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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. To be precise, I've seen:

It is these that I will cover here. Looking up words in the Mongolian traditional alphabet is quite different from looking up words in English dictionaries. For English, you just need to know the alphabetical order and you can find any word (except inflected forms) purely from its spelling.

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. In particular, you need to know the traditional pronunciation of the word.

1. Principles 2. Index of syllables 3. Romanised 4. Examples 5. Non-syllabic letters 6. Another thing...



The basic principles in understanding the system are:

1. Whereas English dictionaries are split up according to the first letter of each word (starting with the letter A, the letter B, etc., right down to the letter Z), Mongolian dictionaries are divided 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). This arranges syllables in a matrix according to both form and pronunciation. This means that syllables that are written identically but pronounced differently are put in separate rows. Words that have initial syllables that are written identically but are pronounced differently are assigned to different sections of the dictionary.

3. Since many syllables are ambiguous as to pronunciation, to look up words when 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 arrangement is again according to syllables. However, note that

a. Non-syllabic letters (consonants that close a syllable or word) precede open syllables at the end of a word, but follow open syllables inside a word.

b. Vowel-lengthening letters or diphthongs follow their normal 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. Using the modern Inner Mongolian sounds (written in IPA) and the Cyrillic alphabet, the order is:

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 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 (note that some classical consonants have split in 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 on the right shows letters used in foreign words: va, fa, ka, tsa, dza, xa, lxa (Cyrillic ва, фа, ка, ца, за, ха, лха).

The order of letter combinations in the above table areas follows (one giving IPA Inner Mongolian pronunciation, one using Cyrillic):

IPA (as used elsewhere on this site):

a na ba pa xa ɣa ma la sa ʃa ta da tʃa dʒa ja ra va
ə ʃə tʃə dʒə 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

Conventional romanisation as used in 蒙汉词典/Cyrillic: Монгол Хятад Толь:

a na ba pa xa ɣa ma la sa ša ta da ča ǰa ya ra wa
e ne be pe xe ge me le se še te de če ǰe ye re fa
i ni bi pi xi gi mi li si ši ti di či ǰi yi ri ka
o no bo po xo ɣo mo lo so šo to do čo ǰo yo ro ca
u nu bu pu xu ɣu mu lu su šu tu du ču ǰu yu ru za
ö šö čö ǰö ha
ü šü čü ǰü lha

There is another romanisation that uses letters with a horizontal stroke though the vowel in preference to the diaeresis (umlaut). This is used in the large Монгол Хэлний Толь. Note that this dictionary also places the l column before the m column.

Setting out the table in IPA, Cyrillic, and conventional romanisation shows very clearly the order followed by the dictionary. However, this order is not at all clear from looking at the traditional alphabetic index because the traditional script is ambiguous as to certain vowels and consonants:

The vowel sets a and ə, ɔ and ʊ, and o and u 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.

Here the index is reproduced showing those letters that are ambiguous as to pronunciation. Letters 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 ə (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, the user is condemned to looking through several different parts of the dictionary.


One feature of the 蒙汉词典/Cyrillic: Монгол Хятад Толь and the Монгол Хэлний Толь is the provision of a romanised form of the entry. This is given in the conventional romanised spelling shown above, or a modification thereof. This is extremely helpful as it shows the entry exactly in the form used for ordering the dictionary. For example, dalaiprint is given in 蒙汉词典 with the romanisation dalai. This indicates that the word is dalai in the traditional spelling, and that it will thus be found in the section for da.

This same dictionary then gives the modern Inner Mongolian pronunciation using the IPA alphabet. In this case this is dalæ:. The use of two different romanisations can be confusing. For instance the same word is represented as čöm for the traditional spelling and as ʧom for the modern Inner Mongolian pronunciation using IPA, even though these represent virtually identical sounds. (See tables below to see how this looks in practice.)

Some dictionaries (Монгол Хэлний Товч Тайлбар Толь and Монгол Хэлний Толь) give the modern Cyrillic spelling of each word.


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 ə (Cyrillic э). The second syllable is also a simple ji. The meaning is 'mother' (Chinese 妈 ), modern 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 , kho and khu, or xo and xu). Both are written hu. Upon checking we will find this word at both places. As xɔla it means 'far'; as 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, , da, and (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 tələi ('waist-cord, belt'). In their modern pronunciation they are dalai and təli: (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


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