Бичиг үсэг

THE MONGOLIAN LANGUAGE AND SCRIPTS

By Tseveliin Shagdarsuren

(Director, Institute of Mongolian studies of the Mongolian State University, scientist and researcher of Mongolian language)

I. MONGOLIAN LANGUAGE

Introduction

Mongolian is the language of most of the population of Mongolia and also of Inner Mongolia and of separate groups living in several other provinces and regions of China and the Russian Federation. By origin, it is one of the languages of the Mongolian group of the Altaic family. This group consists of Mongolian (Mongolia), Buriad, Kalmyk (Russia), Dungshian or Santa (Kansu province PRC), Dagur (Heilongjian province and Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, PRC), Mongour (Qinghai, Kansu and other provinces PRC), Bao'ang (Kansu and Qinghai provinces PRC) and Mogol (Herat, Badakhsan and Maimana regions, Rep. of Afghanistan).

Historical development

The history of the Mongolian language is long and complex. From the evidence of inscriptions on monuments, its development can be divided into three periods.

The Ancient Period

The ancient period of development of the Mongolian language extended up to approximately the seventh and eighth centuries, during which time there were two main dialects. The monuments of that period are linguistic materials referred to in historical documents of neighboring nations, in a majority of cases in Chinese transcription; materials in the Tabghatch dialect of the Xian'pi language; and in the Mongolian literary language in the Mongolian script based on the ancient Mongolian language. The characteristic features are: division of all the vowels (a, r, o, u, e. i, , ) and consonants( Y, q; g, k) into front and back; the preservation of the initial consonants p-f-h in almost all the words which today begin with an uncovered syllable; the preservation of the consonants Y/g, b/w in intervocal position; and the presence of grammatical categories, etc.

The Middle Period

The middle period of the development of Mongolian extended from the seventh and eighth to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Mongolian language of this period is divided into southern. eastern and western dialects. The principal monuments of the middle period are: in the eastern dialect, the famous Secret History of the Mongols, monuments in the square script, materials of the Chinese-Mongolian glossary of the fourteenth century, and materials of the Mongolian language of the middle period in Chinese transcription, etc.; in the western dialect, materials of the Arab-Mongolian and Persian-Mongolian dictionaries, Mongolian texts in Arabic transcription, etc. The main features of the period are that the vowels and i had lost their phonemic significance, creating the i phoneme; intervocal consonants Y/g, b/w had disappeared and the preliminary process of the formation of Mongolian long vowels had begun; the initial h was preserved in many words; grammatical categories were partially absent, etc.

The Contemporary Period

The contemporary or third period of development of the Mongolian language continues up to the present day. The rich materials of the Mongolian language of the third period have been preserved. The distinctive features of this period are that long vowels have been fully formed, as a result of the dropping of intervocal consonants /g, b, w; gra,,atoca^categproes are absent; initial consonants p-f-h have disappeared, etc. In addition one of the main developments of this period is the formation of the classical Mongolian literary language in the Mongolian script, on the basis of the written language of xylographic publications in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Modern Mongolian language, as the national language, was developed on the basis of the Halh dialect. Today, the Mongolian language comprises several dialects, including Helha, Buriad, Oirat, Tsahar, Harchin, Horchin, Ordos and others. Characteristic features of the modern Mongolian language are: agglutination in a majority of instances; the subject and attribute preceding predicate and dependent member; the absence of grammatical gender; the absence of agreement of adjective with substantive and of subject with predicate in number; as compared with Indo-European languages, Mongolian nominalized verbs are much more active syntactically than substantives and the active form of verbs. For the Turkic-speaking people living on the territory of Mongolia, it is important to be bilingual and to speak their own native tongue as well as Mongolian.

II. THE MONGOLIAN SCRIPTS

Since ancient times, the many tribes of the Mongol people have used correspondingly numerous written systems, reflecting the peculiarities of the development of the Mongolian language or dialects of that time. Historical data provide evidence of the fact that the primitive ancestors of the nomadic Mongols had their own script. The most antique of these indications pertain to the Huns and Uhuan. The Chinese historical works Wei shu and Sui shu say that the Tabghach (Toba) had developed a new script and mention lists of books written in the Xian pi language (sixth century). Following the formation of the Liao empire (AD 916-1125), the Kidan scholars invented two kinds of script (AD 920 and 925), which have not yet been fully deciphered. It is interesting to note that the Kidan script was used by the Jurchen. Later, the Jurchen invented their own 'big' script on the model of the 'big' Kidan script (AD 1119), and a few years later their own 'small' script based on the 'small' Kidan script (AD 1138). Thus, the history of the scripts created and used by the nomadic Mongols in the past dates back to antiquity. There are at least nine or ten such scripts.

(Old) Mongolian Script

In works on Mongol studies related to the origin of the Mongolian script, many scholars believe that it originated from the Sogdian letters. But a majority of them considered that at the end of the first thousand years AD the Uigurs adopted their alphabet from the Sogdians and in the thirteenth century the Mongols in turn borrowed it from the Uigurs. More recently, a number of Mongolian scholars, after studying newly found materials on the Mongols and the Mongolian language and writing, have advanced the theory that the Mongols did not adopt their writing from the Uigurs in the thirteenth century, but simultaneously with the Uigur they adopted it from the Sogdian when Uigur culture was at its peak. In the political and religious spheres. the need to transmit foreign words, including words from Sanskrit. Tibetan and Chinese, caused the evolution of the system of transcribing into the Mongolian script called ali-kali, devised by Ayush-gush in 1587. Amongst all the Mongolian scripts, (old) Mongolian is considered the most viable and is still used today. The most ancient monument of the Mongolian script, Genghisun chuluu (the Genghis stone, 1224/1225) is the first of the 'stone books' of the nomadic Mongols. For some time, the Manchurians used the Mongolian lettering, and later it served as the basis of the Manchurian script, created in 1599.

Square or hPags-pa Script

From 1269 to 1368, at the order of Khubilai Khan, the square of hP'ags-pa script, created on the basis of Tibetan and Indian letters. served as the official alphabet of the Yuan Dinasty. The materials in this script are a good reflection of the phonetic system of the Mongolian language of that time. The square script was adopted not only for transliterating foreign loan words, but also for recording entire texts in Chinese, Tibetan. Sanskrit and Turkish. In view of this, the prominent Mongolist B.Ya. Vladimirtsov. observed that 'the hP'ags-pa script was the Mongolian international alphabet of the thirteenth century'.

Clear Script

In 1648 Zaya Pandit Namhaijamts of Oirat invented a 'clear' script on the basis of the Mongolian script, eliminating the homographs in the Mongolian and bringing the written language closer to the oral. A graphic study of the clear script shows that the author created his new letters not only for the Oirats, but for all Mongols. One of the characteristic features of the clear script is its system of transcribing words from Tibetan and Sanskrit.

The Soyombo Script and Horizontal Square Script

In 1686. when the freedom of the Mongolian people was threatened by the Manchu, the first Bogdo Zanabazar invented the Soyombo and the Horizontal-square script an the basis of ancient Indian writing of Brahman origin. From the materials written in these scripts it is clear that the letters were created for recording the words of the three 'holy' written languages of that period: Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit, each of which at some time served as a literary language for the scholars of Mongolia.

The Vaghintara Script

The Vaghintara script was invented in 1905 by Agwan-Dorji (Vaghintara is the Indian form of the name Agwan, or rather the first component of his name) on the basis of Mongolian script. Its distinctive feature is that the Vaghintara system does not have positional allographs and homographs. The Vaghintara script was created not only for Mongolian, but also for transcribing Russian words.

The (new) Cyrillic Mongolian Script

After the revolution of 1921, the Mongolian script was used in Mongolia until 1941. when a new alphabet based on Cyrillic was adopted. In official documents it is stated that the reason for the change from the Mongolian script to the new form of writing was twohold: (1) there was a great gap between the written and spoken languages, and (2) the Mongolian script was not suitable for the assimilation of foreign words. In fact, the second of these reasons is without foundation. The Mongolian script does have a system for transcribing foreign words. From a linguistic point of view. the difference between written and spoken languages is unimportant. Such a gap exists in all languages, including, for example, English.

Practically all the scripts mentioned above had their own ornamental or decorative form for the press, ex-libres, book plates and architecture. http://www.indiana.edu/~mongsoc/mong/language.htm