An Overview of Mongolian

An Overview of Mongolian

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What is the Mongolian Language?

Mongolian, or Монгол хэл (pronounced: mongol khel), is an Altaic language and more specifically a Mongolic language that comes from Middle Mongol, which comes from Proto-Mongolic, and originates from Pre-Proto-Mongolic which of course all gets umbrella by the Altic language family. Some linguists disagree as to how legitimate the concept of the Altaic language family actually is, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll say it’s a strongly supported theory. You can learn more about the Altaic language family theory here.

How Many People Speak Mongolian and Where Do They Speak it?

Currently, it’s estimated that there are about 7 million speakers of Mongolian with the majority of them living in Mongolia and Inner China. Within China, many Mongolian speakers can be found in Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Gansu. And of those speakers, the majority of them will speak the Khalkha dialect.

Aside from Khalkha there are some additional dialects that you should be aware of: Chakhar, Oirat, Buryat, Kalmyk, and Ordos.

What Should You Know Before Studying Mongolian?

You should be aware Mongolian has two alphabets, so if you’re going to learn Mongolian you need to decide which script to learn; you can choose between classic Mongolian script or Cyrillic. The classic Mongolian script is written from top to bottom and left to right.

Another thing to consider is the fact that Mongolian maintains vowel harmony. This simply means that vowels determine the ‘class’ or ‘category’ of a word. In the case of Mongolian the classifications are back vowels, front vowels, and neutral vowels.

A Snippet of Mongolian History

Let’s now turn to the cultural and historical side of Mongolia, Mongolian, and Mongolians.

Early Nomads and the Huns

The earliest people who were the inhabitants of what we now call Mongolia were known as ‘steppe nomads’ or ‘steppe tribes.’ Steppe simply refers to flatlands or unforested regions across Euroasia.

The earliest steppe empire we have a record of in the Mongolia region was the Xiongnu. Although some historians would argue that they were more of a confederation of tribes than an actual ’empire’ but you get the gist. It’s possible that these nomads were the ancestors of the Huns.

A few centuries later, the Huns would come to invade Europe around the 5th century A.D under the leadership of Attila the Hun. It’s believed that the Huns come from Euroasia, most likely somewhere in what we now call Kazakhstan.

Some make the disconnect between Huns and Mongols, and others say they are related. Regardless of direct bloodline, the Huns did serve as an inspiration for the Mongol army which would be led by Genghis Khan. Mounted archers, with a blitzkrieg-like attack that the Mongols used during battle, would be attributed to the Huns. The book, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford goes into more detail about this than this article will.

The Mongol Empire and Writing

In 1162 A.D. a baby boy named Temujin is born somewhere in the open steppe of Mongolia. Not long after in 1171, his father gets appointed by rival tribes known as Tatars. Because Temujin’s father was the leader of their clan/tribe when he died many of his men abandoned him and his mother. This led Temujin to be extremely vulnerable, and sometime during Temujin’s youth he gets captured. But of course, he escapes and rises to power by forming strategic alliances with neighboring tribes.

Once Temujin beats all the neighboring nomads or has them under his influence, he acclaims himself “Genghis Khan” or what can be interpreted as “Universal Ruler.” Mr. Khan decided to attack everyone else surrounding his empire and as it turns out, in 1204 A.D. his men captured a Uyghur guy named ‘Tata-tonga’ who happened to be a scribe. Rather than kill the man, enslave him, or do something funky like other empires have historically done, the Mongols decided to incorporate his knowledge into their growing empire. Tata-tonga taught the Mongol officials how to read and write in the Uyghur alphabet, which hitherto did not exist in Mongol culture.

Structure and Features of Mongolian

Now let’s turn our attention to the actual Mongolian language. The first thing to note about Mongolian is the two scripts it uses: Cyrillic, and Traditional. The Cyrillic alphabet is most commonly seen, but you can find communities that still utilize the traditional script in Inner Mongolia and various parts of China.

Before continuing on the subject of writing let’s focus on some grammar.

Mongolian is an agglutinative language, follows the subject-object-verb word order, and has eight cases:

  1. Nominative
  2. Accusative
  3. Genitive
  4. Dative
  5. Locative
  6. Ablative
  7. Instrumental
  8. Comitative

Cyrillic Writing

After the Mongolian government got rid of the traditional script in 1941, Mongolian began to be written in the Cyrillic alphabet (it was in the Latin script for 2 months). There isn’t much difference between Mongolian-Cyrillic and Russian-Cyrillic except that Mongolian added 2 new letters: Ө (oo as in boo), and Ү (Pronounced ‘You’).

Traditional Writing

The traditional script on the other hand is not so easy to understand for many Western language speakers. The first thing to note is that it is written from top to bottom, and left to right–the only language of this kind. Caligraphy is a common practice and they look quite pleasant with lots of curves. You can learn more about traditional writing by clicking here.

mongolian traditional writing with pronunciation

Vowel Harmony

What is vowel harmony? Simply put, it’s a linguistic phenomenon in which vowels of a language are broken down into subclasses (e.g., front and back vowels). In Mongolian, the vowel in the first syllable of a word will decide what vowels should be utilized in the following syllables. Below is a table that indicates what vowel comes next in the following syllable of a given word (in most cases):

In the first syllableIn the following syllable
А ,У, Я А
Э, Ү, И Э

However, some long vowels can break the above rule. To learn more about vowel harmony, watch this video.

Mongolian Words and Phrases

Let’s begin by going over some Mongolian phrases and vocabulary. Below is a list of randomly selected words and phrases with their approximate transliterations.

Сайн уу?sain uuHello
Тантай уулзсандаа баяртай байнаTantai ullzsandaa bayartai bainaPleased to meet you
Та хаанаас ирсэн бэTa khaanas irsen be?Where are you from?
Таны нэрийг хэн гэдэг вэ?Tany nerliig hen gedeg ve?What’s your name?
Энэ ямар үнэтэй вэ?Ene yamar unetei ve?How much does that cost?
грек grekGreece
хор khorPoison
амжилт хүсье !Amzhilt khys’e!Good luck!
алим AlimApples
жүрж ZhyrzhOranges
сандал SandalChair
хөргөгч KhorgogchRefrigerator
билет BiletTicket
зочид буудалZochid buudalHotel
хол kholFar from

Learn Mongolian

Living Langua

Glossika Mongolian

Basic Mongolian Expressions for Peace Corps Trainees in Mongolia

Books to Learn Mongolian

Colloquial Mongolian

My First Mongolian Alphabets Picture Book


Omniglot – Mongolian Writing

Wikipedia – Mongolia

Britannic – Mongol Empire Timeline

LinguaMongolia – Vowel Harmony

Quote – Are Mongols descendants of the Huns?

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