orkhon Enisey Turkic peoples and Uighurs, in here. Our investigations of genetic affiliations of Tofalar language resulted in the fact that, along with contemporary Tuvinian and Soyot languages of Russia, languages of Tsaatans, Uryankhay Uighurs and Tuvinians of Tsengel District (Somon) of Mongolia, Kök Monchak of Mongolia and China, it forms a group of closely related, so called, Sayan Turkic languages, united by their origin from ancient Uighur and Oguz languages. By its origin Yakut language is also related to Sayan languages through Uighur language. Our comparative historical studies of Tofalar language demonstrated that Sayan group is subdivided into two areas in its turn: steppe and taiga. The steppe area is formed by the languages of Tuvinians of the Republic of Tyva, RF, Tuvinians of Tsengel District (Somon) of Mongolia and Kök Monchak of Mongolia and China. The taiga area includes Tofalar and Soyot languages of Russia, languages of Tsaatan and Uryankhay Uighurs of Mongolia. The languages of this area have a number of specific and archaic features in their structure, in contrast to the languages of the steppe area. Language speakers of both areas differ by their economic and cultural types: representatives of the steppe area live in the steppe zone of Tuva and Mongolia, lead nomadic animal husbandry economy, similar to Mongols, breed the same kinds of domestic animals – camels, horses, yaks, cows and ship, and by their religious affiliation belong to Buddhists. Representatives of the taiga area have always populated Sayan mountain taiga and only recently switched from the way of life of nomadic hunters to present day sedentary life. Their reindeer herding now has distant-pasture character. Shamanism was adopted as their religion later.

Geographic Spread of the Language

Tofalar language is wide spread on the territory of so called Tofalaria, which is located on the north-eastern slopes of the Eastern Sayan Range. Administratively, it includes Nizhneudinskiy District of Irkutskaya Province, RF. Modern Tofalaria consists of three village administrations – Alygdzher, Verkhnayay Gutara and Nerkha. Tofalars which led nomadic life till the end of the 1920s now live permanently in three villages - Alygdzher, Verkhnayay Gutara and Nerkha. During the nomadic period, that is quite recently, approximately 70 years ago Tofalars settled in three communities:

  1. north-western community, which Tofalars themselves called соңгуу ааллар, consisted of representatives of clans һааш, сары һааш, қара һааш, related to Kachin Khakas by their origin;
  2. south-eastern community, called буруңгуу ааллар in Tofalar, consisted of representatives of clans чоғду, ақ чоғду, қара чоғду, having common origin with Tuvinians of clan чооду, as well as with Tsaatans of clan чогду.
  3. central community - оъртаа ааллар in Tofalar – included representatives of clan чептэй, originating from Nizhneudinsk Buryats of clan мааньжираг. During sedentarization Tofalars of north-eastern community were settled in village Verkhnyaya Gutara, Tofalars of south-eastern community – in village Alygdzher, central community – in Nerkha village. The population of these villages is presently mixed as a result of cross marriages between representatives of different clans.

Language Contacts

At present Tofalar language has active contacts with Russian, enriching its vocabulary by this means. During nomadic period Tofalar language had contacts with Oka and Nizhneudinsk Buryat subdialects, as well as with neighboring Turkic languages – Soyot and Tuvinian Todzhu. Besides that, there are numerous loan words from medieval Mongolian in Tofalar language, which serve as an evidence of long-term contacts of Tofalars with medieval Mongols in the past.

Number of Native Speakers

Contemporary Tofalars are among the most numerically small Turkic speaking peoples of Russian Federation. According to the recent USSR national population census (1989), they counted 731 people, and according to Russian population census of 2002 – 723 people, with the overwhelming majority – 681 people belonging to village population (official data are available on By its status they are affiliated to the peoples of the North. Tofalars are among the most ancient peoples of the Sayans, leading hunting and reindeer herding.

Due to their small number and early amalgamation of representatives of different clans ruled by the law of exogamy, the language of contemporary Tofalars is rather homogeneous all across the territory populated by them, although some insignificant distinctions, mostly in the phonetics and vocabulary, are found in the spoken language of Tofalars of Verkhnyaya Gutara (ethnic group һааш) and Alygdzher (ethnic group чоғду). Nerkha adjoins Alygdzher. Differences are insignificant and not classificatory in principle, therefore, giving grounds for distinction of dialects and subdialects in Tofalar language. The principle distinctive phonetic feature is a different type of labial vowel harmony – with Khakas type prevailing in Verkhnayay Gutara and originating from Kypchak Kyrgyz (after vowel o of the first syllable ы is pronounced), i.e.: қолым – my hand), in Alygdzher and Nerkha – of Tuvinian type, originating from Uighur Oguz (after о of the first syllable у is pronounced, i.e.: қолум – my hand). Moreover, in many words with finite consonant Gutara people pronounce –й instead, e.i.: дай instead of дағ – mountain, суй instead of суғ –water, улуй instead of улуғ – big, etc. There are also several words found both in Verkhnyaya Gutara and Alygdzher, with distinctions in semantics of a number of lexemes.

Linguistic Description


Tofalar language is a typical Turkic language by its structure. Its phonological structure contains common Turkic short vowel phonemes of hard row – а, о, у, ы, and of soft row – э, ө, ү, и. This row is supplemented by two phonemes - ә, i. Specific feature of Tofalar language is the presence of additional pharyngealized phonemes of hard and soft rows - – аъ, оъ, уъ, ыъ, эъ, өъ, үъ, иъ, әъ, iъ, as well as the same long phonemes – аа, оо, уу, ыы, ээ, өө, үү, ии, әә, ii. This lets us to distinguish more words by the quality of the consonant, i.e.: ас ‘ermine’ – аъс ‘hang’ – аас ‘mouth’; кээр ‘he will come’ - кәәр ‘he will crumble’. Consonantism consists of labial sounds – б, в, м, п, ф, point (blade)– т, д, с, з, ш, ж, н, л, р, dorsal – й, ч (ть), ҷ (дь), нь, velar – к, г, ң, ғ, uvular – қ,ғ, ң, pharyngeal – һ, һь. Specific feature of Tofalar language in the sphere of consonantism is phonematic opposition of rather strong and weak, than unvoiced and voiced phonemes. Strong consonants are always voiceless, pronounced with aspiration, with preceding pharyngealized short vowels. For instance, қап ‘sack’ – қаъп ‘catch with the mouth’. Tofalar language is characterized by interchange of strong ш and soft һь, i.e.: баъш ‘head’ – баъһи ‘his head’, and weak ш – with voiced weak ҷ, for instance: баш ‘ulcer’ - баҷы ‘his ulcer’.

Morphology and Grammar

By the type of its grammatical structure Tofalar language belongs to agglutinative analytic languages. Morphological structure of the Tofalar word has common Turkic character: the word consists of the root morpheme, word forming, form building and word inflecting affixes added to the root exactly in this consequence. The formation of new words is performed both by affixal and non-affixal ways. The composition of word classes and particles of speech is similar to other Turkic languages – there is a class of categorimatic words with groups of denominative and indicative words, the class of function, modal, affect and essive words. Categorimatic words have the same grammatical categories – the noun has the categories of number, possessiveness, case, definiteness/indefiniteness. There is no category of gender. The verb has aspects, voices, and moods. The verb is conjugated in the person in the frameworks of the latter.

Vocabulary is basically common Turkic. There are quite numerous archaic word forms deriving both from both ancient Oguz language and ancient Uighur language. There are many loan words from Buryat language, as well as from medieval Mongolian. Quite a few words were introduced to Tofalar from Russian in different epochs, both before the revolution and during the Soviet period.


Syntactic structure preserved an ancient Turkic type, which has almost no conjunctions, and adverbial and participal constructions are used instead of subordinate clauses. After writing for Tofalar language was created in 1986, and since 1990 when it was introduced as a subject in Tofalar schools, the process of its dying has been suspended. Its function as a means of communication used within Tofalar ethnic group has been strengthened; the youth has started using the language in communication. At present this language is taught as a subject in school.

Sociolinguistic Situation

Writing and Orthography

Writing for Tofalar language was based on Cyrillic, similarly to writing of other Turkic peoples of former USSR. Letter with diacritics were introduced to reflect specific Tofalar phonemes. Letters қ, ғ, ҷ, һ, ң, ө, ү, ә, i were added to Russian alphabet. The length of the sound is conveyed by a double letter, pharyngealization – by a hard sign following the letter.

History of Studies of the Language

Tofalar language has been studied for a long time. M.A. Castrйn was its first researcher. In 1857 his book «Versuch einer koibalischen und karagassischen Sprachlehre» (St.-Pb.) was published in German. The next linguist was N.F. Katanov, who visited nomadic grounds of Tofalar in 1980. The samples of his records of Tofalar speech and folklore were published by V.V. Radlov («Образцы народной литературы тюркских племен. Ч. IX. Наречия урянхайцев (сойотов), абаканских татар и карагасов. Тексты, собранные и переведенные Н.Ф. Катановым». (“Samples of folk literature of Turkic tribes. Vol. IX. Subdialects of Uryankhays (Soyots), Abakan Tatars and Karagas. Texts collected and translated by N.F. Katanov ”).Тексты. СПб., 1907. С. 614-657; Перевод. СПб., 1907.) In the 1930s some records of Tofalar texts published later were produced by N.P. Dyrenkova. She was the author of an article about Tofalar language supplemented with these texts (Дыренкова Н.П. Тофаларский язык (Tofalar language) // Тюркологические исследования. М.;Л., 1963. С. 5-24.). Since 1964 Tofalar language has been studied by V.I. Rassadin who collected substantial factual materials on Tofalar language. By the present day he has written and defended thesis of a C. of Sc. “Vocabulary of Contemporary Tofalar Language” (1966) and thesis of Dr. Sc. “Tofalar Language and Its Role in the System of Turkic Languages” (1983), published monographs «Фонетика и лексика тофаларского языка» (“Phonetics and Vocabulary of Tofalar Language”) (Ulan-Ude, 1971) and «Морфология тофаларского языка в сравнительном освещении» (“Morphology of Tofalar Language in the Light of Comparative Analysis”) (М.: Nauka, 1978), «Тофаларско-русский словарь. Русско-тофаларский словарь» (“Tofalar-Russian Dictionary. Russian-Tofalar Dictionary”) (Irkutsk, 1995), «Легенды, сказки и песни седого Саяна. Тофаларский фольклор» (“Legends, Fairytales and Songs of the Grey Sayans. Tofalar Folklore”) (Irkutsk, 1996). In 1986 at one of its sessions Irkutsk Rayispolkom (District Executive Committee) approved writing and orthographic rules created for Tofalar language by him. In 1989 he published the first Tofalar ABC book compiled by him, in 1990 a reading book for the first grade, and in 1994 a reading book for the second grade of Tofalar schools were published. Since 1990 up to the present day Tofalar language has been officially taught in elementary grades of Tofalar schools.


Bakanaev, Nikolay Sergeevich – an adept in Tofalar fairytales

Photo from archive of V.I and I.V. Rassadin

Translated into English by O.A. Povoroznyuk

© IEA RAS, 2005
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