Discovered: 18th century vocabulary of endangered Evenki language.

A guest blog post by David Weston (Honorary Senior Research Fellow, College of Arts), who is preparing the first complete catalogue of the Bayer papers. In the  course of this work he has identified an early Evenki vocabulary and has produced a transcription of it.

“Among the papers of the St Petersburg Academician Theophilus Siegfried Bayer (1694-1738) is preserved a vocabulary  which is the most extensive of the early witnesses to the Evenki language in Siberia, containing over 200 lexical items. According to Professor György Kara of Indiana University, ‘the Evenki language is spoken by some forty thousand people living scattered in Siberia and Northeastern China, between the Yenisei River and the Eastern Pacific, the Northern Arctic and the Amur Valley. It is the most important member of the northern branch of the Tungusic family’.   Related to Manchu, which was one of the official languages of Qing dynasty China (1644–1911), it is now considered to be ‘severely endangered’  by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The Evenki vocabulary forms part of a larger wordlist in four languages: Latin, Mongolian, Tungusic (Evenki) and Tibetan, item 13 (of 29) in a manuscript, oriental miscellany, compiled by Bayer around 1734/5 in St Petersburg, MS Hunter 211



Title page of MS Hunter 211




A page from the vocabulary, which begins with a column giving the Latin form of the word. The corresponding Evenki word appears in the column headed “Tungusica”. The first four vocabulary items on this page are for Fire [Ignis], Smoke, Ember and Water [Aqua] (MS Hunter 211 folio 44v)


Ms Hunter 211 opening

Ms Hunter 211 opening


“Born in Königsberg, the capital of the Duchy of Prussia, in 1694, Bayer at an early age developed an interest in oriental languages, which he pursued in an intensive study tour (1716-1717) to Berlin, Halle and Leipzig. Bayer returned to his native city in late 1717, eventually becoming Pro-rector at the Cathedral School in 1721. However, events took an unexpected turn when, in 1725, with the encouragement of his friend Christian Goldbach, he accepted an invitation to go to St Petersburg to assume the post of Professor of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the recently founded Academy of Sciences.

In addition to performing his regular duties, Bayer intensified his study of the Chinese language, which had already claimed his intellectual curiosity. Building on existing work by Christian Mentzel, Andreas Müller and the Englishman Thomas Hyde, which he had studied whilst at Königsberg, he felt able to publish his major work Museum Sinicum in 1730 .”

Museum Sinicum (Hunterian Ee.2.1-2)

Museum Sinicum (Hunterian Ee.2.1-2)



Museum Sinicum title page

Museum Sinicum title page







“By 1733 Bayer and several others had requested permission to leave, such were the unsatisfactory conditions obtaining in the Academy, but he was persuaded to remain until 1737 when he resigned and decided to return to Königsberg.



Annotations in Hunterian Ee.2.1

Annotations in Hunterian Ee.2.1

Prior to his intended departure from St. Petersburg he sent most of his papers and Chinese books ahead, but before he and his family could join them, in January 1738 he fell ill with a fever, which took his life on 10th February at the age of forty-four. The collection which reached Königsberg contains much of interest for the history of sinological and other oriental studies and was acquired by a  Lutheran pastor resident in London by the name of Heinrich Walther Gerdes (1690-1741). Around 1752 the famed London-based anatomist and collector, Dr. William Hunter (1718-83) purchased the collection for his museum, which he bequeathed to his alma mater, the University of Glasgow.

Gerhard Friedrich Müller was a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, or Great Northern Expedition of 1733-43. He wrote reports of the expedition in German, which he sent back to St Petersburg. Bayer must have had sight of one of these prior to 1738, which included this vocabulary. The Evenki list agrees with many of the entries in Peter Simon Pallas’ Linguarum totius orbis vocabularia comparativa (1786-9) for language number 138 i.e. Tunguski Nerchinskoi okrug. It is possible that Pallas also had access to a copy of this listing in the Academy of Sciences. “


Lundbaek, Knud:   T.S Bayer (1694-1738): pioneer sinologist London (1986) Sp Coll Hunterian Add. 208

Nedjalkov, Igor:  Evenki, London (1997)

Our earlier blog post on T.S. Bayer

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Reflections

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