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.)
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.
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:
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).
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:
The order of vowels is:
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.
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 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 for 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.
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.
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.
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.
The combinations si and ʃi are both pronounced /ʃi/.
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.
In the Mongolian of Mongolia and also in dialects of Inner Mongolia, in a large number of words tʃ has become ts and dʒ has become dz (in Cyrillic terms, ч has become ц and ж has become з).
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.
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:
The following are a few very simple examples of syllabification in action.
This approach provides the student with a solid framework for learning to read and decipher the Mongolian script.
Although Mongolian has seven vowels, in a majority of positions the script essentially distinguishes only three vowels: , , and , 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:
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:
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:
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.
Besides problems distinguishing among vowels, there are several other issues reading the script. These include:
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 (Cyrillic би) meaning 'I, me' and la (Cyrillic лаа) meaning 'wax'.
(Conversion between handwritten and printed forms is here.)
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.