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Making Sense of the Traditional Mongolian Script

(This page is an introduction to the traditional Mongolian script based on my experience of being taught by Inner Mongolian teachers. I pass it on here in the hope that it may be of help to those wanting to learn this script. Any errors, omissions, or mistakes are my own, not those of my teachers.)

1. Introduction 2. Table of open syllables 3. Table of closing consonants and vowels 4. Syllabification in action
5. How to distinguish vowels 6. Examples of vowel harmony in spelling 7. Other ambiguities 8. Citation forms of syllables

 

1. INTRODUCTION

The old Mongolian script is not an easy script to come to grips with. Letters are easily confused, the same letter may represent more than one sound, and every letter takes on a different form according to its position in the word (initial, medial, and final). The script is written from top to bottom in columns going from left to right, unlike the (traditional) Chinese order of columns going from right to left.

The alphabet showing the plain form of letters is known in its Inner Mongolian pronunciation as chagaan tɔlgai (Cyrillic цагаан толгой tsagaan tɔlgɔi).

Syllabic approach: To make the script accessible to learners, the normal approach is to teach it in the form of syllables, reminiscent of the Japanese kana syllabaries. Rather than learning the isolated forms of consonants and vowels, students learn how each consonant looks in combination with the vowel signs. This approach is common to all systems of learning the traditional script, although the specifics vary. In modern Inner Mongolia, it takes the form of a large table of open syllables based on 16 consonants and seven vowels, with each syllable shown in initial, medial, and final form.

After learning these open syllables for each position and mastering the rules for reading and writing them, the student learns a small set of non-syllabic letters that are used to close or lengthen syllables. This allows the student to identify both open and closed syllables in the script. (The practice of listing syllable-closing letters separately appears to be special to modern Inner Mongolia. Other systems incorporate them in the table of syllables.)

The above approach to teaching the script has several advantages.

  • From the point of view of form, it allows all combinations of letters (or glyphs) to be systematically presented. Since letters have several different forms, this is an essential step to mastery.
  • From the point of view of pronunciation, it provides a rigidly organised framework for grasping letters and sounds, lessening confusion and haphazard guessing.
  • From the point of view of interpretation, it arms the learner with a solid basis for deciphering the structure of the written word. This is particularly important since many letters have similar shapes, giving rise to potentially confusing sequences. A simple example is the word for 'pig', which is written gahai. This written form only makes sense after the individual letters have been identified within the total syllable structure of the word. For the reading of this word, see below.

Script is understood on its own terms: It needs to be kept in mind that the traditional alphabet is taught on its own terms, not as a direct representation of the modern language (although individual letters may be given their modern pronunciation). For instance, the division into syllables reflects the ancient pronunciation, which often has more syllables than the modern pronunciation. To take one example, the modern bisyllabic word ʃa:dʒgai 'magpie' (Cyrillic шаазгай ʃa:dzgai) is four syllables in the traditional script, ʃa ga dʒa gai:

shagajagai Differences between the written language and the pronunciation of the spoken language are not confined to the number of syllables. There are other wide-ranging differences that can, at times, make it challenging to figure out the modern pronunciation from the script. This issue will not be touched on at this page, which is about making sense of the traditional script on its own terms. It is useful to remember that schoolchildren in Inner Mongolia initially learn to read the traditional script in its written pronunciation for two years, before switching over to ordinary spoken pronunciation in their third year.

The tables given below thus present 1) the basic set of open syllables and 2) the set of letters that can be used to complete syllables, either by closing them or by adding vowels.

The Mongolian script also has a set of rare consonants mostly found in loanwords from foreign languages. These are omitted here.

The script is shown below in its handwritten form, which is somewhat different from the printed form. (See here for conversion between handwritten and printed forms).

2. THE TABLE OF OPEN SYLLABLES

The inventory of common open syllables is set out in a matrix showing how each consonant combines with the seven vowels of Mongolian.

The order of consonants is:

Plain vowels (no consonant), n, b, p, x, g, m, l, s, ʃ, t, d, , , j, and r.

In Cyrillic, the order is: plain vowels, н, б, п, х, г, м, л, с, ш, т, д, ч/ц, ж/з, я/ю/ё, and р. Owing to phonetic change in Khalkha Mongolian, the old phonemes and have split into two phonemes: and ts (ч and ц) and and dz (ж and з) respectively.

The order of vowels is:

a, ə, i, ɔ, ʊ, o, u (or in Cyrillic, а, э, и, о, у, ө, ү). Since the alphabet is insufficient to fully distinguish among all seven vowels, in Inner Mongolia, the vowels are customarily referred to using the numbers 1 to 7.

The order shown above is used in dictionaries in Inner Mongolia and is worth memorising.

Looking at the tables, you will notice that, despite the fact that the matrix is supposed to cover seven distinct vowels, the actual number of vowels specified in the script is usually three and at best five. This will be discussed below. The pronunciation of each syllable is shown down the left-hand side in both phonetic alphabet and Cyrillic letters.

Plain vowels n / н
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
a
а
a a a
a
1
na
на
na na na
na
2
ə
э
e e
e
e
e
e
2

нэ
ne ne ne
ne
3
i
и
i i
i
i 3
ni
ни
ni ni ni
4
ɔ
o
o o o
o
4

но
no no no
5
ʊ
y
u u u
u
5

нy
nu nu nu
6
o
ө
ö o
o
o
o
ö
6
no
нө
nö nö nö
7
u
ү
ü ü
o
ü
ü
ü
7
nu
нү
nü nü nü

The vowel column does not strictly show vowels as syllables per se; it shows all the vowel signs in Mongolian, shown in their respective forms at the beginning, inside, or end of a word (not according to whether they occur as initial, medial or final syllables in a word). Thus, while o as a letter can be considered a 'medial' letter, since it is found after consonants, it is never found in medial syllables. It is found only after consonants in initial syllables.

In initial position only, there is a distinction between vowels 1 and 2 (a and e, Cyrillic а and э).

The special form efor vowel 2 (e or э) is found only in foreign words.

The final na and ne syllables offer a choice between a) a normal consonant-vowel sequence and b) a syllable-final n followed by a as a separate letter. This is not a free choice; it is determined by the spelling of the word in question.

b / б p / п
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
ba
ба
ba ba ba 1
pa
па
pa pa pa
2

бэ
be be be 2

пэ
pe pe pe
3
bi
би
bi bi bi 3
pi
пи
pi pi pi
4

бo
bɔ bɔ bɔ 4

по
pɔ pɔ pɔ
5

бy
bʊ bʊ bʊ 5

пy
pʊ pʊ pʊ
6
bo
бө
bo bo bo 6
po
пө
po po po
7
bu
бү
bu bu bu 7
pu
пү
pu pu pu

These letters are noticeable for the way they are joined to the following vowel in a ligature, which can be confusing for learners. Words beginning with p tend to be foreign words.

x / х g / ɣ / г
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
xa
ха
xa xa xa 1
ɣa
га
ga ga na
2

хэ
xe xe xe 2

гэ
ge ge ge
3
xi
хи
xi xi xi 3
gi
ги
gi gi gi
4

хo
xɔ xɔ xɔ 4
ɣɔ
го
gɔ gɔ gɔ
5

хy
xʊ xʊ xʊ 5
ɣʊ
гy
gʊ gʊ gʊ
6
xo
хө
xo xo xo 6
go
гө
go go go
7
xu
хү
xu xu xu 7
gu
гү
gu gu gu

These columns are essential in indicating vowel harmony since almost alone in the Mongolian alphabet, they clearly differentiate between masculine and feminine vowels. However, what the system gives with one hand it takes away with the other: the sounds x and g (х and г) are not distinguished for feminine and neutral vowels.

Like the previous columns, the forms indicating feminine vowels use a ligature.

The g sound is usually presented as a single phoneme in most non-specialist treatments of Mongolian, although the sound used before masculine/yang vowels is actually ɣ, while that used before feminine/yin vowels is g. While the pronunciation differs, in the modern language it is only in final position that it actually plays a role in distinguishing words.

m / м l / л
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
ma
ма
ma ma ma
ma
1
la
ла
la la la
la
2

мэ
me me me
me
2

лэ
le le le
le
3
mi
ми
mi mi mi 3
li
ли
li ni ni
4

мo
mɔ mɔ mɔ 4

ло
lɔ lɔ lɔ
5

мy
mʊ mʊ mʊ 5

лy
lʊ lʊ lʊ
6
mo
мө
mo mo mo 6
lo
лө
lo lo lo
7
mu
мү
mu mu mu 7
lu
лү
lu lu lu

Final ma / me and la / le offer a choice between a) a normal consonant-vowel combination and b) a terminating m or l followed by the letter a written separately. The choice is determined by the spelling of the word in question.

s / с ʃ / ш
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
sa
са
sa sa sa 1
ʃa
ша
ʃa ʃa ʃa
2

сэ
se se se 2
ʃə
шэ
ʃe ʃe ʃe
3
si
си
si si si 3
ʃi
ши
ʃi ʃi ʃi
4

сo
sɔ sɔ sɔ 4
ʃɔ
шо
ʃɔ ʃɔ ʃɔ
5

сy
sʊ sʊ sʊ 5
ʃʊ
шy
ʃʊ ʃʊ ʃʊ
6
so
сө
so so so 6
ʃo
шө
ʃo ʃo ʃo
7
su
сү
su su su 7
ʃu
шү
ʃu ʃu ʃu

The combinations si and ʃi are both pronounced /ʃi/.

t / т d / д
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
ta
та
ta ta ta 1
da
да
da
da
da da
2

тэ
te te te 2

дэ
de
de
de de
3
ti
ти
ti ti ti 3
di
ди
di
di
di di
4

тo
tɔ tɔ tɔ 4

до
dɔ
dɔ
dɔ dɔ
5

тy
tʊ tʊ tʊ 5

дy
dʊ
dʊ
dʊ dʊ
6
to
тө
to to to 6
do
дө
do
do
do do
7
tu
тү
tu tu tu 7
du
дү
du
du
du du

The distinction between the d and t columns in the spelling is an artificial one. Although the language distinguishes between t and d in pronunciation, the two are not distinguished in the traditional script, apart from a few foreign words.

/ ч / ж
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
tʃa
ча
tʃa tʃa tʃa 1
dʒa
жа
dʒa dʒa dʒa
2
tʃə
чэ
tʃe tʃe tʃe 2
dʒə
жэ
dʒe dʒe dʒe
3
tʃi
чи
tʃi tʃi tʃi 3
dʒi
жи
dʒi dʒi dʒi
4
tʃɔ
чo
tʃɔ tʃɔ tʃɔ 4
dʒɔ
жо
dʒɔ dʒɔ dʒɔ
5
tʃʊ
чy
tʃʊ tʃʊ tʃʊ 5
dʒʊ
жy
dʒʊ dʒʊ dʒʊ
6
tʃo
чө
tʃo tʃo tʃo 6
dʒo
жө
dʒo dʒo dʒo
7
tʃu
чү
tʃu tʃu tʃu 7
dʒu
жү
dʒu dʒu dʒu

In the Mongolian of Mongolia and also in dialects of Inner Mongolia, in a large number of words has become ts and has become dz (in Cyrillic terms, ч has become ц and ж has become з).

j / й r / р
  Initial Medial Final   Initial Medial Final
1
ja
я
ja ja ja
ja
1
ra
ра
ra ra ra
ra
2

е
je je je
je
2

рэ
re re re
re
3
ji
и
ji ji ji 3
ri
ри
ri ri ri
4

ё
jɔ jɔ jɔ 4

ро
rɔ rɔ rɔ
5

юу
jʊ jʊ jʊ 5

рy
rʊ rʊ rʊ
6
jo
ю
jo jo jo 6
ro
рө
ro ro ro
7
ju
юү
ju ju ju 7
ru
рү
ru ru ru

Both ja/je and ra/re have alternative spellings in the final position: either a standard consonant + vowel combination, or a terminal consonant followed by a separately written a. The form used depends on the word in question.

Cyrillic does very poorly at rendering the vowels of the j row.

As I mentioned above, there are several other consonants that are found only in foreign words. If you are interested in seeing these letters, see this site, which also includes sound files.

3. TABLE OF CLOSING CONSONANTS AND VOWELS

Besides the short open syllables shown in the tables above, Mongolian also has syllables finishing in a consonant (a CVC structure or indeed a CVCC structure). In other cases, the vowel may be lengthened or converted into a diphthong.

The non-syllabic consonants or vowels used to complete syllables are known in Chinese as 半音节 or 伴音节, both pronounced bàn yīnjié but meaning 'half syllable' and 'syllable accompaniment' respectively. They are divided into three groups: hard (strong), soft (weak), and vocalic. The classification is relevant to the attachment of suffixes, which we will not cover here.

The elements are as follows:

Classification Consonant or vowel Medial (syllable end) Final (word end)
Hard b / б b b
ɣ / г (after masculine/yang vowels) g g
g / г (after feminine/yin vowels) g g
r / р r r
s / с s s
d / д d d
Soft n / н n n
m / м m m
l / л l l
ŋ / н ŋ ŋ
Vocalic i / й i i
ʊ or u / у or ү ʊ or u ʊ or u

4. SYLLABIFICATION IN ACTION

The following are a few very simple examples of syllabification in action.

Word Division into syllables Notes Modern form Meaning
hele
xələ
he-le
xə-lə
Two open syllables: xe and le le. xəl
Cyrillic: хэл
'language, tongue'
muur
mʊʊr
muur
mʊʊr
The open syllable mʊ plus the additional vowel ʊʊ and consonant rr, but still one syllable. mʊʊr
Cyrillic: муур
'cat'
bars
bars
bars
bars
The open syllable ba ba plus additional consonants rr and ss, but still one syllable. bar
Cyrillic: бар
'tiger'
honh
xɔŋxʊ
hon-h
xɔŋ-xʊ
First syllable is xɔŋ, xɔ plus ŋŋ. The second syllable is open xʊ. Note the ligature between the letters for ŋ and x. xɔŋx
Cyrillic: хонх
'bell'
gahai
ɣaxai
ga-hai
ɣa-xai
First syllable is open gaɣa, second syllable consists of xaxa plus the vowel ii. ɣaxai
Cyrillic: гахай
'pig'
gurvel
gurbel
gur-vel
gur-bəl
First syllable is gugu plusrr; second syllable is be be plus ll. gurbəl
Cyrillic: гүрвэл
'lizard'
tinghim
tiŋxim
ting-him
tiŋ-xim
First syllable is titi plus ŋŋ; the second syllable is xixi closing with the letter mm. tiŋxim
Cyrillic: тинхим, usually танхим in Mongolia.
'living room'

This approach provides the student with a solid framework for learning to read and decipher the Mongolian script.

5. HOW TO DISTINGUISH VOWELS

Although Mongolian has seven vowels, in a majority of positions the script essentially distinguishes only three vowels: a, i, and o, representing a/ə, i, and ɔ/ʊ/o/u respectively (in Cyrillic, а/э, и and о/у/ө/ү). This is one of the script's most confusing points.

However, a considerable amount of uncertainty is removed by a linguistic feature of Mongolian known as vowel harmony. Vowels in Mongolian fall into three categories:

  • Strong, masculine or yang vowels: vowels 1, 4, 5 = a, ɔ, ʊ = Cyrillic а о у.
  • Weak, feminine or yin vowels: vowels 2, 6, 7 = ə, o, u = э, ө, ү.
  • neuter or neutral vowel: vowel 3 = i = й.

Incidentally, the preferred terminology for the two main classes of vowel in Inner Mongolia is yang and yin, but 'masculine' and 'feminine' will continue to be used below.

Under vowel harmony, native Mongolian words are normally harmonised to contain 1) only masculine (yang) and neutral vowels, or 2) only feminine (yin) and neutral vowels. No mixtures are allowed. A word containing neutral vowels only is treated as feminine/yin.

In most cases, the script provides vital clues as to whether a word is masculine (yang) or feminine (yin) under vowel harmony. The most important clues are:

1) The distinction between the vowels o ɔ/ʊ (masculine) and oeo/u (feminine) in initial syllables only, serving as an indication that the word as a whole is masculine (yang) or feminine (yin).

2) The distinction between plain vowels 1 and 2 (a and e) in initial syllables only, which distinguishes masculine a (Cyrillic а) and feminine ə (Cyrillic э). However, there is no distinction if the initial syllable starts with a consonant. In such cases the reader must look for other signs.

3) Clear vowel harmony distinctions are drawn in the x and g (ɣ) columns (Cyrillic х and г), with different letters used in front of masculine/yang vowels, and feminine/yin or neutral vowels respectively.

4) Vowel harmony is also shown by the letter used for syllable-final g / ɣ (Cyrillic г), which differs according to the vowel harmony category of the word (see above).

6. EXAMPLES OF VOWEL HARMONY IN SPELLING

Word Division into syllables Notes Modern form Meaning
shoru
ʃɔrʊ
sho-ru
ʃɔ-rʊ
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by vowel ɔ ɔ in the first syllable. Final vowel harmonized to ʊ.
ʃɔr
Cyrillic: шор
'pointed'
shuru
ʃoru
shu ru
ʃo-ru
Feminine/yin word.
Category made clear by vowel ɔ o in the first syllable. Final vowel harmonized to u.
ʃоr
Cyrillic: шөр (more usually шөрөг in Mongolia)
'fence'
boljomor
bɔldʒʊmʊr
bol jo mor
bɔl-dʒʊ-mʊr
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by vowel ɔ ɔ in the first syllable. Vowels in following syllables harmonised to ʊ.
bɔldʒmɔr
Cyrillic: болжмор
'sparrow, lark'
tomusu
tomusu
to mu su
to-mu-su
Feminine/yin word.
Category made clear by vowel ɔ o in the first syllable. Vowels in following syllables harmonised to u.
toms
Cyrillic: төмс
'potato'
aav
abʊ
a bu
a-bʊ
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by initial vowel a a. The final vowel is harmonised to ʊ.
aab
Cyrillic аав
'father'
eej
ədʒi
e ji
ə-dʒi
Feminine/yin word.
Category made clear by the initial vowel a e, which is a feminine/yin vowel.
ə:dʒ
Cyrillic: ээж
'mother'
malagai
malaɣai
ma la gai
ma-la-ɣai
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by use of ga ga in medial position (this is a distinctive masculine form in the g column). Vowels are harmonised to a.
malɣai
Cyrillic: малгай
'hat'
melehei
mələxəi
me le hei
mə-lə-xəi
Feminine/yin word.
Category made clear by use of ga xe in medial position (this is a distinctive feminine form in the x row). Vowels are harmonised to e.
məlxi:
Cyrillic: мэлхий
'frog'
bogu
bʊɣʊ
bo gu
bʊ-ɣʊ
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by vowel ɔ ʊ in the first syllable and the form go ɣʊ in the final syllable.
bʊg
Cyrillic: буга
'deer'
mogu
mogu
mo gu
mo-gu
Feminine/yin word.
Category made clear by vowel ɔ o in the first syllable and the form gu gu in the final syllable.
mog
Cyrillic: мөг
'mushroom'
imaga
imaɣa
i ma ga
i-ma-ɣa
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by the occurence of word-final ga ɣa form.
jama:
Cyrillic: ямаа
'goat'
tsag
tsag
tsag
tsag
Masculine/yang word.
Category made clear by the occurrence of the syllable-closing g g form, which follows masculine/yang vowels.
tsag
Cyrillic: цаг
'clock, time'
tsetseg
tsətsəg
tse tseg
tsə-tsəg
Feminine/yin word.
Category made clear by the occurrence of the syllable-closing g g form, which follows feminine/yin vowels.
tsətsəg
Cyrillic: цэцэг
'flower'

While vowel harmony does a lot to disambiguate vowels, there are many forms containing vowels 1 and 2 (a and e, Cyrillic а and э) that fall between the cracks, with actual or potential multiple readings. A couple of examples are:

Word Division into syllables Notes Modern form Meaning
sam
sam
ba na na
sam
No indication of vowel harmony class. Can also be read sem, meaning 'quietly'. sam
Cyrillic: сам
'comb'
nere
nərə
ne-re
nə-rə
No indication of vowel harmony category. Could conceivably be read as nara. The word nara exists, meaning 'sun', but is distinguished by being written nara nara. nər
Cyrillic: нэр
'name'
seleme
sələmə
se le me
sə-lə-mə
No indication of vowel harmony. Could theoretically be read salama; however, this word does not exist. sələm
Cyrillic: сэлэм
'sword'

A more serious problem is the fact that the script draws no distinction between vowels 4 and 5 (ɔ and ʊ, Cyrillic о and y), and between vowels 6 and 7 (o and u, Cyrillic ө and ү). Arriving at the correct pronunciation of these sounds is a matter of identifying the word and knowing how it is pronounced.

While this may appear to be a serious drawback, it does have its advantages. The choice of vowel 4 or 5, or vowel 6 or 7, often differs between dialects. For example, the word morən 'river' (Cyrillic мөрөн) is pronounced murən (theoretically Cyrillic мүрэн) in dialects in the east of Inner Mongolia. Whereas Cyrillic forces a differentiation and recognises only morən, the indeterminacy of the traditional script allows it to accommodate both pronunciations.

7. OTHER AMBIGUITIES

Besides problems distinguishing among vowels, there are several other issues reading the script. These include:

1) The existence of cases where a can be read either a (Cyrillic а) or ən (Cyrillic эн).

2) The failure to distinguish between t and d in the vast majority of cases.

3) The failure to distinguish between g and x before feminine/yin and neutral vowels.

ende
əndə
en de
ən-də
Can also be read:
1) ada 'demon' (due to the confusion between a and en) -- modern Mongolian ad Cyrillic ад, or
2) ata 'gelding over five years old' (due to additional confusion between t and d) -- modern Mongolian at or Cyrillic ат.
ənd
Cyrillic: энд
'here'
gereltene or hereldene
gərəltunə
gereltene
gə-rəl-tu-ne
Can also be read xereldune 'fight', due to failure to distinguish g/x and t/d. gərəltənə
Cyrillic: гэрэлтэнэ
'twinkle'

8. CITATION FORMS (INDEPENDENT SYLLABLES)

There are some occasions when an open syllable stands alone as a single unit, not forming part of a word. This is the case 1) when the syllable is cited as an independent form, for example in the index of dictionaries, or 2) when a word is formed of a single syllable.

Words written with these forms include bi bi (Cyrillic би) meaning 'I, me' and la la (Cyrillic лаа) meaning 'wax'.

(Conversion between handwritten and printed forms is here.)

  Vowels n / н b / б p / п x / х g / ɣ / г m / м l / л s / с ʃ / ш t / т d / д / ч / ж j / й r / р
1
a
а
a na ba pe xa ɣa ma la sa ʃa ta da tʃa dʒa ja ra
2
e
э
e na be pa xe ge me le be ʃe te de tʃe dʒe je re
3
i
и
i ni bi pi xi gi mi li si ʃi ti di tʃi dʒi ji ri
4
ɔ
o
ɔ nɔ bɔ pɔ xɔ ɣɔ mɔ lɔ sɔ ʃɔ tɔ dɔ tʃɔ dʒɔ jɔ rɔ
5
ʊ
y
ʊ nʊ bʊ pʊ xʊ ɣʊ mʊ lʊ sʊ ʃʊ tʊ dʊ tʃʊ dʒʊ jʊ rʊ
6
o
ө
o no bo po xo go mo lo so ʃo to do tʃo dʒo jo ro
7
u
ү
u nu bu pu xu gu mu lu su ʃu tu du tʃu dʒu ju ru

Examples and writing on this page are drawn from the book Mongol chagaan tolgai kart (Cyrillic Монгол цагаан толгой карт) published by Inner Mongolian People's Publishing (ISBN 7204089375/G); see here for details and photo.

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