Old Menghean language

The Old Menghean language is, according to historical linguistics, the stage of the Menghean language from its first written attestation (c. 17th C. BCE) to approximately the end of the Meng Dynasty in 265. The language is studied through a rich corpus of prose and metrical works, the formation of characters, and rare dedicated treatises on language written by contemporaries. The Old Menghean language is the ancestor of all Menghean languages and the Shinasthana family. Its descendants are spoken by over 600 million individuals today, in over 20 states. All of them share clear characteristics that confirm their genealogy, though precise relationships between each branch have yet to be settled.


In view of the unusually long period deemed "old" under conventional definitions, scholars also subdivide the Old Menghean period into the following:

  • Archaic (c. 17th to 12th c. BCE)
  • Pre-classical (c. 11th to 7th c. BCE)
  • Classical (c. 7th to 3rd c. BCE)
  • Post-classical (c. 3rd c. BCE to 285 CE)

These periods are defined for their respective sources and represent, according to some researchers, a purely notational device. Diachronic changes have been extensively researched, with most success in philology, epigraphy, and literature, while little consensus has emerged in the field of linguistics.



As reconstructed, Old Menghean had a consonant inventory richer than any of its descendants, though most of these features are marginally attested in peripheral branches of the language. Old Menghean distinguishes voice and aspiration in plosives and affricates, and voice in nasals, liquids, and approximants. There are five places of articulation—bilabial, alveolar, velar, uvular, and glottal; velar, uvular, and glottal stops are further distinguished in plain and labialized series. There are no contrastive retroflex and palatal stops, which independently arise in both Middle Menghean and parts of Shinasthana due to the glides -r- and -j-.

Initials Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plain Lab. Plain Lab. Plain Lab.
Stop Tenuis p t k q ʔ ʔʷ
Asper kʷʰ qʷʰ
Voiced b d g ɢ ɢʷ
Nasal Voiced m n ŋ ŋʷ ɴ ɴʷ
Voiceless ŋ̊ ŋ̊ʷ ɴ̥ ɴ̥ʷ
Affricate Tenuis t͡s
Asper t͡sʰ
Voiced d͡z
Fricative Voiceless s x
Voiced ɣ ɣʷ
Liquid Voiced r
Approximant Voiced w l j (w)


Old Menghean is generally thought to have six vowels.

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a


It is commonly accepted that Old Menghean had, at least in its earlier period, consonant clusters. These clusters are understood to have been formed by affixation of morphemes, around or in a root syllable, though not all clusters are semantically resolvable into their roots. As found in Shinasthana, there are at least three prefixes, one infix, and two suffixes. There is weaker evidence for a circumfix. In some cases, the affixes may co-occur with each other, forming consonant clusters three or four consonants long.

There is some evidence that Old Menghean may not have been a strictly-monosyllabic language like most of its descendants are. Tantalizing evidence is seen in the oldest layers of Shinasthana, where a weak, underspecified vowel can be morphologically prefixed to monosyllabic words. If Old Menghean was indeed (at least weakly) polysyllabic, then some of the consonant clusters, which appear unusual from a statistical perspective, may have been articulated with minor vowels. Comparison with more distantly related languages suggest that Old Menghean could have permitted a maximum of three syllables, though only the main syllable has contrastive vowels. Some scholars have reconstructed forms such as *mə-kra-kəs, but not without controversy. The maximal "syllable" structure would therefore resemble [CCəC]CV[CəCC], where CV is the minimum.


Old Menghean, unlike all of its known descendants, has productive affixal morphology.

Prefix *s-

Prefix *N-

Prefix *m-

Suffix *-s

Suffix *-ʔ

Infix *r-

Sociolinguistic implications

One of the more intensely researched topics in Old Menghean is its historical relationship with Shinasthana, the branch of Menghean spoken by Themiclesians. The earliest evidence for Menghean presence in Themiclesia dates to the 10th c. BCE, established radiologically and archaeologically, the earliest Menghean artifacts in Themiclesia showing a level of development roughly comparable with Menghean tools and artistic themes of the 11th to 10th c. BCE. However, Shinasthana shows -bh coda contrasting with -dh that correspond to Old Menghean contrast of *-ps and *-ts, which are assumed to have merged early as the 9th c. BCE in the Menghean lingua franca; this suggests that it split off from Old Menghean no later than the 9th c. BCE, but the archaeological record strongly contradicts this conclusion. The branching off of Shinasthana was once generally agreed to date only to the time of the earliest Menghean settlements in Themiclesia. More recent scholarly work reconciles these conclusions by suggesting that the Menghean groups that gave rise to early Themiclesians were not influenced by the lingua franca and thus retained these archaicisms, which later gave rise to Shinasthana. This implies that Old Menghean was a group of languages with significant internal diversity, and the lingua franca recovered in classical texts represent only one variety of Old Menghean.

Historically, this agrees with the fragmentary record of Themiclesian society prior to the 2nd c. BCE, which presents a society that is very distinct from contemporary Menghean society. Archaeologically, the idea that ancestral Themiclesians did not represent the mainstream classical Menghean culture resolves some glaring difficulties in interpretation of material artifacts. In the late 19th century, some Themiclesian scholars concluded that cultural remains find in Themiclesia reflected original Menghean culture, while those actually in Menghe showed evidence of mixture with Yang culture. This school of thought relied on recent excavations of Gojun-era sites that showed some surprising parallels in Themiclesia but not in Menghe. These views have subsequently been rejected by Menghean scholars, who assert that the primitivity of Themiclesian cultural remains was the result of "degenerative influence" by an undefined aboriginal culture, not heritage from the Gojun dynasty. Today, it is understood that elements of Gojun were retained in differing degrees in various societies after its dominance ended, and some aspects of them were more visible through the archaeological record. Additionally, the Jun dynasty, which replaced the Gojun long before firmly-attested Menghean settlements appeared in Themiclesia, imposed its cultural influence largely in pursuit of political power and did not, as a rule, convert all polities under its control to its culture. Particular permutations of such complex and poorly-understood factors have contributed to the impression that some Themiclesian sites recovered surprisingly large amounts of Gojun cultural remnants, perhaps in excess of some contemporary Menghean sites.

See also