Khan (title)

Khan[b] (n/) is a title of unknown origin for a ruler or military leader. It first appears among the Göktürks as a variant of khagan (sovereign, emperor)[c] and implied a subordinate ruler. In the Seljuk Empire it was the highest noble title, ranking above malik (king) and emir. In the Mongol Empire it signified the ruler of a horde (ulus), while the ruler of all the Mongols was the khagan or great khan. The title subsequently declined in importance. In Safavid Persia it was the title of a provincial governor, and in Mughal India it was a high noble rank restricted to courtiers. After the downfall of the Mughals it was used promiscuously and became a surname.[2]


The origin of the term is disputed and unknown; possibly a loanword from the Ruanruan language.[3][4] According to Vovin (2007, 2010) the term comes from qaγan (meaning emperor or supreme ruler) and was later used in several languages, especially in Turkic and Mongolic.

Turkic and Para-Mongolic origin has been suggested by a number of scholars including Ramstedt, Shiratori, Sinor and Doerfer, and was reportedly first used by the Xianbei.[5][6]

According to Vovin, the word *qa-qan "great-qan" (*qa- for "great" or "supreme") is of non-Altaic origin, but instead linked to Yeniseian *qε> "big" or "great". The origin of qan itself is harder according to Vovin. He says that the origin for the word qan is not found in any reconstructed proto-language and was used widely by Turkic, Mongolic, Chinese and Korean people with variations from kan, qan, han and hwan. A relation exists possibly to the Yeniseian words *qij or *qaj meaning "ruler". [4]

It maybe impossible to prove the ultimate origin of the title, but Vovin says: "Thus, it seems to be quite likely that the ultimate source of both qaγan and qan can be traced back to Xiong-nu and Yeniseian".[4]