by Mark

The Mongolian language has a fascinating history.  It is part of the Altaic language group, other languages in this family are Japanese, Korean and Turkish, I have also heard that Finnish has some relation but not clear exactly how it fits. 

The alphabet as is used now in Mongolia is Cyrillic or commonly known as Russian (see the title above).  It was an alphabet created by monks working to translate the Bible into Slavic languages sometime in the first Millennium.  There are some letters that correspond to Greek, such as X chi- more of an aspirated back palatal (for those of you who are into those things) As in the Spanish pronunciation of Mexico, the X is the same sound.  The Cyrillic alphabet was applied to Mongolia in 1924 when Mongolia became the first Soviet Satellite.  The Soviet method of contextualization  was pretty straight forward- Be Russian.  (about 80% of Mongolians speak Russian, Darhan was built by the Russians.  In fact it may help you to think of Russia and Mongolia in similar relationship of the US and Mexico.  Many Russians shop here because its cheaper and many Mongolians work in Russia in order to make more money than the can in Mongolia)


Classical Mongolian from a Mongolian language grammar- the first word (top) is Mongol or Mongolian

On the one hand Mongolia is a literate society with literacy rate in the 90% (I can’t remember exactly- check Wikipedia if it bothers you).  There are beautiful Mongolian poems and songs and literature available in Mongolian.  On the other hand Mongolia is still a very oral driven society- meaning it is not a book based society.  People read, but not to the extent that I have seen in Europe or the US.  In some ways to counter this I see music and song, ballad type songs playing  much more important role here than the West.  A man who has a beautiful voice and can sing well has great honor here. (I need to find another way to be honorable) The nomadic lifestyle did not necessitate books and it was only after Chinggis Khan started conquering that he saw the great need to record the conquests in written form.  This brings us to Hochin Beetchik or the Old Writing.  Which I will say straight out I am fascinated in a Lord of the Rings, elven writing- how cool is that way. (Warning Rabbit Trail: Many Scandinavian countries noticed similarities between Mongolian writing and Nordic ruins- what Tolkien used.  They organized many expeditions through Mongolia to see if there were links that could be established, there were not) The calligraphy of Classic Mongolian is a thing of beauty and quite unlike any other alphabet I have seen.


Our Names in Classic Mongolian

Chinggis needed a writing system and so two Syriac monks came up with the alphabet, you can see the examples below.  It looks much like Arabic to me and seeing the influence of the monks background it is no coincidence. (I have heard conflicting stories as to the origin of the alphabet and reserve the right to be wrong) The earliest writing in this style dates back to 1227, it is classed as the Sogdo-Uighur alphabet.  I have heard that each word reflects the image of a horse, with its ears at the start of the word and tail flowing at the back.  Its interesting that it is written vertically (like Chinese)but also read horizontally.

The difficulty is that Cyrillic was not an exact match to the sounds.  There are Russian sounds that there is no equivalent in Mongolian.  (the whole evolution of this language would be fascinating- we learn just as many Russian words in vocabulary as Mongolian.  The word that is used is usually whatever is shorter- good Doctoral thesis right there)

The old writing is used in Inner Mongolia- part of China, but I have heard different comments on who can actually read it.  Schools are teaching the old writing now to students and in time I think it will become more promanint in Mongolia.  There was supposed to be an “official” return to old writing at the 800th Anniversary of Mongolia but it was pushed back.  Our teachers know the classic writing and I would like to study it a bit but that is far into the future (I need to learn first how to say something more than- “my name is Postage Stamp [that’s what Mark means in Mongolian but its ok I met a guy the other day named Mahlgai, or Hat]”  Its surprising but your computer has the ability to write in Classic Mongolian and Cyrillic, you can change it under the control panel section.

For more information or to see what the alphabet looks like check out these two Wiki articles