Facts About Mongolian: Cases, Vowel Harmony and Word Order

Mongolian is the official language of Mongolia and the first or second language of over 5 million people. It’s also the most commonly spoken language of the Mongol people in the Autonomous Mongolian Region of Inner Mongolia in China.

Interestingly, a lot of ethnic Mongolian speakers don’t always know how to write in their language, meaning that linguistic preservation efforts vary from other languages.

This is a language which has had hills and valleys in its use and livelihood and is on its way up again after a decline lasting until 2012. Here are some fascinating facts.

A Few Facts about the Fascinating Mongolian Language

1. Mongolian is the most spoken and most well-known language in the Mongolic language family.

Mongolian is spoken by over 5 million people while its closest Central Mongol sister language in numbers, Oirat, only has 360 thousand speakers. Moghol, a sister-language to the parent of Mongolian, has only around 200 speakers.

2. The most common dialect is Khalkha and it is written in two (sometimes three) scripts

These are the traditional Mongolian script, Cyrillic, and (for online use, more recently), Latin. Due to constant changes, it is in fact one of the languages with the most writing styles used in its life in history.

3. The oldest known surviving Mongolian text is a sports report carved in stone in the Mongolian script

Known as the Stele of Yisüngge, it dates back to around 1225.

4. Mongolian is spoken all across the Mongolian Plateau, and as a first language by many in several countries.

As well as Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, Mongolian is highly spoken in:

  • Buryatia
  • Kalmykia
  • Areas of Irkutsk Oblast
  • Russia (Zabaykalsky Krai)
  • Areas of Liaoning
  • Jilin
  • Heilongjiang
  • Xinjiang
  • China (Gansu and Qinghai provinces)
  • Kyrgyzstan (Issyk-Kul Region)

5. Mongolian is a language that makes use of vowel harmony

This means that vowels within a word (or sometimes a phrase) must be of the same class and therefore in harmony.

6. It has loan words from a number of languages

The most common of these are Old Turkic, Sanskrit (Uighur), Persian, Arabic, Tibetan, Tungusic, and traditional forms of Chinese. More recently, there have been several loan words from Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and English.

7. An old Mongolian tradition which is still sometimes used today involves naming a child whose previous children have died (miscarriage, stillbirth, or childhood death) with a word meaning something vicious or cruel (known as taboo names).

The idea is that “No name”, “Not a human”, or even “Vicious Dog” in Mongolian would confuse evil spirits and prevent them from stealing the babies away. In a similar practice, parents who had lost sons call new boys by girl’s names and vice versa. 

Over time, some of the stranger names have come to seem normal while some remain very odd. For comparison, see a virtue name in English like Grace vs. a virtue name like Love.

8. Though it is similar in structure to Japanese and Korean, Mongolian doesn’t seem to be related to these languages at all.

Mongolian is a Mongol language, while Japanese and Korean belong to their own branches. Mongolian is also not related to Chinese at all.

9. There are more than two million official words in the Mongolian language

By comparison, there are just over 171 thousand words in English and 150 thousand in Russian.

10. There are seven vowels in Mongolian, and they are separated into two groups

These are ‘masculine’ vowels and ‘feminine’ vowels and they completely change meanings and structure.

11. Pronoun use is different in Mongolian

For example, referring to family members would not be my wife or my son, but our wife or our son.

12. There used to be no plural form in Mongolian

Instead, nouns were stated as they are with a number before them (such as the English sheep, which is both singular and plural). This is still a relatively common practice.

13. There are a lot of dialects of Mongolian

The most common are:

  • Khalkha
  • Chakhar
  • Khorchin
  • Baarin
  • Ordos Mongolian
  • Darkhad

Khalka is considered the Standard Mongolian dialect.

14. Most, but not all, residents of Mongolia speak Mongolian

The estimated percentage is around 95% but a lack of census data makes this hard to confirm.

15. It’s one of the most difficult languages to learn

Mongolian is considered especially complicated for English speakers to learn, as the script, structure, and grammar are entirely different from more familiar languages.

16. Word order in Mongolian is very free

Though there is an official subject-object-predicate structure, Mongolian speakers tend to freely turn the word order in the language to suit their meaning. Older Mongolian was object-subject-predicate.

17. The Latin alphabet was officially adopted in Mongolia in 19

…but it only lasted two months before it was reformed again!

18. There are eight cases in Mongolian for noun conjugation

Each case (except the initial nominative case) is marked by ending suffixes. Examples are given in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Case nameExampleMeaning
NominativeЦүнх (tsünkh, bag)Basic form of a noun
AccusativeЦүнхийг (tsünkhiig, the bag)Noun as a direct object (“I use the bag”)
GenitiveЦүнхний (tsünkhnii, [of] the bag)An aspect of the noun (“the handle of the bag”)
Dative and/or locativeЦүнхэнд (tsünkhend, [in] the bag)Preposition of the noun or indicator of noun receiving the action (“It was in the bag” OR “She gave me the bag”)
AblativeЦүнхнээс (tsünkhnees, [from] the bag)Indicates something moving away from the noun (“I took it from the bag”)
InstrumentalЦүнхнээр (tsünkhneer, [by/with] the bag)Indicates the noun being used for something: (“I carried my groceries with the bag”)
ComitativeЦүнхтэй (tsünkhtei, [together with] the bag)Something alongside the noun; “my shoes with my bag”.

Final Thoughts

Mongolian is a language with a rich history and on the surface of a fascinating culture. It has a popularity both in Mongolia and worldwide which comes and goes, but its value never wavers. These facts, then, are a great way to experience Mongolian and to keep this language alive.

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