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Mongolian Languages


The Mongolian (or “Mongolic”) languages form a group of genetically related languages,
mostly spoken in Mongolia, Northern China, and some regions of Russia.
The family is generally subdivided into a Central (or Eastern), a Northern, and a Western
group. Some languages, especially those spoken in China, are commonly referred to as
isolated within the family, though several proposals regarding their taxonomic
subdivision continue to be debated.
The most important language of the Central or Eastern Mongolian group is the official
language of the Republic of Mongolia, mostly simply called Mongolian (also known as
Khalkha, after the prestige dialect), spoken by ca. 2.5 Mio people and written in Cyrillic
script, although attempts to revert to the traditional Uighur script continue in Outer
Mongolia. In the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, the language has always been
written in the Uyghur script, the linguistic norm is largely based on the Chakhar dialect.
Other important dialects of Inner Mongolia include Kharchin, Khorchin, Urat,, and the
somewhat divergent Ordos dialect, which is sometimes treated as a seperate East
Mongolian language.
In 1648, the Buddhist cleric Jaya Pandita developed the todo üseg (“clear script”), a
modification of the Uighur script designed to write Oirat or West Mongolian. Oirat
dialects are still spoken in Western Mongolia, and Xinjiang. In European Russia, the
Kalmyk language is spoken by ca. 130.000 speakers in the Kalmyk Republic on the lower
Volga. The Northern Mongolian group is formed by Buryat and its dialects, spoken in the
Buryat Republic in Southern Siberia/Transbaikalia and adjacent regions (ca. 300.000
speakers, Cyrillic-based written language).
Dagur (ca. 40.000 speakers) is spoken in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, and in
Inner Mongolia, as well as in an enclave in Xinjiang, where Dagurs have been relocated
in the 18th c. CE. Another language of the Chinese North East is Khamnigan, spoken in
the Hulun Buir region of Inner Mongolia. Both Dagur and especially Khamnigan are
probably the two most archaic modern languages of the family.
A number of Mongolian languages is spoken in the Qinghai/Gansu border-region. The
language of the Tu-nationality has formerly mostly been referred to as Monguor.
Nowadays, seperating its two major variants and speaking of them as Huzhu Mongghul
and Minhe Mangghuer is preferred. The Tu nationality numbers appx. 150.000 persons.
Baoan (Bonan) is spoken in Gansu by ca. 10.000 speakers.
Dongxiang, more properly Santa, also in Gansu, is spoken by ca. 240.000 speakers. The
linguistically complex group of the Yugur (also known as Sir-a or “Yellow”
Yugur/Uyghur) comprises, alongside with Turkic and Tibetan-speaking groups, also ca.
1500 persons speaking a Mongolian language, Jegün (“Eastern”) Yugur.
In some remote pockets of North Western Afghanistan the Moghol language has survived
well into the 20th century. Nothing is known about its fate after the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in 1979.
For Huzhu Monghul, Dongxiang, and Dagur Latin script based orthographies have been
developed and introduced into national schools.
Written Mongolian, the language of most Mongolian written documents before the 20th
century, is generally viewed as close to, but certainly not identical with, the common
ancestor of all these languages, Proto-Mongolian.
The first documents of Written Mongolian date from the 13th century. Though the very
first undoubtedly Mongolian text is a short inscription in Uighur script dating from 1227
CE (the Stele of Yisünge), the better part of early Mongolian writing has come down to us
in different scripts. The longest of these early documents is the Secret History of the
Mongols (Monggol-un ni’uca tobciyan), a dynastic history of the Chingiskhanids with
elements reminiscent of epic poetry; it is only preserved in Chinese characters, designed
to be read according to their phonetic values. Another important Sino-Mongolian
document is the Mongolian part of the Hua-i I-yu, a Sino-Xenic glossary compiled in
1389.
In 1269, the Yuan emperor Kubilai Khan ordered the Buddhist cleric hPhags-Pa (1235-
80) to design a universal script for all languages of the empire. This so-called Quadratic
Script (dörbeljin üseg), based on the Tibetan script, was only short-lived, but some
Mongolian documents written in it have been preserved. In the Western parts of the
Mongolian empire, a few Mongolian documents have been written in Arabic script, and
some Mongolian words are preserved in Armenian and Georgian medieval documents.
Because the language of the Sino-Mongolian documents and those in quadratic script
shows some peculiarities which are already to be taken as secondary developments when
confronted with more conservative Uighur script Mongolian, the earliest written
documents of Mongolian are, somewhat paradoxically, often said to be written in Middle
Mongolian.
From the 14th century onwards, the written medium for Mongolian is almost exclusively
the vertical script, which has been originally adopted from and named after the Turkic
speaking Uyghurs. After the so-called Second Conversion of the Mongols to Tibetan
Buddhism in the 17th c. CE, a vast amount of canonical Buddhist literature was translated
from Tibetan into Mongolian; it is the language of these translations, which is generally
referred to by the term Classical Mongolian.
The Qidan (Kitan etc.) confederation, masters of the Liao dynasty in Northern China
from 907 - 1125 CE, probably spoke an early variant of Mongolian. The highly complex
script they used has not been fully deciphered yet, but especially from Qidan glosses in
Chinese texts the Mongolian character of their language seems reasonably clear.

Characteristics of Mongolian Languages

Modern Mongolian languages show all the typological traits, which are generally taken
as typical for the so-called “Altaic” languages, i.e. vowel harmony, verb-final word order,
postpositions, exclusively suffixing, agglutinative morphology, subordination by
nominalization etc. On the whole, the family is typologically quite homogeneous, among
the more visible differences between them we mention the different way the languages
treat the problem of verbal concord. While the Central Mongolian languages do not show
any verbal concord, the peripheral Northern and Western Mongolian languages (e.g.
Kalmyk and Buryat), have developed a system of differentiating subject person by
grammaticalizing subject pronouns as verbal suffixes. Mongghul, Mangghuer and Baoan
have copied an intricate system of concord from Tibetan, which is often treated as a
system of person marking, but, instead, is rather based on the distinction between
established and recently acquired knowledge.


Bibliography

Beffa, Marie-Lise/Roberte Hamayon (1975) Eléments de grammaire mongole,
Paris: Dunod
Janhunen, Juha, ed. (forthcoming) The Mongolic Languages, Richmond: Curzon
Poppe, Nicholas (1954) Grammar of Written Mongolian, Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz
Poppe, Nicholas (1955) Introduction to Mongolian Comparative Studies,
Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society
Poppe, Nicholas (1970) Mongolian Language Handbook, Washington, D.C.:
Center for Applied Linguistics

Stefan Georg, Leiden


Suggestions for side-bar material

Numerals in Written Mongolian, Khalkha, Buryat, Dagur, and Baoan

The Mongolian language through time: the story of Chingis Khan’s birth in a) the
13th century Chinese-script version of the Secret History of the Mongols, b) the
Uighur-script chronicle Altan Tobci (“Golden Summary”), written by
Lubsandanjin in 1655, and c) a translation of the Secret History into modern
Cyrillic-script Khalkha

a) Onan-nu deli’ün boldaq-a büküi-tür jöb tende cinggis-qahan törejü’üi; töreküi-
tür bara’un qar-tur-iyan si’a-yin tedüi nödün qatqun törejü’üi.

b) Onan-u deligün-boldag-a büküi-tür (...) Cinggis qagan töröbe; töröküi-tür-iyen
baragun gar-tur-iyan shagay-yin tedüi qara nöjin-i adqun töröbe.

c) Onony Delüün boldog gedeg gazar Chingis xaanyg törüülzhee. Chingis
töröxdöö baruun gart shagayn chinee nözh atgan, törzhee.

Translation of a): “When they were in Deli’ün boldaq, on the river Onan, Chingis
Khan was born; when he was born, he held a clump of blood, the size of a
knuckle, in his right hand.”
(The other versions differ in minor details)