Tungus is a collective term for a group of languages spoken by several ethnic minorities, that live in the north of the Peoples Republic of China, in the Russian Federation and in Mongolia. They abide in the Siberian Taiga and in the arctic and subarctic region of northeast Asia. The number of speakers differs considerably in the respective populations: Negidal for example is spoken by a few hundred speakers. Evenki, in contrast is spoken by approximately 30.000. In the case of Manchu the ethnic group numbers more than 1.800.000, but less than 100 ethnic Manchus have command of their native language. The socio-politic structure of the Tungus societies is determined mostly by patrilinear clans.
The Tungus peoples earn a living chiefly by hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. Some maintained a nomadic lifestyle. The Manchu, on the other hand, live on sedentary agriculture.
Two ruling dynasties of China were of Tungus ethnicity: the Jurchen dynasty (1125-1234) and the Manchu dynasty (1644-1911).
The Tungus languages, also known as Manchu-Tungus languages, are generally considered a subgroup of a large Altaic language family with Turkic and Mongolian as other members (some scholars consider Japanese and Korean also to be part of the Altaic family). However, the notion of an Altaic language family is still controversial. The similarities between the sub-branches Tungus, Turkic and Mongolian might also be the result of linguistic diffusion.
The Tungus languages are relatively little explored due to their geographical remoteness. Today there is still only a small amount of materials available. Historical comparison of the Tungus languages is made difficult by the fact, that most languages do not have literary traditions, which precede the 20th century. Even today many of them are still unwritten languages. The Manchu language, however, forms a major exception to that general pattern. It has been a written language since the 17th century, using the vertical Uighur script. For nearly 200 years it has been a lingua franca used in the communication between China and the outside world. Many works of Chinese literature have been translated into the Manchu language.
The Tungus languages have been examined first by the renowned Finnish philologist Matthias Alexander Castren during his studies in Siberia from 1845 to 1849. In the thirties and forties of the 20th century two Soviet scholars, Vera Ivanova Tsintsius and Glafira Makarievna Vasilevich, collected huge amounts of materials and made fundamental research on the Tungus languages, which enabled a deeper understanding of the internal grouping of the Tungus languages.
The Tungus languages show vowel harmony, which albeit lacks the complexity of the vowel harmony patterns in Turkic and Mongolian. Unlike Turkic and Mongolian Tungus Vowel harmony does not distinguish between front and back vowels. Furthermore Tungus does not have consonant harmony as it is found in Turkic and Mongolian.
In word initial position only one consonant is tolerated. In Tungus languages this rule is stricter than comparable rules in Turkic and Mongolian languages.
Tungus has dynamic stress as well as musical tone. The dynamic stress usually falls on the first syllable and the musical tone on the second syllable. When a suffix is added to the word the tone alters its position.
The Tungus languages have very rich agglutinative morphology that is suffixed. This morphological richness is more prominent in the North Tungus languages. The South Tungus languages have fewer cases and less verbal forms than their relatives in the northern group. Manchu is exceptional even among the South Tungus languages due to its poor morphology. In the northern group the noun has up to 20 cases, the southern group has a less extensive case morphology (Nanai has 8, Manchu has 4 cases). The Tungus noun has more plural suffixes than the Turkic and Mongolian noun. There is no gender distinction in Tungus. Tungus has a complex set of pronominal suffixes with possessive meaning. In many Tungus languages the adjective is morphologically marked by case and number and agrees with the head noun. The personal pronoun distinguishes between an inclusive and an exclusive form in its first person plural.
The Tungus languages are generally subdivided into two major subgroups: a southern ("Manchu") and a northern ("Tungus") group. The total number of the Tungus languages remains at issue. Nonetheless, in this database we list 12 Tungus languages. The northern group consists of the languages: Evenki (formerly designated as 'Tungus proper'), Even, Oroqen, and Negidal. The southern group comprises the languages Manchu, Jurchen, Xibe, Nanai, Orok, Ulch, Oroch and Udihe. Northern and Southern Tungus differ with respect to phonology and morphology: Northern Tungus distinguishes between short and long vowels, whereas Southern Tungus -especially Manchu - has no quantitative distinction of vowels in its phonological system. Manchu features vowel clusters. Another crucial feature for the North-South classification of Tungus languages is the degree of lenition of Proto-Tungus /*p/: In most of the South Tungus languages it is maintained as /p/, with the exception of Manchu /f/, Oroch and Udihe /x/. In the North Tungus languages we also find /x/ in Negidal, Oroqen has zero and in Dialects of Evenki we find the variants /x/, /h/ and zero. Northern Tungus case morphology is more extensive than Southern Tungus case morphology. Evenki for instance has 11 cases. The Manchu literary language, however, has only 4 cases. Northern Tungus has a set of pronominal suffixes, which denote possession, Southern Tungus has no such suffixes. Northern Tungus verbs show agreement, Southern Tungus verbs don't bear that feature. Word order is less rigid in Northern Tungus than in Southern Tungus. Notwithstanding the division line between the northern and the southern group cannot be drawn sharply, since many languages have features of both groups.
North Tungus shows greater dialectal variation than Southern Tungus.
Language contact phenomena are found in both groups: Southern Tungus has predominantly been influenced by Chinese, while Northern Tungus has been particularly affected by Russian and Mongolian languages.