An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Altaic?, Mongolic, Central Mongolic.

Mongolian is the largest of the Mongolic languages which are considered one of the three subfamilies of the Altaic family by many scholars (the other two are Tungusic and Turkic). However, the parallelisms between the three are too few, according to others, to support the unity of the Altaic family. Within Mongolic, Mongolian belongs to the central group along with Khamnigan, Buryat, Ordos and Oirat.

Overview. Though mentioned earlier in Chinese records (perhaps from the 4th century CE), the Mongols emerged in world history at the end of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th. Their homeland was in the steppes of Mongolia where they were organized in tribes practicing nomadism and pastoralism. Led by Chinggis Khan (known in the West as Genghis Khan), they built the largest continuous empire the world has ever seen. Their language, Mongolian, is the most important of the Mongolic group. It is a typical agglutinative language of the suffixing type.

Distribution. Mongolian is spoken in the Republic of Mongolia and in the Chinese regions of Inner Mongolia and northeastern Xinjiang.

Speakers. About six million, of which 2.4 million in Mongolia and 3.5 million in China. Mongolian speakers constitute over 90% of the population of Mongolia and about one-sixth of the inhabitants of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.


Status. Mongolian is the official language of the Republic of Mongolia and of the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia (along with Chinese).



  1. a) Khalkha, similar to the dialect of Ulan Bator (the capital of the Republic of Mongolia), is predominant in all of Mongolia where is the official language; it is written in Cyrillic.

b) In Inner Mongolia, the language has several dialects and is written in the traditional Mongolian script.


a) Old Mongolian (until 12th c.). It is essentially a reconstructed language because only some words have been preserved in Chinese annals and in some borrowings by other languages.

b) Middle Mongolian (spoken in the Mongol Empire of the 13th-14th c.). Attested in some early inscriptions and in The Secret History of the Mongols.

c) Classic Mongolian or Literary Mongolian (13th-20th c.). This is a form of literary Mongolian, close to Middle Mongolian, written in the native Mongolian script which has coexisted with the oral languages for centuries, providing a standard and a means of communication among speakers of different Mongolic languages and dialects.

d) Modern Mongolian. After the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, a period of linguistic fragmentation ensued, of which there are virtually no records, until Modern Mongolian and the other Mongolic languages progressively emerged.

Oldest Documents

  1. 1227.The Stele of Yisüngge is among the most ancient Mongol documents preserved. It is a short report on an archer's contest.

  1. 1228.The Secret History of the Mongols. A historical narrative telling the deeds of Genghis Khan.

  1. 1246.Seal of Güyüg Khan. A letter sent by a Mongolian ruler to the Pope bears the stamp of a seal in the Mongol script proclaiming the Khan's authority.

  1. 1335.The Sino-Mongolian epitaph of Chang Yingrui.

  1. 1345.Juyongguan inscription engraved in the Chinese Wall, northwest of Beijing, in six languages. It contains a long Buddhist poem in Mongolian (Phagspa script), Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uyghur, Chinese and Tangut.

Phonology (Khalkha as spoken in Ulan Bator is summarized here).

Vowels (14). The Mongolian vowel system has seven vowels, which can be either short or long, plus four diphthongs. All back vowels, except [ʊ] and  [ʊ:], are rounded.


Diphthongs (4):  ai, ui, ʊi, ɔi

  Vowel length is phonemic. [ʊ], [ɔ], and (partially) [a] are accompanied by pharyngealization. In the everyday speech of Ulan Bator there is no short [e]. Besides, short [e] and [i], though distinguished in writing, have merged into i in the spoken language.

    Mongolian has vowel harmony of two kinds: pharyngeal and labial. Pharyngealized vowels cannot coexist with non-pharyngealized vowels in the same word, with the partial exception of [i]; thus [ʊ], [ɔ], and [a] cannot combine with [e], [u], [o]. Another restriction applies to the non-high vowels:    unrounded [a] and [e] in non-initial syllables cannot be followed in the same word by the rounded (labialized) vowels [o] and [ɔ].

Consonants (31). One distinctive feature of the consonantal system is the existence of several palatalized consonants (marked with j superscript). Labial, dental and palatal stops and affricates have aspirated and unaspirated varieties. In the Khalka dialect the laterals are pronounced as fricatives which doesn't happen in other Mongolian dialects.


Stress: it falls on the first long vowel. It is non-phonemic (does not distinguish different meanings).

Scripts. From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Mongolian was written in one of four scripts: Classical Mongolian (an adaptation of the Uyghur alphabet), Phagspa (derived from Tibetan), Chinese and Arabic. Nowadays, in the Republic of Mongolia it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet  but in China the Classical Mongolian alphabet is still used.


Orthography. The Mongolian phonemes are usually transliterated in the Latin alphabet as follows:

*long vowels are represented by a duplicated vowel.

*[ʊ] and [ɔ] are represented as u and o.

*[u] and [o] are represented as ü and ö.

*palatalized consonants are represented by adding an y after it.

*the aspirated voiceless stops and affricates pʰ tʰ tsʰ tʃʰ are rendered as p, t, ts and c.

*the unaspirated voiceless stops and affricates p t ts tʃ are rendered as b, d, dz and j.

*the uvular stop is rendered as gh.

*the palatal fricative is represented as sh.

*the velar nasal is represented as ng.

*the lateral fricative is written l.


Modern Mongolian is an agglutinative, almost exclusively suffixing language in which most of the suffixes consist of a single morpheme. It has a rich number of morphemes to build up complex words from stems. There are ten classes of stems: nouns, adjectives, numerals, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, postpositions, conjunctions, particles and interjections.

  1. Nominal. Nouns can take suffixes for number, case and possession (in that order). Adjectives precede the noun and are invariable. Nominal compounds are quite frequent.

  1. number: plurality may be left unmarked or it can be indicated with one of several suffixes, like -Ud, -nUd, -cUd, -s, -d. A noun that is modified by a numeral is left unmarked.

  1. case: nominative (unmarked), accusative, dative, genitive, ablative, instrumental, possessive (or comitative).

  2. The nominative is used for the subject or a direct indefinite object, the accusative for a direct definite object, the dative for an indirect object, location or direction, the genitive indicates possession and mark attributive nouns, the ablative source or comparison, the instrumental instrument, the comitative company or possession.


  1. Note: A indicates a low vowel that can be realized as a, e, o.

  1. comparison: as there are no comparative forms, adjectival nouns are compared by placing the standard of comparison in the ablative case. The superlative is expressed by a construction with the genitive xamg-iin ‘of all’.

  1. pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative-indefinite, reflexive.

  2. Personal pronouns exist for the first and second person. The third person is supplied by two demonstrative pronouns (proximal ene and distal tar). Pronouns are inflected in fewer cases than nouns. Only the genitive is marked in the singular and the plural while the accusative is only distinguished in the singular; for the other cases a common oblique stem is used. The second person plural ta is used mainly as an honorific 2nd person singular; when plurality is meant the particle nar is added (ta nar).


  1. The genitives of the personal pronouns are used as possessive pronouns. They precede the head noun, but with minor modifications may be used after it (1sg. miny, 2sg. ciny, 1 pl. maany, 2 pl. taany, 3rd sg./pl. ny).

  1. The interrogative pronouns are xen (‘who?’), yüü (‘what?’) xezee (‘when?’), xedii (‘how much?’), xeden (‘how many?’), xaa (‘where?’). Combined with the enclitic c they become indefinites e.g. xenc (‘whoever’). The reflexive pronoun is öör-.

  1. Verbal. Mongolian has three classes of verbal forms: finite forms, participles and converbs. Verbs are marked for aspect, tense and mood but not for person and number. Negation is mostly expressed by the suffix -güi after participles and by the negation particle bi after nouns and adjectives; negation particles preceding the verb exist, but tend to be replaced by analytical constructions.

  1. person and number: is not marked.

  1. tense: the fundamental tenses are past and non-past (present-future) which combine with the perfective and imperfective aspects to give four basic forms: perfective past, imperfective past, perfective non-past, imperfective non-past. Each of these four is marked by a specific suffix.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative. The indicative has durative, terminative, confirmative and resultative modal forms. The imperative has precative, voluntative, prescriptive, permissive, desiderative, dubitative and potential forms. Each of these forms is marked by a specific suffix.


  1. aspect: imperfective or progressive (ongoing action), perfective (completed action), habitive (repetitive or habitual action) and intensive (sudden or forceful action).

  2. Imperfective aspect is expressed by using an imperfective converb with a lexical main verb and the auxiliary bai ‘to be’ which indicates tense.

  3. Perfective aspect is  expressed by combining the perfective participle of the main verb with the auxiliary bai.

  4. Habitive aspect is expressed by the habitive participle combined with the auxiliary bai.

  5. By adding the suffix -cx to a stem a new verbal stem with an intensive aspect is created. 

  1. voice: active, and passive.

  1. derived conjugation: causative.

  1. participles: futuritive, imperfective, perfective, habitive and agentive. They are inflected like nouns and may be used as the final verb of main clauses and subordinate clauses.

  1. coverbs: denote actions that accompany that of the main verb. They have various aspectual forms like modal, imperfective, perfective, conditional, concessive, and terminative.


The basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb. Indirect objects usually precede direct objects but the order of the other constituents is quite free. Modifiers such as adjectives and numerals precede the noun they modify. However, certain quantifiers follow it. Case suffixes are added to the last word of the phrase. Functional roles are indicated by the case system supplemented by postpositions. Converbs are important in sentence linking.


In an early stage, Mongolian adopted loanwords from a variety of sources including Old Turkic, Sanskrit (these often through Uyghur), Persian, Arabic and Tibetan. Recent loanwords come from Russian, English, and Chinese (mainly in Inner Mongolia). Many Tibetan loans are related to Buddhism but also include the names of the days of the week. Chinese loans are mostly about material culture. Russian and English have contributed many technical and scientific terms.

Basic Vocabulary

one: neg, negen

two: xoyor

three: guraw, gurwan

four: döröw, dörwön

five: taw, tawan

six: zurgaa, zurgaan

seven: doloo, doloon

eight: naim, naiman

nine: yös, yösön

ten: araw, arwan

hundred: zuu, zuun

father: aav, eceg

mother: eej, ex

elder brother: ax

younger brother: düü

elder sister: egc

younger sister: düü

son: xüü

daughter: oxin

head: tolgoi

eye: nüd

nose: xamar

hand: gar

foot: xöl

Key Literary Works. Translations of Buddhist literature from Tibetan and Uyghur (including the translation of the whole Tibetan Canon in 1750) are the backbone of early Mongolian literature, but some creative works have also survived which are mainly epical or historical in nature.

  1. 1228-52    Mongqolun niuča tobča'an (Secret History of the Mongols). Anonymous

  2. It is an extensive and complex chronicle, in prose and verse, of the exploits of Chinggis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, and of those of his son Ogodei, that blends epic, myth and legend, songs and proverbs.

late 16th c.   Geser khan (The Epic of King Gesar). Anonymous

  1. An adaption of a Tibetan epic, transmitted orally until it was printed in 1716. The hero Gesar Khan defeats various enemies, including several demons, and descends into hell to rescue his mother.

  1. 1607    Erdeni tunumal sudur (Jewel Translucent Sutra). Anonymous

  2. A biography of Altan Khan, a Mongolian chief who terrorized China in the 16th century and led the conversion of Mongolians to Tibetan Buddhism. It relates, in 400 alliterative quatrains, his wars with the Ming dynasty and his alliance with the Dalai Lama.

  1. 1662    Erdeni-yin tobchi (Jeweled Summary). Saghang Sechen

  2. Historical chronicle in verse written by a prince, beginning with the creation of the world and connecting Mongolian, Indian and Tibetan ruling houses. It reaches up to the author's times.

  1. 1775    Bolor erike (Crystal Garland). Rasipungsug

  2. Produced in Inner Mongolia during the Qing dynasty (of Manchu origin) and influenced by Chinese historiography, this historical work is based on Mongolian and Chinese sources in Manchu translation. Most valuable is its inclusion of stories about Chinggis Khan, unknown or related differently elsewhere. It challenges the traditional anti-Mongol bias of the Chinese.

  1. 1871    Köke sudur (The Blue Chronicle). Injannashi

  2. Is a historical novel depicting the rise and fall of the Yuan dynasty in China (of Mongol origin) during the 13th and 14th centuries. The author changed the image of Chinggis Khan to fit with his own Confucian ideas and attacked the Manchu nobility and the Buddhist clergy.

  1. 1933    Minii nutag (My Homeland). Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj

  2. Natsagdorj is considered the father of modern Mongol literature and though he died young he managed to author a variety of poems exhibiting a nationalist sentiment. One of the most famous is "My Homeland" in which he depicted the landscapes of Mongolia.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati

Further Reading

  1. -'Khalkha'. J-O Svantesson. In The Mongolic Languages, 154-176. J. Janhunen (ed). Routledge (2003).

  2. -'Mongol Dialects'. J. Janhunen. In The Mongolic Languages, 177-191. J. Janhunen (ed). Routledge (2003).

  3. -Mongolian Language Handbook. N. Poppe. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington DC (1970).

  4. -The Mongols. D. Morgan. Blackwell (1986).

  5. -Die Mongolen: Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte und Kultur. M. Weiers (ed). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (1986).

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