Bathrobe's East Asian Writing Systems
unicode encoded

Mongolian Script Home >
|| envelope


Looking up dictionaries in the Traditional Mongolian alphabet (Inner Mongolia)

I have no idea how dictionaries of the traditional Mongolian alphabet were organised in olden times -- I've never seen one. I have, however, seen modern Inner Mongolian dictionaries arranged according to the traditional script. Or to be precise, I've seen one Mongolian-Chinese dictionary ( the 蒙汉词典/Cyrillic: Монгол Хятад Толь), one Mongolian-only dictionary (Монгол Хэлний Товч Тайлбар Толь), and one on-line Mongolian-only dictionary arranged according to the traditional script. It is these that I will cover here.

Under the arrangement used in Inner Mongolia, looking up words in the Mongolian traditional alphabet is quite different from looking up words in English alphabetic dictionaries. To look up an English-language dictionary, you just need to know the alphabetical order. If you know this, you can find any word in the dictionary purely from its spelling (although not necessarily inflected forms.)

This approach does not work in Inner Mongolian dictionaries. Dictionaries arranged in terms of the traditional alphabet assume an acquaintance with the way that the traditional script is taught in Inner Mongolia, including knowledge of the traditional pronunciation of the word.

1. Principles 2. Index of syllables 3. Examples 4. Non-syllabic letters 5. Another thing...



The basic principles in understanding the system are:

1. The dictionary is split up according to the first syllable of the word.

2. The order used is that taught in the school system (see Making sense of the Traditional Mongolian Script). Under this system, syllables are arranged in a matrix according to pronunciation, whereby syllables that are written identically but pronounced differently are put in separate rows. Inner Mongolian dictionaries follow this practice by assigning words that have initial syllables that are written identically but are pronounced differently to different sections of the dictionary.

3. Since many syllables are ambiguous as to pronunciation, looking up words of which the correct (traditional) pronunciation is not known involves looking through at least two, possibly four different sections of the dictionary.

4. Within each section, the same ordering of syllables is followed in arranging words. However,

a. Non-syllabic letters (those not followed by a vowel) are incorporated in the ordering in the following way. Those that end the word come immediately before open syllables of the corresponding consonant. Those that end the syllable (i.e. are followed by another consonant) come immediately after open syllables of the corresponding consonant.

b. Vowel-lengthening letters or diphthongs follow their natural ordering as vowels.


The following table is the index to the Mongolian-language dictionary at and demonstrates the standard order used in Inner Mongolia. (The table is in printed form. For conversion between printed and handwritten forms, see Conversion tables).

dictionary index

The table is to be read from top to bottom, starting at the top left hand corner and working to the right.

The first column (on the left) is the vowels as they are found at the start of words, in the order:

IPA: a, e, i, ɔ, ʊ, o, u
Cyrillic: а, э, и, о, у, ө, ү
Conventional romanisation: a, e, i, o, u, ö, ü

The subsequent columns show the vowels as preceded by the different consonants in turn, in the order:

IPA: n, b, p, x, g / ɣ, m, l, s, ʃ, t, d, , , j, r
Cyrillic: н, б, п, х, г, м, л, с, ш, т, д, ч/ц, ж/з, й, р (some classical sounds have split into two, represented as ч/ц, ж/з in Cyrillic).
Conventional romanisations: n, b, p, h (or kh), g, m, l, s, š (or sh), t, d, č (or ch), ǧ (or j), y, r

The final column shows letters used in foreign words: va, fa, ka, tsa, dza, xa, lxa (Cyrillic ва, фа, ка, ца, за, ха, лха).

The following tables (one for IPA, one for Cyrillic) show the order of letter combinations in the above table:


a na ba pa xa ɣa ma la sa ʃa ta da tʃa dʒa ja ra va
e ne be pe xe ge me le se ʃe te de tʃe dʒe je re fa
i ni bi pi xi gi mi li si ʃi ti di tʃi dʒi ji ri ka
ɔ ɣɔ ʃɔ tʃɔ dʒɔ tsa
ʊ ɣʊ ʃʊ tʃʊ dʒʊ dza
o no bo po xo go mo lo so ʃo to do tʃo dʒo jo ro xa
u nu bu pu xu gu mu lu su ʃu tu du tʃu dʒu ju ru lxa


а на ба па ха га ма ла са ша та да ча/ца жа/за я ра ва
э нэ бэ пэ хэ гэ мэ лэ сэ шэ тэ дэ чэ/цэ жэ/зэ е рэ фа
и ни би пи хи ги ми ли си ши ти ди чи/ци жи/зи и ри ка
о но бо по хо го мо ло со шо то до чо/цо жо/зо ё ро ца
у ну бу пу ху гу му лу су шу ту ду чу/цу жу/зу юу ру за
ө нө бө пө хө гө мө лө сө шө тө дө чө/цө жө/зө ю рө ха
ү нү бү пү хү гү мү лү сү шү тү дү чү/цү жү/зө юү рү лха

Setting out the table in IPA and Cyrillic shows very clearly the order followed by the dictionary. Unfortunately, because the Mongolian traditional script is ambiguous as to several groups of vowel sounds and also several consonants, this order is not at all clear from looking at the traditional alphabetic index.

The vowels a and e, ɔ and ʊ, and o and u respectively are not systematically distinguished. (In Cyrillic this corresponds to а and э, о and у, and ө and ү. In conventional romanisations it corresponds to a and e, o and u, ö and ü).

The consonants x and g / ɣ (corresponding to Cyrillic х and г) are not distinguished before feminine/yin vowels. Also, the consonants t and d (т and д) are in practice almost never distinguished.

The above index is reproduced again below showing those letters which are ambiguous as to pronunciation. Those ambiguous between two vowels are shown in green; those ambiguous between two consonants are shown in blue; those ambiguous between both vowels and consonants (four possible readings) are shown in maroon.

dictionary index with ambiguities highlighted

In looking up a word, the user must mentally convert the syllable to its correct pronunciation to find its place in the dictionary. If the correct pronunciation is not known, the user must be prepared to check in two or more different sections.

The situation is not, of course, quite as dire as it appears, since the a and e (Cyrillic а and э) rows can often be distinguished if there is indication of vowel harmony in the word. But for the most part, without knowing the correct pronunciation (i.e., the place of the syllable in the table), the user is condemned to looking through several different parts of the dictionary.


The following are a few examples of what this entails.

ejiis simple to look up because there is only one place to look, under e e (Cyrillic э). The second syllable is also a simple ji. The meaning is 'mother' (Chinese 妈 ), modern pronunciation e:dʒ. (The dictionary gives the standard Inner Mongolian pronunciation ə:dʒ). eji definition
bugu must be checked at two places, and (Cyrillic бо and бу, traditional romanisation bo and bu). Both are written bo. Upon checking both we will find that only one alternative actually exists, with the traditional pronunciation bʊɣʊ, NOT bɔɣʊ. The meaning is 'deer' (Chinese 鹿 ), dictionary entry shown at right. definition of bugu
hola must also be checked at two places, and (Cyrillic хо and ху, traditional romanisation ho and hu or kho and khu). Both are written hu. Upon checking we will find this word at both places. Pronounced xɔla it means 'far'; pronounced xʊla it means 'yellowish-brown, fawn'. The modern pronunciations are xɔl and xʊl (Cyrillic хол and хул). The two dictionary definitions are shown at right (Chinese 远 yuǎn 'far', 金黄毛 jīnhuángmáo 'golden-yellow hair (of horse)'). holahula
dalaiprintmust be checked at four places, under ta, te, da, and de (Cyrillic та, тэ, да, дэ). All are normally written da ta. Upon checking all four, we will find two words that are spelt this way: dalai ('sea') and telei ('waist-cord, belt'). In their modern pronunciation they are dalai and telii (далай and тэлий) respectively. Dictionary entries are shown at right (Chinese 海 hǎi 'sea' and 裤带 kùdài 'trouser-cord' respectively). dalaitelii


As mentioned above, non-syllabic consonants (those used to end a syllable or to lengthen a syllable or transform it into a diphthong) are placed in a particular order inside the dictionary. In the case of consonants, consonants that end words are listed first, then consonants followed by vowels (i.e., those that form syllables), and finally consonants that close syllables and are followed by another consonant. To take the consonant r in the jɔ dʒɔ (Cyrillic жо) section as an example (selected entries only):

r r in word-final position dʒɔr
The consonant r r ends the word and is not syllabic (i.e., not followed by a vowel). This is therefore the first entry. 'Fortune, good luck'
modern Cyrillic зор;
also 'medical dispensary' modern Cyrillic жор.
riri dʒɔri
The consonant r r is followed by the final vowel i i. 'Target', modern Cyrillic зорь (sometimes seen but not listed in dictionaries).
riri is followed by the syllable xʊ . 'To strive, to aim for', modern Cyrillic зорих.
riri is followed by the word-ending consonant gɣ. 'Bravery', modern Cyrillic зориг.
riri is followed by the syllable ɣʊ ɣʊ. 'To dedicate, to do sth for', modern Cyrillic зориулах.
riri is followed by the syllable-final consonant ɣɣ (i.e., it is not followed by a vowel). 'To be brave', modern Cyrillic зоригтой.
rɔ dʒɔrʊ
The consonant r r is followed by the final vowel rɔ ʊ. (Note: there does not seem to be uninamity whether it is ɔ or ʊ in this position). Part of expression meaning 'be arrogant, overbearing'. Modern Cyrillic зор.
rɔ is followed by the syllable xon xɔn. Part of expression referring to 'wren', in modern Cyrillic зорхон.
r r plus consonant dʒɔrxʊ
r r is followed by the syllable x . 'Whittle, plane', modern Cyrillic зорох.
dʒɔrlɔŋdʒɔrlɔŋ r r is followed by the syllable lɔŋ lɔŋ. 'Toilet', modern Cyrillic жорлон.
dʒɔrtaidʒɔrtai r r is followed by the syllable tai tai. 'Lucky', modern Cyrillic зортой'.
r r is followed by the syllable t tʃi. 'Go back and forth, travel, totter (infant's steps)', modern Cyrillic зорчих.

The same applies to other letters. The examples at riri show the same principle in action for gɣ / ɣʊ ɣʊ / ɣɣ.

At the n series, note that syllable-final ŋ ŋ precedes syllable-final n n (similarly for word-final forms).


The decision to split entries not purely according to spelling but according to the traditional pronunciation of the syllable within the syllable matrix makes using a Mongolian dictionary much less convenient than it should be. But if you're not completely familiar with the organisation of the traditional script, your travails will be needlessly aggravated by the way the index is set out in the endpapers in the 蒙汉词典 / Монгол Хятад Толь. This is the list of syllables (sections) in the dictionary, an arrangement which is guaranteed to make the eyes glaze over. (Note: this table uses citation forms of the syllables, unlike the dictionary).


The table actually consists of three parts, as shown below:

index split

The Монгол Хэлний Товч Тайлбар Толь does a better job (although with errors):

tovch tailbar toli index


Back to Top

JavaScript Menu By Milonic