Let's learn some Mongolian language and history

« previous post | next post »

This seems quite informative and accurate about Mongolian history and language:

"What Genghis Khan's Mongolian Sounded Like – and how we know"

Bathrobe comments:

He mentioned things that only someone who had done a study of Mongolian would think of (such as the fact that 'n' at the end of words is now pronounced 'ŋ'), which I found impressive.

I was also impressed that he looked beyond Khalkha Mongolian in looking at the language. Mongolia itself is stiflingly Khalkha in its outlook.

I did wonder why he kept saying that khaan was kahan. In the traditional script it is qaɣan, with a 'ɣ' (or 'g'), but I'm not an expert in Mongolian historical phonology.

Here's an enigma for me:

Why is Mongolian still very much a living language, whereas Manchu is essentially extinct?

Both are "Altaic" languages, both use scripts based on the Old Uyghur alphabet, which was in turn ultimately derived from the Aramaic alphabet, the Manchu script being an adaptation of the Mongol script.

Having united the steppe tribes, Genghis Khan established an empire of about a million people.  The Mongols conquered much of Eurasia, with around a hundred million population, but only ruled over China for less than a century (1279–1368), and that was more than seven hundred years ago.  In contrast, Manchu conquests were confined to the eastern part of Eurasia, but they ruled over China for more than two and a half centuries (1644–1912), and their Qing Dynasty lasted into the 20th century.

The Manchu ethnicity still has more than ten million people, and they were able to control the population of the Qing realm, which grew from around 150 million to 450 million under their reign.

Again I ask, why is Mongolian still a living language, whereas Manchu (with one exception; see Reading) is no longer alive?


"Sibe: a living Manchu language" (9/30/17)


  1. Scott P. said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 9:53 am

    As I was instructed a number of years ago, "Genghis" should be pronounced with a soft, not a hard 'G', like "generic" or "general" or "gene"

  2. SFrankel said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 10:29 am

    Easiest answer may be that large parts of Mongolia (including the Khalka-speaking heartland) remained outside Chinese control, whereas no part of Manchuria did. Monoglian is in dire straits in Inner Mongolia right now – and Mongolian did, in fact, die out in China after the Mongolian conquest (did it evemn persist until the end of the Yuan dynasty?)

  3. Bathrobe said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 10:49 am

    A couple of points.

    I believe that both the Manchus and the Mongols who moved to China and lived in the banner areas of Chinese cities (such as the inner part of Beijing) acculturated to the Chinese and lost their language. They apparently spoke Chinese after the style of Beijing even when they lived in other cities.

    As for their original homelands, the Manchus had a policy of keeping the Chinese out of both Mongolian and Manchu areas. They were largely successful in Outer Mongolia, partly for reasons of distance and climate, but less so in many parts of Inner Mongolia. One reason was that the Mongolian ruling class in parts of Inner Mongolia were keen to lease their land out to Chinese settlers for economic reasons. Once the Chinese settled they certainly had no desire to leave and these areas tended to become overwhelmingly Chinese. Interestingly, however, even where the Mongols left their pastoral pursuits and settled down to agriculture alongside the Han, they managed to maintain their language in many places, e.g., Khorchin areas like Tongliao (Jirem League).

    In Manchuria, the Manchus' efforts to maintain their homeland (inside the so-called Willow Palisade) failed completely, and Manchuria was totally colonised by Han Chinese agriculturalists. I'm not sure of the reason for this but I'm sure history holds the answer.

  4. Peter B. Golden said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 11:24 am

    Mong. Činggis (Gengis). In Central Asian Turkic languages usually Jängiz or something close to it
    There are transcription texts in alphabets other than the Uyghur-based Mongol alphabet ( based, in turn, on Sogdian, deriving from Syriac script systems) that give us some idea about the pronunciation of Mongol in the period of the greatest expansion of the Mongol Empire. The Mongol spoken in Ilkhanid Iran, already showing some Turkic influences, can be seen in "The King's Dictionary. The Rasūlid Hexaglot: Fourteenth Century Vocabularies in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol," ed. P.B. Golden (Leiden-Boston-Köln: Leiden, 2000). It is based on a manuscript from Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-'Abbās b. 'Alī (r. 1363-1377), a Rasūlid ruler of Yemen with an interest in languages, among other things. His data appears to be based on spoken languages.

  5. Alexander Vovin said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 1:30 pm

    Some random notes.
    Middle Mongolian (MM) keeps the contrast between -'- (hiatus) and -ɣ-, which merged as -ɣ- in Written Mongolian (WM). Although there is some graphic variation in the case of MM qaɣan, this particular word clearly had -ɣ-, not -'-. In that respect Khalkha follows MM, not WM, cf. MM čaɣa'an, WM čaɣaɣan, Khalkha цaгaaн [caɣaaŋ] 'white'.

    There is still /-n/ in Khalkha, although it is hidden by the crazy Cyrillic spelling. Thus, xaaн is [xaaŋ], but xaнa 'lattice wall of a yurt' is [xan]

    Mongolian in Inner Mongolia is not in the dire straights, it is not (so far) even endangered. There is a problem of a different kind. The majority of population speaks Khorchin (and may be even more importantly, most intellectuals), not Chakhar, but it is the latter that PRC hand-picked to be the standard, and even the mild proposals such as to ake khorchin the second standard are et a "counter-revlutionary activity". More seriously, there are, I think, two historical reasons for this unfortunate status quo. First, Chakhar is closer to Khalkha than Khorchin. Second, many Khorchin were pro-Japanese during WWII, while Chakhar were the Reds

  6. Nicky said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 3:55 pm

    In Kyrgyz language his name is Чыңгыз хан/Čyňgyz han.

    Actually this part always puzzles me, because there are no native Kyrgyz words with x/kh, except хан/khan. How did this happen? May be this word was pronounced differently in the past?

  7. Bathrobe said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 6:54 pm

    Another difference between Manchus and Mongols was that the Manchus bought heavily into Chinese culture, as seen in the large number of Chinese books translated into Manchu. There were also translations into Mongolian but they were fewer and coverage was less complete.

    In contrast, there was a huge amount of Mongolian publication related to Tibetan Buddhism, a religion that the Manchus encouraged among the Mongols in order to soothe their 'savage nature'.

    This may partly explain the greater willingness of the Manchus to Sinicise. Chinese influence on the Mongols was counterbalanced by Tibetan Buddhism while the Manchus were subject to the full onslaught of Chinese culture and had less 'cultural depth' to back up their own culture and language.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 7:32 pm

    See "Qing Publishing in Non-Han Languages" by Evelyn Rawski in Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China edited by Cynthia J. Brokaw, Kai-Wing Chow (University of California Press 2005).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    The Hexaglot project was begun by Tibor Halasi-Kun who gathered an international team: Lajos Ligeti, Ödön Schütz and myself. Our collaborative effort began ca. 1974. As I was the last one left standing, as it were, I edited and published the volume in 2000. Ligeti, of course, dealt with the Mongol material, Schütz did the Armenian material (clearly an Anatolian, i.e. Western Armenian, perhaps Cilician Armenian dialect), I did the late Byzantine Greek (a western Anatolian or possibly a Cypriot dialect) and Halasi-Kun did the Turkic (which contains vocabulary from three Turkic languages), I assisted him in the Turkic and we jointly did the Arabic and Persian. The Arabic (Classical, but with some Yemeni features) was reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco, one of the major experts on medieval Yemeni Arabic and a top specialist in Rasūlid manuscripts; he co-edited, along with G. Rex Smith, the facsimile edition of the entire work: The Manuscript of Al-Malik al-Afḍal al-'Abbās b. 'Alī b. Dā'ūd b. Yūsuf b. 'Umar b. 'Alī Ibn Rasūl. A Medieval Arabic Anthology from the Yemen E.J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1998. In addition to the six-language dictionary published in "The King's Dictionary," the anthology also contains an Ethiopian-Arabic glossary and various works on medicine, agriculture, prosody, genealogy, astrology, onomastics etc. It is a goldmine. György Kara later published Ligeti's unfinished monograph on the Mongol materials: Louis Ligeti-György Kara, "Vocabulaires mongols des polyglots de Yemen" Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 65/2 (2012): 137-221. I published a monograph "The Byzantine Greek Elements in the Rasūlid Hexaglot" Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 5 (1985 [1987]): 41-166. The Turkic material has recently been examined in Galip Güner, Resûlî Sözlüğü'nün Türkçe Söz Varlığı (Istanbul: Kesit, 2017). Arabic was the "control" language and all the languages were written in Arabic script, often defective due to the absence or misplacement of "dots" that determine certain letters. It is filled with gems, such as Turkic šökü "two pieces of wood with which one eats macaroni/vermicelli" = chopsticks (cf. Modern Uyghur čöki), which led me to write: "Chopsticks and Pasta in Medieval Turkic Cuisine" Rocznik Orientalistyczny, 49/2 (1994): 73-82.

    There is also an Arabic entry for al-baṭṭ al-ṣīnī ("Chinese duck") rendered in Mongol without qualifiers as *noqāsun [Class. nuġusu[n] ] and in Turkic as ördek ("duck").

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2019 @ 5:46 am

    I should note that, in whom they cite and what they say, the maker(s) of this video give evidence of having consulted the best authorities. They did their homework.

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    May 2, 2019 @ 7:35 am

    Well, they probably did, but starting by mispronouncing 'Genghis' aids the opposite perception. Also, it could certainly have been organised better.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  12. GH said,

    May 2, 2019 @ 12:31 pm

    I agree that the video is not very well organized, but given that they certainly know how "Genghis" is pronounced in Mongolian, I believe they take the view that regardless of the original pronunciation, the version with the hard G is the standard one in English.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    May 2, 2019 @ 5:35 pm

    Two questions:

    1. The video seems to suggest that Mongol literacy originated under Genghis Khan, but that the writing system began by recording an archaic form of the language not in common use. The evidence is that the Secret History of the Mongols must be contemporaneous with Genghis Khan's death (why?), but shows evidence of sound changes compared to the Mongolian that we actually know was written under Genghis Khan.

    It seems more logical to me to assume that, when the writing system originated, people just wrote exactly what they were saying, and the sound changes in the Secret History are evidence that it was written later, after enough time had passed for the sound changes to take place. Why is this apparently not the standard conclusion? How would the illiterate Mongols have even known what archaic Mongolian was like, given that, by definition, there were no records of it?

    Did I just misunderstand what the video was saying?

    2. The name "Genghis" is shown as being written in the secret history as a sequence of 5 characters: 成,吉,思,中合,罕. That fourth character appears to be two characters. And sure enough, the accompanying illustration of a page of the book shows that the Mongolian text is written in columns of Chinese characters, but some of those characters are annotated with a small 中 or 古. What do those annotative 中 / 古 mean?

  14. Michael Watts said,

    May 2, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

    Actually, the page shows some other annotations — there are a few of what appear to be 舌 (though that might just be 古 displaying artifacts of writing style or video resolution) and one that looks something like 草力.

  15. Michael Watts said,

    May 3, 2019 @ 12:52 am

    (correction: the sequence 成吉思 中合 罕 represents the full title "Genghis Khan"; the "Genghis" is 成吉思, not really within the scope of my question.

    成吉思 appears to be the standard Chinese representation of "Genghis" today, notwithstanding the sound change in 吉.)

  16. Dotno DP said,

    May 3, 2019 @ 8:02 am

    Thanks for sending me this, Prof. Mair. It is fascinating to me how foreigners hear Mongolian. However, I think this guy still needs to work on his rounded vowels and the difference between qa and ka (vowel harmony does not permit the latter), and yes, the L still eludes him… However, many dialects in Mongolian would just have the hard L not unlike that of English and Russian…
    Prof. Atwood taught me that the Ġ (ɣ) in the middle of of long vowels was being elided long before the Mongol Empire period, so the possibility that Mongolian was written down before his time is quite high.

  17. V said,

    May 3, 2019 @ 9:45 am

    It's probably an interesting video, but the background music is too distracting.

  18. Eidolon said,

    May 6, 2019 @ 5:53 pm

    "I'm not sure of the reason for this but I'm sure history holds the answer."

    It's as you said: distance and climate. Manchuria is much more conducive to agriculture than Mongolia, and was also closer. Besides the gradual process of historical colonization, which proceeded in spite of the Willow Palisade, the development of rail ways in the region facilitated the movement of Chinese colonists. This was around the same period the Qing lifted the ban on Han Chinese colonization in response to perceived Russian and Japanese colonial threats. In this fashion, the late Manchu rulers contributed to Manchu's linguistic demise, though by this stage they were likely more comfortable speaking Mandarin, to begin with.

  19. Johanna-Hypatia said,

    May 12, 2019 @ 12:24 am

    I keep thinking of the Old Turkish Kul Tegin inscription from the Orkhon Valley of Mongolia, where Kul Tegin warns:

    The words of Chinese people, who give us gold, silver, alcohol, and treasures in abundance, have always been sweet, and the silks have always been soft. Deceiving by their sweet words and soft silks, they attract people to come from remote places. After people have settled close to them, they made people be addicted to them even more. They do not let wise men and brave men come close. They corrupt beginning from a single man up to his whole family and clan. Having been deceived by their sweet words and soft silk, you Turkish people, died! …

    If you go toward those places, О Turkish people, you will die!

    Kul Tegin insists that the only way for the Turks to prosper was to stay at Ötüken near the Orkhon Valley. The Yuan Dynasty did not last long, Mongol power was retained in Mongolia when the dynasty fell, and the Mongols went on being Mongolian till this day.

    The Manchu people, by contrast, became deeply subsumed into China during their centuries there. The Manchus got too involved with China's silken luxuries, so in a cultural and linguistic sense, they died. It seems Kul Tegin was right.

RSS feed for comments on this post