I've just noticed that if you look in several English and Mongolian dictionaries that the Cyrillic Mongolian word "khan" is given as either "хан" with a short vowel, or "хаан" with a long vowel.

(So far the only traditional Mongolian script I can find is "ᠬᠠᠭᠠᠨ", but I'm not sure which OSes / web browsers will render that correctly on Stack Exchange.)

Vowel length is usually significant in Mongolian as in other "Altaic" languages. Is this an exception? Or was there some spelling reform in Mongolian that changed it over the years? Or are some sources simply wrong? Maybe they are both Mongolian words with slightly different senses?




3 Answers 3


There are two Khalkha Mongolian words, хан and хаан (according to the "Big Modern Russian-Mongolian and Mongolian-Russian Dictionary", by Yury Kruchkin, 2006, 115,000 entries, хан and хаан are mentioned on page 563, the dictionary is downloadable here, 77 MB).

The vowel length in Mongolian and other Altaic languages is the result of disappearance of the velar q and ɣ between vowels, the vowels then are assimilated to result in a long vowel. That is why, the Modern Khalkha Mongolian word хан comes from the Classical Mongolian qan, and хаан from qaɣan after the intervocal ɣ ceased to be pronounced (that is the traditional transliteration of the Classical Mongolian, in the following quotation from Ferdinand Lessing he transliterates the q as x). Note, that the word qaɣan has also an English rendering, it's "Khagan".

In his "Mongolian-English Dictionary", 1960, page 906, Ferdinand Lessing wtites a commentary about the two words, "Both of these two forms occur in Mongolian literature more or less interchangeably, and are rendered into English as Khan. However in modern usage xaɣan is used only for the Great Khan or for a foreign sovereign while xan is applied to lesser Khans." The dictionary is superb, it is, actually, Classical Mongolian - Khalkha Mongolian - English, it is available online (a scan, 137 MB).

To sum it up, it is not only Mongolian that has two words to mean "khan", English also has both of them, "Khan" and "Khagan".

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    This is an even better and more thorough answer than I expected I would get. Thank you very much. I accepted your answer for a couple of minutes, but then Manjusri also submitted a thought provoking answer, so I've unaccepted to see how comments and votes stack up ... Dec 14, 2013 at 18:32
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    Would anyone like to explain why they have downvoted this answer and Manjsuri's answer? Dec 14, 2013 at 18:45
  • I have downvoted this answer, because it does not have any intellectual value, only quotations from dictionaries. It thoughtlessly tries to establish a link between two different words out of the general historical and cultural context, the words being distinctly generated by different sources.
    – Manjusri
    Dec 15, 2013 at 3:49
  • English Wiktionary lists "хаган" as the Mongolian word for "khagan": en.wiktionary.org/wiki/khagan Dec 15, 2013 at 6:07
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    @Manjusri - Unlike you, I share facts, and not my opinion and intuition, the links to the dictionaries being just prooflinks to the facts. Besides, it looks like that even in your comment above you go on operating with your subjective evaluative judgment, like "no intellectual value", "thoughtlessly tries", "distinctly generated".
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 15, 2013 at 9:26


In bolor-toli.com there are two distinct хаан and хан

  • хаан 'khan, sovereign, monarch' and related terms, eg. хаан цол. 'khanate', хаан ширээ, 'throne', хаан төр 'realm',

  • хан only appears as a modifier eg хан бүргэд 'imperial eagle', хан хүү 'prince' (хүү =son, offspring), хан боргоцой 'pineapple', хан хурмаст 'ether' (хурмаст = sky, heaven)

So at least in modern Khalkha, khan is хаан, while хан seems to be a distinct word with related meaning.

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    I can only regard bolor-toli, like any other dictionary as a raw resource. We don't know the details of its goals or sources, their criteria for including terms, etc. It's a very useful source but it has quite a lot of mistakes in its English so, on its own, I can't interpet it as containing an answer to this question. Dec 16, 2013 at 3:42
  • @hippietrail I never claimed it to be anything else than raw data. Dec 16, 2013 at 4:10
  • Actually I had read it as a direct answer when it had the wording is, changing that to seems to be is an improvement, thank you. Dec 16, 2013 at 4:19

The eldest form of this word (Khagan) had been rendered in Chinese chronicles as Kehan (可寒, The Great Cold; later as 可汗, The Mighty Sweat). The title referred then to the ruler of Xianbei tribe. The language of that tribe was agglutinative and, presumably, proto-Mongolian.

The title is not to be mistaken for the 'Russian Kagan', which actually is a Russian rendering of Swedish haakan (håkan), a.k.a. hawk (hence, Russian ´yasny sockol´, or ´the bright hawk' used as a form of address in Russian folklore narrated texts).

The thing is even more complicated by the fact that there had been a real Bulgarian Kaganate near Volga (Volga Bulgaria, which later adopted Islam).

The titles of Khagan and Khan had been used simultaneously as early as by 4th / 6th centuries, by the Rouran people (in Mingolian, the Nirun).

So my intuition is that the Khagan is a Bulgaric adoptation of the Occidental word Haakan (Håkan), while Khan is an authentic 'Oriental' term. The Baekje word for Khan is Ke (瑕), The Fault.

My opinion is that these two words are different, although they seem to be similar.

  • Would anyone like to explain why they have downvoted this answer and Yellow Sky's answer? Dec 14, 2013 at 18:46
  • Have I got you right, you mean "Khagan" is a Mongolian borrowing ultimately from Scandinavian Germanic languages? Note, that even Wiki says that "A minority of scholars believe that the reference was to a king bearing the Old Norse name Håkan or Haakon." Not to speak about borrowings from Old Norse into Classical Mongolian.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 14, 2013 at 18:47
  • It was I who downvoted this answer by Manjusri. There are several reasons for that: it doesn't actually answer a single of the questions asked by @hippietrail - nothing about the difference in the usage of the two words, nothing but links to Wiki that quote arguable sources, and that's said in those very Wiki articles, there's nothing linguistic here, mere speculations.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 14, 2013 at 18:57
  • @ Yellow Sky: you got it wrong. IF the word is borrowing from Scandinavian languages, it is not a direct borrowing. Besides, a number of supporters does not have anything to do with a verity. Not mentioning the ignorance about the fact of simultaneous existance of these two words and the possible non-Mongolic (or even Chinese or other) origin of the words.
    – Manjusri
    Dec 15, 2013 at 3:58
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    Vovin (2007) argues fairly convincingly that qaghan is a morphogically complex form, derived from qan. In any case, it doesn't make much sense for a Central Asian Wanderwort to have a European origin.
    – limetom
    Dec 16, 2013 at 2:19

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