Switch Reference in Mongolian
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12. Switch-Reference in Mongolian Studies

Switch-Reference was identified in Mongolian long before Jacobsen invented the term. Among the material I have to hand, Poppe referred to the key elements of SR in his 1954 work Grammar of Written Mongolian.

More recent grammarians have also given extensive attention to it, although none have used the term 'Switch-Reference'. Tserenpil-Kullmann discuss the grammatical identification of 'same subject' and 'different subject' in their Mongolian Grammar of 2005 (first edition in 1996). Janhunen alludes to 'conjunct subjects' and 'disjunct subjects' in his comprehensive book Mongolian (2012). Guntsetseg's thoroughgoing 2016 study of differential case marking has direct relevance to SR.

The first linguist to refer to switch reference in Mongolian was Adar Anisman in 2010, who submitted an MA thesis on Switch reference in Khalkha Mongolian (SOAS University of London). This thesis was solidly based in elicitation from a Mongolian native speaker and succeeded in highlighting the key elements of switch reference. Anisman identified Mongolian SR as 'non-canonical'.

Textbooks for teaching foreigners Mongolian were slow to focus on SR, although Uranchimeg's Mongolian Language Handbook from 2007 covers certain aspects. This neglect was totally reversed, however, with the appearance of Bayarmaa's solid linguistically-based Mongolian Language for Intermediate Students in 2011.

The following outline is entirely based on the works mentioned. I am particularly endebted to Tserenpil-Kullmann and Bayarmaa, which are the source of a good proportion of the example sentences in this post. (Many but not all sentences are so marked.)

Colour has been employed liberally, perhaps annoyingly so, in the following post. Red background indicates 'subject of main clause', red border (sometimes solid red, depending on your system) represents 'marker of same subject between clauses', blue background indicates 'different subject in subordinate clause', blue border (sometimes solid blue, depending on the system) means 'marker of different subject between clauses'. Cyrillic and Traditional Mongolian script renderings can be accessed by hovering over or clicking on upward pointing arrows after sentence examples. Green lettering also provides access to Cyrillic and Traditional Mongolian script renderings.

12.1. The Relevance of SR in Mongolian

While the phenomenon of Switch-Reference has been described in many grammatical studies of Mongolian — although not in Qingge'ertai 1991, which ignores it entirely — it has arguably not been of central importance. Within grammars that treat it, such as Poppe, Tserenpil-Kullmann, and Janhunen, the overall phenomenon of 'same subject', 'different subject' tends to be treated in comparatively brief sections dealing with sentence grammar towards the end of the work. SR behaviour is, however, pointed out for individual forms at each section. The treatment of SR thus tends to be fragmented and arguably occupies a somewhat marginal place in grammatical descriptions.

There are a couple of possible reasons for this. First, Mongolian grammatical studies originated with Western linguists who were working within the Western linguistic tradition. Since Western European languages do not have SR, it tended to be placed in a relatively marginal position within the overall framework of linguistic description. (This applies particularly to earlier language textbooks, which almost completely ignored SR in favour of more "conventional" aspects of grammar.)

Secondly, like many languages of the 'Altaic' type, Mongolian is notable for its morphology, with the result that linguists and grammarians have devoted considerable attention to this aspect. The focus on morphology is also related to a longstanding interest in historical and comparative linguistics within the Altaic language family. This is perhaps, however, a feature of linguistics in general, which has, at least until relevantly recent times, been less successful in dealing with diffuse issues of discourse than with historical and structural aspects of language.

A third factor operating more recently is the gulf between linguistic traditions. Mongolian linguistics and anthropological linguistics, where SR had its genesis, inhabit separate universes. Linguists and grammarians of Mongolian appear to have been almost completely oblivious to outside work on SR (the notable exception being Adar Anisman's thesis on SR in Khalkh Mongolian), whilst scholars of SR, who tend to specialise in numerically minor languages that demand field work, have barely noticed that a major 'non-anthropological' language like Mongolian features SR. Most references to Mongolian involve converbs which, as we have seen, are of lesser importance to SR in Mongolian.

There are good reasons why Mongolian should be subject to greater study by linguists.

For these reasons, research into Mongolian holds promise of making an invaluable contribution to the worldwide field of SR.

On the reverse side of the equation, it would be beneficial for linguists of Mongolian to take into consideration other languages featuring SR as a way of approaching the language from within a wider framework.


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