Mongolian – UCLA Language Materials Project: Language Profile

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Number of Speakers: About 6,000,000

Key Dialects: Khalkha

Geographical Center: The Mongolian People’s Republic (also called Outer Mongolia) is the center of the Khalkha dialect. Peripheral Mongolian is mostly spoken in the Mongolian Autonomous Region of the Chinese People’s Republic (also called Inner Mongolia).

There are 2,579,000 speakers of Khalkha Mongolian (1998 estimate); 3,381,000 speakers of Peripheral Mongolian (1982 estimate). The Khalkha dialect is the standard Mongolian dialect, spoken by around 90% of the population in Outer Mongolia. It is mutually intelligible with the Peripheral Mongolian dialects. Khalkha is also spoken in Inner Mongolia, Issyk-Kul Oblast of Kyrgyzstan and Taiwan. Peripheral Mongolian is spoken in Inner and Outer Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces of the Chinese People’s Republic, Urumqi to Hailar.

Mongolian is a member of the Mongolic branch of the Altaic language family. Other branches included in the Altaic family are the Tungusic and the Turkic languages, spoken throughout Central and Eastern Eurasia. The Mongolic branch of the Altaic languages consists of the Eastern and Western subgroups. The standard Mongolian dialect (the Khalkha dialect) belongs to the Mongolian Proper dialects of the Eastern dialectal group. Closely related languages from the Eastern subgroup are Buriat, Kalmyk, Oirat, Monguor, Dagur, and Darkhat.

Mongolian has a number of dialects which are divided into the Khalkha group and the Peripheral Mongolian group. The dialects are in general mutually intelligible. The standard dialect is Khalkha. The Khalkha, Dariganga, Khotogoit, Sartul and Tsongol dialects belong to the Khalkha group. The Peripheral Mongolian group consists of Chakhar, Ejine, Jirim, Jo-Uda, Kharchin, Ordos, Tumut, Ulanchab, and Ujumchin dialects.

Multiple writing systems have been used throughout the history of Mongolia. Only the more prominent writing systems will be discussed here.

The earliest Mongolian writing systems, mentioned in the ancient Chinese historical sources, date back to the 6th century A.D. Around the end of the first millennium A.D. the Mongols adopted the writing system of the ancient Sogdians (possibly via Uighurs, but this idea is now debated). This script, later called (Old) Mongolian, Uighur, classical or vertical script, is still in use today in Inner Mongolia along with Chinese characters. In the vertical script the words are written from top to bottom, from right to left.

From 1269 till 1368 the so-called h’, or square script was used. It was created by h’ Lama on the basis of Tibetan and Indic scripts. In the 1940s, the Latin alphabet was briefly used.

After 1941, under influence from the Soviet Union, a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted in Outer Mongolia, but from 2004 the official writing system of Outer Mongolia will again become the vertical, or the Old Mongolian script. There have been other attempts made to create writing systems suitable for Mongolian, but those systems never became widely used.

The phonetic inventory of the Khalkha dialect consists of twenty consonants (including two affricates), eight vowels (including schwa) and seven diphthongs. Vowels can be short or long. Mongolian has the phenomenon of vowel harmony.

Mongolian is agglutinative, which is typical for an Altaic language. The nominal system has eight cases: nominative, genitive, accusative, dative-locative, instrumental, ablative, directive and comitative). The nominative case is unmarked and represents the stem. The other case endings are added to this stem. Case endings can be doubled in Mongolian, e.g. ‘ger-t-ees’ – ROOT ger- “house” + Loc. marker + Abl. marker, the entire word meaning “from home”. There is no category of gender.

Mongolian has several plural-collective markers, which are not used if plurality is clear from the context. The plural-collective markers are attached to the stem enclitically, with the exception of the plural marker ‘nar’ which is written separately. The category of number is well expressed in pronouns.

The verb system has three moods: indicative, optative and imperative. Some authors will indicate a larger number of moods, basing their classification on the different functions that the above mentioned three moods can have. Mongolian also has perfective and imperfective aspects, and a number of voices (genera), which have beendescribed in different ways by different scholars.

The tense system consists of two tenses: past and non-past, which has the meanings of present and future. Derivation is very active in Mongolian. Especially productive is the derivation of verbs, which can derive from such parts of speech as pronouns, adverbs and interjections, cf. ‘tarchigina-’ “to rattle” < intj. ‘tar’.

Mongolian is an SOV language with a relatively strict word order.

Mongolian does not have a lot of borrowings from other languages. It borrowed mostly from the neighboring languages, such as Chinese and the Turkic languages. Some borrowings are believed to have entered from Ancient Greek and Arabic (via Uighur), viz. ‘nom’ “book” (< Greek ‘nomos’ “custom, law, statute”). A number of religious terms were borrowed from Sanskrit (via Tibetan). During the era of the Soviet influence a small number of words were borrowed from Russian.

Today, the Khalkha dialect of Mongolian is considered the standard language, and it is the official language for education and government administration. The multiple ethnic minorities, living both in Inner and Outer Mongolia, use their native languages (or dialects) in their daily life. Most of the representatives of the ethnic minorities are fully bilingual in their native dialect and in Khalkha.

Literacy, according to some accounts, is as high as 90%. Education is compulsory and free for the first eight years. In 1991, 489,000 students were enrolled in primary and secondary schools. In 1994, 13,500 students were enrolled in institutions of higher education.

In 1990, there were 56 periodicals, published mostly in Khalkha (some were publish in European languages). In 1990, 717 book titles were published, for a total of 6.4 million copies. There are four television channels in Mongolia, controlled by the government. Most of the programs are in Mongolian (Khalkha), but a number of programs is broadcast in other languages, including other Mongolian dialects. Radio is broadcast in Mongolian (Khalkha) as well as other languages: Chinese, English, Russian, Japanese, and Kazakh. There are a growing number of internet web-pages in Mongolian (in Cyrillic script; some also offer English versions).

The earliest remains of human beings uncovered in the territory of modern Mongolia by archaeologists date back to 100,000 – 200,000 B.C. (according to other sources the dating goes back to 500,000 B.C.). It is not known how and from where the Mongolian tribes came to what today is the Mongolian territory, but as early as around two millennia ago Mongolian tribes are mentioned in ancient Chinese historical sources. At that time, Mongols were represented by a number of nomadic tribes, living in the southern part of Gobi, to the north of the borders of China, in today’s Outer Mongolia.

From the 3rd century B.C. that area was dominated by the Huns, but in the fifth century AD it fell to Avars, and in 730 it became a part of the Uighur state. The country was ruled by Uighur governors until 840, when the state of Uighurs was defeated by the Kyrgyz people.

The Mongolian tribes were united under the name of “Mongols” by Genghiz Khan in 1203. This marked the beginning of the great Mongolian empire, knows as “The Golden Horde”. The capital of the Mongolian empire was in Karakorum. By the beginning of the 14th century, this vast empire, ruled by the Mongolian khans, stretched from Mongolia to Eastern Europe. The Golden Horde survived for a couple of centuries, falling apart by the end of the 14th century, weakened by numerous wars.

By the end of the 17th century, Mongolia became part of the Chinese empire, but in 1912, following the Chinese Revolution, Outer Mongolia regained its independence for a short period. In 1942, Outer Mongolia (Mongolian People’s Republic) became a satellite country of the Soviet Union, and was greatly influenced by the Soviet system. Currently Outer Mongolia is independent, whereas Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region within the Chinese People’s Republic.

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