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The Mongolian Language

Introduction

As the name may suggest, Mongolian is primarily spoken by Mongolians in Mongolia and its surrounding areas. It is the best-known and largest member of the Mongolic language family, which is part of the Altaic family language. The Altaic family also includes Turkic and Manchu-Tungus languages. Turkic is the biggest in terms of its speakers as it includes Turkish and the Central Asian languages, while many of the Manchu-Tungus languages are endangered and their future is very uncertain. The Altaic family is a classification based primarily on typological criteria and not genetic. Therefore, the classification remains speculative and it is believed that its languages’ similarities arose as a result of areal diffusions and not shared inheritance.

It is difficult to track the origin of Mongolian, as it did not have a writing system till 13th century due to Mongolian nomadic culture. However historical documents in neighbouring countries show evidence that it was well established by the 5th century. Additionally as Mongolia is one of the oldest countries in the world, it is possible that the language they use is a very old language as well.

Dialects and Where it is Spoken

It is estimated to have 5 million speakers around the world. The most recognised dialect is Khalkha (or Halh), which is spoken in the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar and most part of Mongolia. There are many other dialects spoken in different parts of Mongolia, especially in the West where many ethnic minorities live. However all the dialects spoken in Mongolia are intelligible, with only few words and phrases having different meanings in different dialects. Its other dialects are spoken in northern China, far-eastern Russia, some parts of Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. In northern China, mainly Inner Mongolia, Chahar, Oyirad, and Barghu-Buryat dialects are spoken.

There is a common confusion that Mongolian is similar to Chinese, largely due to Inner Mongolia being a part of China. However there is hardly any link between the two languages, with very different grammar and structure as well as different origins. Furthermore, Chinese is a part of Porto Sino-Tibetan family language.

Some of the smaller groups of the Mongolic language family are Buriat with about 400 thousand speakers and Kalmyk-Oirat with about 500 thousand speakers.

Writing

Mongolian has been written using a number of different writing systems. Until the 13th century, foreigners used their own writing systems to write the Mongolian language. At the beginning of Mongol Empire, in 1204, Genghis Khan (or Chingis Haan) ordered Uyghur (or Uigur) scribe Tatar-Tonga (or Tata-Tunga) to create a writing system for the Mongolian. It was based on Uyghur script and became the first official writing system of Mongolia and Mongol Empire at the time, now known as “Classic Mongolian Script”. It was used till 1941 in Mongolia, but it is still used in Inner Mongolia with only slight modification. Later Manchurians adopted the writing system for their language – Manchuria, which is a member of the Manchu-Tungus language family.

During these seven centuries, there were several other writing systems created in order to write and record Mongolian. First there was Phagspa script, created by the order of Kublai Khan (or Hubilai Haan) in the late 13th century to be used in the entire Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, consisting of over 30 million square kilometres. However it was not widely used and fell into disuse after the fall of the Empire. In the mid-17th century, an Oirat Buddhist monk created Clear Script, which is modified Classic Mongolian Script. This system was used by Kalmyks in Russia and is still used by Oirats in Xinjiang, China. In late-17th century, a Mongolian monk as well as Mongolian first Bogdo Khan (or Bogd Haan, the head of Mongolian religion), Zanabazar, created a new writing system called “Soyombo Script”, which can also be used to write Tibetan and Saskrit. A special character of the script, Soyombo, is now the national symbol of Mongolia and appears in the national flag, money, stamps, etc. Additionally there were two other known systems created. What is surprising is all these five systems were created by monks.

In 1941, the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted with slight modification (two letters added to the Russian Cyrillic alphabet) and now is the official writing system of Mongolia. This is a phonemic alphabet, meaning that there is a high level of consistency in the representation of individual sounds. This is well suited with the Mongolian language, as Mongolian does not have tones like Thai and every letter sounds in every word with the same pronunciation.

Sounds

Mongolian has probably more vowels compared to many other languages, making it extremely difficult for some foreigners to distinguish between different sounds. On top of that, there are very strict and rigid rules regarding the vowels as well consonants. In the Cyrillic script, it has 7 main vowels (like a, e, i, o) and 20 consonants. Additionally there are 4 “sub”-vowels (like ya, ye, yo), 4 letters with no individual sound (only used with certain other letters), making total of 35 letters.

Interesting Facts

  • Although there is hardly any connection between Mongolian, Korean and Japanese, in terms of grammar and sentence structure they are very similar.
  • The longest Palindrome in Mongolian is “hadgalagdah” in romanisation, meaning “to be conserved, to be kept”.
  • There are estimated to be over 2 million words in Mongolian language.
  • There are at least 8 different writing systems used to write Mongolian.
Links of Interest

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