Tatar or Tartar?

Currently, there are two dominant associations that are tagged to the sounds of “tatar“:

  • For the most west-oriented mindsets (or most Romance-, Germanic- languages speakers), TaRtar (with rhotic pronunciation of r in the middle) resonate with 1) type of sauce (sauce tartare) 2) dish prepared with chopped and raw protein (tuna tartare) 3) ingredient for baking (cream of tartar or tartaric acid); 4) yellow-colored and harmful teeth coating (that is calcium phosphate), 5) a strong fabric (tartan) used to make Scottish kilts, and 6) a vast hard-to-reach area between Caspian Sea, Ural Mountains, Pacific Ocean and the northern borders of China, India and Persia ( In Western European literature and cartography up until the late 19th century the area is referred as Tartary (Tartarie)) and 7) the nomadic, semi-nomadic Turkic Muslim (non-Slavic) people who live in Tartary ( are referred as as Tartars).
  • For the most east-oriented mindsets (or most Altaic-, Afro-Asiatic-, Sino-Tibetian- languages speakers),Tatar refers to the ethnicity of people who are indigenous to Eurasian steppes: they are ethnic minority in modern Russian Federation, speak Tatar tongue (Turkic language family), have highly-developed culture and mindsets, lifestyle and customs that are rooted in Islamic traditions.

With such a wide span of meanings (from sauce to people), etymologically, there is a possibility that they all are derived from the same root. In regards to connotations (feelings that a word invokes) they all add to the emotional and perceptional load of the current understanding of the word. Here is a summary of major interpretations of origins and perceptions of Tatar/Tartar.

  • There are two theories of origin of Tatar ethnonym (a name for an ethnic group) that succinctly summarised by Azade-Ayse Rorlich. First suggests that word “Tatar” comes from ta-tan / da-dan, an onomatopoeic (mimicking the sounds of horses-stomping) word that had been a term of contempt applied by Chinese people to the group of Xiongnu tribes who later had been subdued by Ginghis Khan and his grandson Batu Khan while establishing Golden Horde or Ulug Ulus (1241-1502). According to V. Thomasen and others, word Tata mentioned in the Orkhon inscriptions (early 8th century) refers to these tribes. Tata (Mongol) tribes eventually assimilated (biologically and culturally) with Turkic semi-nomadic tribes scouting the vast territories of southern Siberia, Central Asia, beyond Ural Mountains and Aral and Caspian seas. The assimilation and unification of myriads of tribes did not go without resistance: in 1206 order, Ginghis Khan declared that all conquered people to be called Tata(r)s making “Tatar” a synonym to conquered” and later synonymous to “Mongol”. Second thesis (less supported by scholars), roots from the dictionary of the Turkic languages compiled by Mahmud al-Kashgari (1072-74), where it is mentioned that the west of the Irtysh river there existed a Tatar branch of the Turkic languages. It made several scholars including Ahmet Temir assume that it was the testimony of existence of Tatar people before the Mongol conquest. But as A.Rorlich states, it is most likely that dictionary referred to the language of Mongol Tatar tribe that might have spoken a Turkic language due to the its territorial and cultural contiguity with the heirs of Turkic Kaganat (6-7th centuries).
  • There are two etymological connections of non-ethnonym Tartar (with rhotic pronunciation of r in the middle). Chunky condiment (tartar sauce: mayonnaise with chopped pickles and herbs), raw dish (beef tartare made with chopped raw protein), multi-purpose acid (cream of tartar: potassium bitartrate – a byproduct of wine-making) and crusty coating (teeth tartare: combination of mineral and organic components on the teeth) are all tied to a Greek root tartaron (with probable meaning of having “coarseness” and “rigidness”) that, most likely, had been adopted from Chinese through Persian language that had been tied to the ethnonym Tata(n)(Dada(n)) that originally indicated the people of Mongol tribes and, then, all Turkic people of Eurasia. Whether Tartarus – the name for one of the primordial gods in Homer’s and Hesiod’s myths (written in ~6th century BCE) – had been associated with “crustiness” and “coarseness” of Greek “tartaron” or not, it is hard to say. But it is worth mentioning that Greek mythological Tartarus also implied the deepest, lower region of the underworld, where the gods locked up their enemies (opposite to Elyseum, where happy souls lived after death). That might have influenced the later connotations of Tartar and Tatar.
  • Interestingly, that both “Tartars” and “Tatars” can be found in written descriptions by European travellers of people populating the vast areas of Tartarty. For example, Italian G. Botero in 1599 called inhabitants of Tartaria – “Tartari”. German scientist and traveller J. Gotttlieb Georgi in his 4-volume work of 1776 (translated into Russian in 1799) specified several tribes of “Tataren” populating the same “Tartary” areas at that moment under the reign of Russian Empire.

Likely, the negative connotations of original Tata (as scornful tag for conquered people) and Tartarus (as fearful place for enemies, savages) were merged and picked up by Europeans to name the vast, hard-to-reach, “scary” areas of Eurasian steppes as Tartary and its habitants as Tartars, who were skilled to produce strong, sturdy wool fabric (tartan) that became staple of Scottish traditional costume. But perception of Tartars as harsh, fierce people rather than skilled left long-lasting implication on modern Tatars who currently are the largest ethnic minority in Russian Federation and who carry on a DNA of Volga Bulgars as well as myriad of other semi-nomadic tribes. Original Tata to label specific Mongol tribes, then all conquered people (including Turks), turned into Tartar to label savages, now is stuck to call descendants of people of Great Bulgaria as Tatars. Tatar scholars of 18-19th century (S.Merjani, R.Fahreddin, I.Gasparli) promoted the different names for this ethnic people such as Muslims, Bulgars, or Turki (as a unified term for all turkic people of Eurasia). Eventually, the reign of Soviet doctrine made term Tatar permanent and accepted by people. It is worth to be noted that image of modern Tatars loaded with hues of negative connotations also due to over 200 years of so-called Tatar-Mongol yolk (Ulus Ulug) in the territories of modern Russian Federation.

Numerous examples of literary and visual works in many languages, including Russian, express negative attitudes towards Tatars as hostile invaders. Those are still in circulation nowadays fuelling systemic bias towards ethnic minority and confusing the perception of modern Tatars.

On the left, there is one of the examples of the “treatment” of the Tatar /Tartar that represents American (in this case Kinney Bros. Tobacco Company’s) view of Turkic man at the end of 19th century.

In the Kinney Bros. company’s Type of Nationalities advertisement collection, the Tartar woman is described as a Woman of the Volga: She resembles a well-to-do Tatar woman of Volga Bulgar descent of 19th century. It is very entertaining to search for “Tartar” in the MET museum collection and to realize the historical complexities of linguistic labelling and connotations through modern perspective.

Despite of the transfer of the image of “harshness” and historically-driven negative perceptions, modern Tatars are praised for their hospitality, hardworkingness and humbleness.

Recent research project conducted by a team of scientists of History Institute of Academy of Science of Republic of Tatarstan, where DNA of modern Tatar descendants of ancient Tatar families were analysed, gives an in-deph picture of the origins of modern Tatars. It is concluded that modern Tatars gene pool was formed in 8-13 centuries. All identified haplogroups are summed in 6 categories (based on geographical migration) that yield the following ethnogenetic picture: East European-30%, Southern-27%, East Asian-13%, Ural-Siberian-11%, Asian-9%, European-9%. TMRCA (time to most recent common ancestor) in East and West European base is between 2500 and 1300 years ago. TMRCA for East Asian and Asian base is 1000 years ago. As a matter of fact, C2 haplogroup that is highly concentrated in Mongols, Kazakhs and small ethnicities of Far East of Russian Federation is only present in 2.3% of the tested modern Tatars.

If origin of humankind is something of your interest, you may find Spencer Wells’ and his research team discovery of genetic history of P1-M45 (haplogroup) appealing to learn. After analysing DNA of Y-chromosome of representative sample of Eurasian population, they concluded that if Africa was the cradle of a humankind then Central Asia was it’s nursery. Authors of the article (2001) trace the ancestors of modern Europeans and Native Americans to the Proto-Turkic nomads of Central Asia (who roamed the Eurasian steppes and started their ancient lineage 40,000 years ago).