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Learning Inner Mongolian (3): Learning the script

27 January 2013

I’ve now done a page on making sense of the Mongolian script, based on my learning experience with the Mongolian Language and Culture Classes. As mentioned previously, I started learning this script by myself in 2008 but dismally failed to progress beyond recognition of the most basic forms. Reading it was a nightmare. Every single word presented a perplexity of alternatives, a challenge to figure out whether it should be pronounced this way or that, an occasion to hazard desperate, unfounded guesses and engage in wild goose chases through dictionaries that seemed to be organised totally at random. And that was before any attempt to figure out how words came together in a sentence!

As I put the page together I found myself painfully nutting out exactly how the language and culture classes had managed to reduce the consternation and puzzlement that had accompanied my earlier attacks on the script. What was the crucial difference from previous experience? In fact there were several.

The first was the rigid structured approach that put everything together in a coherent comprehensive pattern. This made the location of gaps crystal clear. Instead of floundering around in a welter of possibilities, I was able to pinpoint exactly where guesses were needed and where they were not. This was most apparent in the x and g (х and г) columns, which had completely confounded previous attempts at mastery. By arranging the syllables into two neat columns, the classes finally brought into focus what I could never quite figure out before:  is pronounced x and occurs before masculine/yang vowels,   is pronounced g (strictly speaking ɣ) and occurs before masculine/yang vowels, and   stands for either x or g and occurs before feminine/yinvowels or neutral vowels. Not a shattering insight but one that had escaped me in previous, less rigorously structured treatments.

The second was the unrelenting drive to analyse words in terms of syllables. In fact, all approaches I’ve seen to learning the Mongolian alphabet treat it as a syllabary, based on consonants and vowels combined into open syllables. But my classes went further. Reading every word involved grasping its correct syllabic structure, including closed syllables and syllables with extended vowels or diphthongs. Within this framework, haphazard guesses about pronunciation suddenly became a lot more certain. Once the syllabic structure was clear, everything else usually fell into place. And if things didn’t fall into place, there was usually a reason, e.g., mistakes in identifying letters.

Thirdly, I was suddenly able to look up Inner Mongolian dictionaries because I had learnt the letters in a standardised order. This standard order is not used in Mongolia, where different alphabetic orders seem possible. With the realisation that letters actually had an order, I now had a better understanding of how to look up words, and where different places needed to be checked (since Inner Mongolian dictionaries can place the same letter in more than one location if it has multiple pronunciations).

Finally, I gained a grudging appreciation of the reason for thoroughly teaching the alphabet prior to learning the spoken language. The traditional script needs to be apprehended in its own terms, with its own readings and its own syllabic structures, not as a hit-and-miss representation of the modern pronunciation. Only when the correct classical pronunciation (or an approximation of it substituting modern sounds) has been arrived at can the further jump be made to the modern pronunciation. Trying to telescope the process into one step runs the risk of making vague and erratic guesses.

While I was setting out my understanding of this approach, I also decided to do a quick comparison with other approaches to teaching the alphabet: one designed for Mongolians using Cyrillic letters, and one with foreigners in mind. This exercise brought into focus the fact that, while all methods of teaching the Mongolian script rely on using open syllables (consonant plus vowel), it is only the Inner Mongolian approach that tries to analyse words into syllables in order to read them. This brought home again the importance of a structured approach in learning the traditional script.

Surprisingly, there is very little on the Internet about the traditional Mongolian script, and what little there is, is not much use for learning the alphabet. Simon Ager’s broad-ranging and detailed Omniglot, Lawrence Lo’s more focused Ancient Scripts, and of course Wikipedia all feature Mongolian (herehere, and here), and all introduce the Mongolian alphabet in similar terms, as a collection of discrete letters — although Omniglot also lists letters formed with ligatures. But while this is an economical and objectively correct way of setting out the alphabet, it is far from the way that people actually learn and use it. For this reason, I hope that my page on making sense of the Mongolian traditional script manages to fill a need that is not met elsewhere.

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