Mongolian Language Origins & History

The Mongolian language is the official language of Mongolia and both the most widely-spoken and best-known member of the Mongolic language family. The Mongolian language is originated from the Altaic language family. It has evolved directly from Middle Mongolian. This was the language that was spoken by the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries, but previous to this was the language period of Old Mongolian.

Many alphabets have been devised for the Mongolian language over the centuries, and from a variety of scripts. The oldest, called simply the Mongolian script, has been the predominant script during most of Mongolian history, and is still in active use today in the Inner Mongolia region of China and de facto use in Mongolia. It has spawned several alphabets, either as attempts to fix its perceived shortcomings, or to allow the notation of other languages, such as Sanskrit and Tibetan. In the 20th century, Mongolia first switched to the Latin script, and then almost immediately replaced it with the Cyrillic script for compatibility with the Soviet Union, its political ally of the time. Mongol Chinese in Inner Mongolia and other parts of China, on the other hand, continue to use alphabets based on the traditional Mongolian script.

The earliest text that was written in what we can recognize now as being Old Mongolian is the Stele of Yisungge. Many languages have their origins of text recorded in religious books and tables, but the Stele of Yisungge is, wonderfully, a report about sports, dated from around 1224 AD.

In the 17th to 19th centuries, the language period was classified as Classical Mongolian. It is a written language with many standardised rules about form and syntax, but is quite different from Modern Mongolian, as Modern Mongolian is a little more amorphic in terms of language.

Classic Mongolian scripts

Traditional alphabet

At the very beginning of the Mongol Empire, around 1204, Genghis Khan defeated the Naimans and captured a Uyghur scribe called Tata-tonga, who then adapted the Uyghur alphabet—a descendant of the Syriac alphabet, via Sogdian—to write Mongol. With only minor modifications, it is used in Inner Mongolia to this day. Its most salient feature is its vertical direction; it is the only vertical script that is written from left to right. (All other vertical writing systems are written right to left.) This is because the Uyghurs rotated their script 90 degrees anticlockwise to emulate the Chinese writing system.

As a variant of the traditional script there exists a vertical square script (Босоо дөрвөлжин), also called folded script, used e.g. on the Mongolian banknotes.

Galik alphabet

In 1587, the translator and scholar Ayuush Güüsh created the Galik alphabet, inspired by Sonam Gyatso, the third Dalai Lama. It primarily added extra letters to transcribe Tibetan and Sanskrit terms in religious texts, and later also from Chinese and Russian. Later some of these letters officially merged to traditional alphabet as group named “Galig usug” to transcribe foreign word in today’s use.

Todo alphabet

In 1648, the Oirat Buddhist monk Zaya Pandita created this variation with the goal of bringing the written language closer to the actual Oirat pronunciation, and to make it easier to transcribe Tibetan and Sanskrit. The script was used by Kalmyks of Russia until 1924, when it was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet. In Xinjiang, China, the Oirats still use it.

Square script

The traditional Mongolian alphabet is not a perfect fit for the Mongolian language, and it would be impractical to extend it to a language with a very different phonology like Chinese. Therefore, during the Yuan Dynasty (ca. 1269), Kublai Khan asked a Tibetan monk, Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, to design a new script for use by the whole empire. Phagpa extended his native Tibetan script to encompass Mongolian and Chinese; the result was known by several descriptive names, such as the Mongolian new script, but today is known as the ‘Phags-pa script. 

Soyombo script

The Soyombo script is an abugida created by the Mongolian monk and scholar Bogdo Zanabazar in the late 17th century, that can also be used to write Tibetan and Sanskrit. A special glyph in the script, the Soyombo, became a national symbol of Mongolia, and has appeared on the national flag since 1921, and on the national coat of arms since 1992, as well as money, stamps, etc.

Toggle Horizontal square script

At around the same time, Zanabazar also developed the horizontal square script (Хэвтээ дөрвөлжин), which was only rediscovered in 1801. The script’s applications during the period of its use are not known. It was also largely based on the Tibetan alphabet, read left to right, and employed vowel diacritics above and below the consonant letters.[1] Additionally, a dot was used below consonants to show that they were syllable-final.

Latin script (Foreign Script)

On 1 February 1930, Mongolia officially adopted a Latin alphabet. On 25 March 1941, the decision was reversed. According to later official claims the alphabet had turned out to have not been thought out well. It was said not to distinguish all the sounds of the Mongolian language, and to be difficult to use. However, those seem to have been pretexts rather than the true reasons. Using “y” as feminine “u” /u/, with additional feminine “o” (“ө”) /ɵ/ and with additional consonants “ç” for “ch” /tʃ/, “ş” for “sh” /ʃ/ and ƶ for “zh” /dʒ/, it successfully served in printing books and newspapers. Many of the Latin letters (f, h, p, v) were even rarely used while q, w and x were completely excluded. The adoption of the Cyrillic script a short time later, almost simultaneously with most Soviet republics, suggests political reasons.

Cyrillic script (Foreign Script)

The most recent Mongolian alphabet is a based on the Cyrillic script, more specifically the Russian alphabet plus the letters, Өө ö and Үү ü. It was introduced in the 1940s and has been in use as the official writing system of Mongolia ever since.

In the 20th century there were numerous Russian loanwords concerning daily life: doktor (doctor), shokolad (chocolate), vagon (train wagon), kalendar (calendar), sistem, podvoolk (from futbolka, T-shirt), and mashin (car). In more recent times, due to socio-political changes, Mongolian has loaned various words from English; some which have gradually evolved as official terms: menejment, computer, fail (file), marketing, kredit, onlain (online), mesej (message). Most of the latter are confined to the Mongolian state.

Despite having a diverse range of loanwords, Mongolian dialects such as Khalkha and Khorchin, within a comparative vocabulary of 452 words of Common Mongolic vocabulary, retain as many as 95% of these native words, contrasting e.g. with Southern Mongolic languages at 39–77% retentions.

The central Mongolian languages are usually divided into a western group, consisting of the closely related Oirat (spoken in Mongolia and in the Xinjiang region of China) and Kalmyk (Russia), and an eastern group, consisting of the closely related Buryat (Russia) and Mongol (Mongolia and China) languages. Outlying languages—Moghol (spoken in Afghanistan), Daur(Inner Mongolia, China), Yellow Uighur (Gansu province, China), and the related groups of Monguor (Tu), Dongxiang, and Bao’an (Bonan), which are spoken on the border between the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai—exhibit archaic features. All of the central, but none of the outlying, languages have written forms.

Today the number of speakers across all its dialects may be 5.2 million, including the vast majority of the residents of Mongolia and many of the Mongolian residents of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. In Mongolia, the Khalkha dialect, written in Cyrillic (and at times in Latin for social networking), is predominant, while in Inner Mongolia, the language is dialectally more diverse and is written in the traditional Mongolian script. In the discussion of grammar to follow, the variety of Mongolian treated is Standard Khalkha Mongolian (i.e., the standard written language as formalized in the writing conventions and in the school grammar).

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