Some Mongolian words for "horse"

« previous post | next post »

This is a follow-up post to "'Horse' and 'language' in Korean" (10/30/19).  The two main words for "horse" in Mongolian that we will consider are mor' and adyy, though we will also touch upon others.

My original inquiry:

If you know, please tell me the difference between морь / mor' and адуу / adyy.

Is it true that морь means "gelding" (to be ridden) and адуу means horses in general, but not for riding.

Any other nuances of these two words that might be useful for me to understand how they are thought of by Mongolian people?

I presume that Manchu "morin" is borrowed from Mongolian.

Many correspondents kindly replied to my inquiry concerning the difference between adyy and mor.  Because most of their responses are brief and informal, I will not cite all the respondents by name, though I will list them in the acknowledgements.


From what I've gathered, adyy refers to a group of horses (more than one regardless of size).  Mor is a specific horse.


My only impression is that 'aduu' are horses as livestock, things that you herd, usually in the plural, not something that you ride. You ride a 'mor".


Aduu is a superordinate term for horses in general. It covers all kinds of horses, including stallions, mares, etc. Mor' refers to a gelded horse, the kind of horse that is normally ridden. It's also possible to ride stallions (azrag), mares (güü) etc, but mor' appears to be a general term for horses that are ridden.


I'm almost 100% certain than Morin is a Manchu adoption of Mongolian.  Morin would be plural for horses of course.  Or the genitive case as in Morin Khuur (Horsey fiddle).


I would say that aduu (traditional spelling adugu) is more common in a plural sense (meaning 'herd'), and mori more common for an individual horse. Beyond these two, there are several other words for (e.g.) horses and mares of different ages.


Mong. Mori is an n stem (meaning that it becomes morin- in some case forms), which makes the similarity to the Manchu word even clearer. I would think that this is indeed a borrowing.


In my early days wandering about the countryside in Iran I was surprised to hear people using the word "mal," which anyone who knows Persian will tell you means "property," for any animal they or others were riding.


I was rather interested to read that Persian mal means 'chattels, livestock'. Mongolian for livestock is, of course, mal.


aduu is a collective noun like English "cattle" (not really plural or singular) — via Chris Atwood

Proto-Altaic is *morV, which gives (among others) proto-Mongolic *mori and proto-Manchu-Tungusic *murin — Via Simon Wickhamsmith


From Peter Golden:

Russ. мерин "gelding" Cf. also the expression врёт как сивый мерин (lit."he lies like a gray gelding") "he is an out and out liar." The origins of this expression are much debated.мерин  is considered a loanword from Mongol (morin)


Dotno Pount:

I think you are pretty much right, except адуу does not exclude the geldings, but refers to the species in general. However, морь can also refer to the whole species, but the contexts in which they are used are different. A herder would refer to his horses in general as адуу, but refer to a particular gelding as a морь. However, there are usages in which морь seems to be a bit ambiguous . The horse year is морин/морь жил, and the chess piece knight is also морь, as is the ankle bone orientation in a game. I suppose these could all be seen as meaning the particular type, gelding, like "the year of the rooster" in English. Horse meat is адууны мах, so that's certainly the whole species.


David Dettmann:

Yes, you are right about that distinction. адуу is "horse" in general. My understanding is морь is the kind for racing. I only learned about this a few weeks ago in Mongolian class. Naraa implied that this distinction is increasingly poorly understood among city kids who go to the country pointing at horses saying "морь". Country folk apparently ridicule them for not knowing the difference.

The iconic instrument (horse head fiddle) is named after the [racing] "horse's head": морин хуур

The Manchu word is surely related, but I don't know where it comes from since ancient times.


From Yuqing Yang:

Yes. Морь/ᠮᠣᠷᠢ/mori/морин/ᠮᠣᠷᠢᠨ/morin refers to gelding, and адуу/aduu/ᠠᠳᠤᠭᠤ/adugu the horse group, thus морь унах/ to ride gelding, but адуун сүрэг/horse group, адууны мах/horse meat, адуучин/horse herder, адуулах/to herd horse. But, according to Naraa, my Mongolian instructor, Морь is so commonly used in Mongolia so especially for young people from Ulaanbaatar (thus not from the steppe and not familiar with the herder's language), they sometimes use морь to refer to the horse group. In the countryside, they have such precise vocabulary for horses, including horses of different sex, age, color, and mood. I can do more research on this if you are interested.

As for riding, Naraa said Mongolian people only ride mori/geldings, but my another Mongolian friend said they mostly ride geldings, but they also ride mares, and sometimes but less frequently азарга/stallion. When talking about it, it is морь унах. They don't say адуу унах for riding or морины мах for meat.

I believe that Manchu ᠮᠣᡵᡳᠨ/morin is borrowed from Mongolian. Mongolian морин/ᠮᠣᠷᠢᠨ/morin is used when things are to be added after it, either a suffix or a word, e.g., morin huur. In other words, when it is not the head noun of the phrase. In Manchu morin is just the common noun. For the grammar, I'm talking about modern Mongolian and at most up to Qing dynasty. I'm not very familiar with Mongolian in Chinggis Khan's period.


From Kristen Pearson:

My impression (which may not be totally accurate!) is that морь refers to one horse (but not necessarily a particular horse) or multiple countable/specifiable horses, and адуу means "horses" as an indivisible collective (herd?)

Interestingly, адуу is used when referring to horse meat, hair, skin….  I have wondered if that serves to distance the act of consumption from the unit of the individual horse (the ridden horse, the racing horse, the named horse…) to avoid potential cognitive dissonance around eating horses. But, that might be reading way too much into it. For the other 4 out of 5 animals, you can use the same noun to refer to one, or a group, or a product of the animal: ямаа (goat, goats), ямааны мах (goat meat)

Some examples:

a horsehead fiddle: морин хуур
I like to ride horses: Би морь унах дуртай
Five horses: таван морь
horseman (rider): морьтон
horse race: морины уралдаан (plural is marked here and below)
Monument to the Horses* of the Mongolian People: монгол түмний морины их шүтээн. *This is a monument to specific, famous race horses, not "Mongolian horses" as a collective

horseman (herder): адуучин
horse meat: адууны мах

Here's something I'd like to know: horse manes are cut every year and the hair stored for making cords and ropes as needed. I would assume адуу is used in this case, but I'm not sure of the right word for "mane hair" to figure it out. When a horse is sold, a lock of its mane is cut and kept by the original owner, usually tied up inside the ger. I would think морь would apply in this case, but I'm not sure–probably there is a special word for this lock of hair….


Penglin Wang:

In Written Mongolian, mori(n) (Khalkha морь) is a generic and most frequently used term for 'horse', aduğu(n) (Khalkha адуу) means 'herd of horses' and may connote 'horse'. It is unlikely that морь means "gelding" (to be ridden) and that адуу means horses in general, but not for riding. WMo has the specialized word ağta (Dagur art) for 'gelding; gelded, castrated'.

Dagur mori retains the general meaning of WMo mori(n) and, however, Dagur adō cognate to WMo aduğu(n) extends to denote 'herd (of animals, not limited to horses)', and adōčin (-čin is a suffix equivalent to English -er) and adōl– mean 'herder' and 'to herd', respectively. In comparison, Mongolian adʊ̄ spoken in Inner Mongolia directly derived from WMo aduğu(n) means 'herd of horses'. If адуу means horses in general, how can its close reflections in Mongolian and Dagur fail to inherit the proposed general sense of 'horse'? It is my understanding that aduğu(n) could not compete with mori(n) for the general sense of 'horse' in Mongolic languages.

I concur with your point concerning Manchu morin.


Chris Atwood:

Actually, that distinction is not quite so clear. Gelding is specifically "aġta" (агт). A "mori~morin" (морь) is a riding horse, but is not necessarily, just usually, a gelding. "Aduġu~aduġun" is horses in general and contains an implicit sense of plurality like "cattle" in English.

Yes, morin in Manchu is a loan word from Mongolian – the -n is a feature which has been called the "unstable n." It had pluralizing and possibility definiteness functions in Old & early Middle Mongolian, but in New Mongolian functions as an "attributive case" forming attributives out of nouns. A морин хуур is thus a "horsey or horse-type fiddle"


Juha Janhunen:

I haven't checked it in etymological handbooks, but, indeed, Russian mérin could be a rather recent loanword from Western Mongol (Oirat) mörin, in which the original velar *o is umlauted to front [ö], replaced in Russian by /e/, but the *i of the second syllable is still preserved as a segment (as you know, in modern Oirat the form is /mörn/). Somebody should check the age of merin in Russian – when is it first recorded?


From Stefan Georg:

I think I should risk an answer, with the emphasis on *risk*, since there are difficulties – a good answer would entail looking at the (differences in) usage in all modern dialects, the written language and all stages of it at that, which I cannot come up with, of course.

Адуу is mostly understood and used as „a group, herd othl. of, yes, mostly, horses" (*but* also of ungulate cattle, or, according to one account, of odd-toed ungulates), whereas морь is mostly used for horse (as a biological entity, or an individual animal belongig to this species). Since many if not most mentions of „horses" in Mongolian (token frequency) will refer to horses used for riding (which is my *guess*, not more) and Mongolian riding horses have been and are predominantly geldings, морь can be understood as „meaning" gelding (in terms of *extensional*, not *intensional* semantics – hence certainly the semantics of Russian /merin/), but to *emphasize* the status of a given horse as a gelding, its „geldingicity", so to speak (i.e, to castrate the animal intentionally and explicitly with linguistic means), агт will be used.

Now, I think this may describe the situation relatively fairly, I hope, as far as contemporary Khalkha is concerned. But I have to add the explanation found in the authoritative monolingual dictionary of standard Khalkha (Cevel) who describes – a морь as a *castrated* aдуу!! So aдуу may, here, be used for an individual animal (Equus caballus) as well (though the entry on aдуу does not corroborate this and mentions its usability also for non-equids!). Live and learn (and throw away all dictionaries – just kidding) – if I were to draw any conclusions from this, it would be that even the authoritative Cevel dictionary is poking in the dark here – if X is a group of, say, ungulates, and Y a castrated X, then X is not exactly what it is said to be – or Y isn't. I'd say both entities, authoritative dictionary or not, are wanting in the level of accuracy linguists should be allowed to expect.

Again, this is a *risky* explanation, or rather not an explanation at all, more a collection of impressions, and native speaker intuition (which I'm not even remotely close to ever being able to hope to possess) might tell a different story – and a full study across all known and reasonably described dialects, other Mong. Languages, and all older stages of its written record might tell a still different – and certainly more accurate – story. So please take this with a spoonful of salt.

But provisionally I think it is fair to say (as the possibly *original* situation, which may not accurately describe the *exact* semantic content of these words in modern Khalkha or, then, any other modern dialect):

aduGun/aduu: a herd of (mostly ungulate) animals, very often of horses, and sometimes understood only in this way (here the diachronic/diatopic study would have to set in)

mori/n/mor' – equus, mostly used for riding and, as such, mostly castrated

agta/agt – explicitly castrated animal, mostly horse (but also mule and the like)

Of the numerous sources I should have consulted, but didn't, let me only mention the very well reputed and exact Mostaert for spoken Ordos (of the early 20th century):

aduu: chevaux en tant qu'ils font partie d'un haras, troupe de chevaux sous la conduite d'un étalon

mori: cheval

agta: cheval hongre, châtré

(So no other animals in the herd, no necessarily castrated/riding horse under mori and no other castrated animals under agta – but this is only Ordos and only one dictionary…)

What I dare say, though, without too much fear of the possible risks involved in saying so, is that Manchu /morin/ is indeed a loan from Mongolian. As is, incidentally, Manchu n/adun/ (given as „a herd" of horses, again – but the same kind of study would be necessary for this Manchu word as well, to be anything in the way of „sure"). And, yes, of course, /akta/ „gelding" is also found in Manchu, And how could it not be?


From Jichang Lulu:

Several bilingual dictionaries old and new give aduu as 'herd; horse' and mori as 'horse': Kowalewski 1844-46 (Mo-Ru-Fr), Lessing 1960 (Mo-En), IMU 'yellow dict' 1999 (Mo-Ch), Kruchkin 2006 (Mo-Ru-Mo). Two Inner-Mongolian dictionaries, however, treat aduu as primarily meaning 'horse', rather than 'herd': the 1997 monolingual Mongɣol kelen-ü toli s.v. aduu describes a horse as a mammal with certain characteristics, while the first sense given for mori is a castrated male horse (aduu); the 2004 Hàn-Měng Dà Cídiǎn s.v. 马 mǎ starts 'aduu, mori, khüleg, agta…'.

Both words occur in so many collocations that it's perhaps hard to decide on a primary meaning for either. With some confidence, we can say that aduu has the frequent meaning 'herd' but can also mean the horse as a species, and that mori is likely the most generic, least marked word for 'horse'.

Doerfer (Mongolo-Tungusica, 1985) gives both Manchu morin and adun as Mongolian loans. In Manchu, these mean resp. 'horse' and 'herd' (as per standard dicts — Zakharov, Norman); thus perhaps 'herd' was already the most common sense of Mo. adu(ɣ)u(n) in the topolect(s) and period that transmitted the word to Tungusic.

Doerfer and others have speculatively mentioned a possible Turkic origin for aduu which your other correspondents would be in a better position to discuss. Ditto for any possible connections to Korean mal, as well as to Indo-European and Sinitic.

Others would also better qualified to judge on Mongolian mal 'livestock' as a coming from Arabic via Turkic.

Where does that leave us?  I think this survey tells us that, despite the best efforts to learn from teachers and textbooks and digging in dictionaries, finding out actual usage depends upon fieldwork in various locations and reading specific texts from different periods and places.  In the end, in the aggregate, language is a messy business, and we cannot expect absolute precision in its description, if only because individual informants have different usages and opinions — the idiolect problem.

[Thanks to Nicola Di Cosmo, Timothy May, Thomas Barfield, Sungshin Kim, Manduhai Buyandelger, Bathrobe, and Brian Spooner]


  1. Chris Button said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    Given the common association of /ɣ/ with /j/ or /k/ depending on the conditioning environment, I wonder if the /ɣ/ in OC 馬 *mráɣʔ has any bearing on the /j/ component at the end of морь in the same way it does with the /k/ in Proto-Celtic *markos.

  2. William Taylor said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 12:51 pm

    Hey all – very interesting post/discussion here. There's obviously a wide range of opinions and perspectives here, but I think Dr. Atwood has put it best. Mori is basically a riding horse, usually gelded but not necessarily and the word doesn't connote anything about its status in that regard. Aduu is very like the word "cattle" in English, but for horses, and can be singular or plural and even additionally pluralized. The confusion basically stems from the fact that horses are not a livestock animal in western society and languages, for the most part, so we don't differentiate.

  3. Thaomas said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 2:38 pm

    Any relation to "mare."

  4. Michael Watts said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 6:51 pm

    Interestingly, адуу is used when referring to horse meat, hair, skin…. I have wondered if that serves to distance the act of consumption from the unit of the individual horse (the ridden horse, the racing horse, the named horse…) to avoid potential cognitive dissonance around eating horses. But, that might be reading way too much into it.

    This usage is what I would have expected by analogy to English, where the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns is robust. Materials are virtually always mass nouns.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    November 7, 2019 @ 8:18 pm

    "This usage is what I would have expected by analogy to English"

    But if this were English, it would be the difference between, say, "cattle meat" and "cow meat", wouldn't it? Of course we say "beef".

  6. Philip Anderson said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 8:09 am

    A clearer English example might be "a chicken dish", although a restaurant could have a "poultry" section in its menu.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    "Cattle" is a word I can consume but not really one that I can produce. I would always refer to "cows".

    I would not refer to "cows meat" — only "cow meat" — but I'm open to the idea that that is an entirely separate issue.

    Lacking a real example of something that is usually referred to by a mass noun in some contexts and a count noun in others, I'm just looking at the question "when we're talking about horse leather, do we view the horses involved more as a material from which objects can be made, or more as discrete entities?"

  8. Michael Watts said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    A clearer English example might be "a chicken dish", although a restaurant could have a "poultry" section in its menu.

    This analogy doesn't work at all, because "poultry" refers to many different kinds of birds. As such, it works as a category heading, but is not appropriate to describe an individual dish.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    November 8, 2019 @ 2:58 pm

    And yet there exists a dish called "poultry pie".

  10. pamela said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 11:44 am

    fascinating to catch up on this. Morin was already in 15th century Jurchen (*muri) attested in description of individual riding horses presented to the Ming court –and more Mongolian borrowing with ajara muri for stallion. (Kane, Jurchen parts of 華夷譯語, etc) adun very well attested in Manchu for groups, swarms or herds, and gives no evidence of being new in the Qing period. Cincius CAJ 10:3/4 gives variants of morin in Tungusic dialects, with no reference to adun-like words. I see no quick evidence that *adun came into Jurchen or later into Manchu with any particular meaning of "horse." for instance morici is a horseman or stable hand in Manchu but aduci is a herder, of any animal. My guess would be that Mongolian added the meaning of "a horse or horses" to aduun after adun (herd) was transmitted to Jurchen?

  11. pamela said,

    November 11, 2019 @ 1:18 pm

    this might come through twice:

    checking myself on that because it occurred to me that the "imperial stud" 上駟院 was adun. its most visible functions were the reception and breeding of Mongol tribute horses, and teaching the imperial prices to ride, but it functioned as an all-round management office for all the imperial herds: cattle, camels and possibly llamas (that's a strange one). it included a hospital for sick or injured animals. so I still think "livestock/herds" and not "horse" would be the translation here.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment