Learning Inner Mongolian (2): Spelling pronunciations as a method of teaching

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2 Responses to Learning Inner Mongolian (2): Spelling pronunciations as a method of teaching

  1. This brings memories. I taught myself English from videogames, and the videogames of my childhood were text-only. As a result, I actually learned English spelling-pronounciations before the spoken language, and to this day I still often mispronounce words using my own absurd spelling-based idiolect.

    I think the two characteristics you cite above are the rule rather than the exception—most “phonetic” writing systems are at some distance from actual speech, and both over- and under-specify phonemes. For example, Brazilian Portuguese [ʎ] is spelt as ‹lh› in filha (from Latin filia) and as ‹li› in família (L. familia)—for purely arbitrary reasons, the standard spelling of the latter is more conservative. Literate speakers will insist they pronounce the two words differently, even though they don’t. On the other hand, there’s no way to represent the lowering of unstressed final vowels—[o.vʊ] is spelled ‹ovo›, [le.mɪ] ‹le.me›; and the letter ‹x› can stand for all of [s, ʃ, ks, z, ∅].

    Recall that this is a direct descendant of Latin, the language for which the Latin alphabet was designed; even then, there’s such a gulf.

    From your description, Mongolian might have it worse, though (like French or English). I’m curious about something: if someone try to speak the language using the spelling pronounciations (say a language learner), will it be intelligible? In Brazilian Portuguese it would sound unnatural and strange, but still intelligible; while in English it would prevent communication (as I learned the hard way, trying to call a taxi in Arizona). But if Mongolians learn spelling-pronunciations in school…

    • khanbaliqist says:

      Well, since I’m not a native speaker and don’t have enough knowledge of the language, I can’t say one way or another. But you have to remember that this is about Inner Mongolian. Perhaps you would be understood if you spoke like a book in Inner Mongolia, given that kids learn it that way in school. But in Mongolia, where Cyrillic is universally used in written communication, I think you would have much greater difficulty being understood if you pronounced words as they are spelt in the traditional alphabet (in addition to being rejected as a weirdo). The traditional alphabet is taught at school in Mongolia (I’m not sure of the method used), but most people forget it since they never use it.

      I listed those two general characteristics as a rough explanation of why the traditional script is normally considered difficult to learn and read. I agree that those problems exist in many writing systems, even ‘phonetic’ ones, but the old Mongolian script happens to have them very bad.

      Mongolian has seven vowels according to the Cyrillic orthography: а э и о у ө ү. Of these, о and у are written identically in initial syllables, as are ө and ү. Moreover, о у ө ү are all written identically in non-initial syllables. In addition, а and э are distinguished only as an initial vowel (except in many foreign words, where э is distinguished from а in all positions).

      Because а о у and э ө ү form two separate groups under vowel harmony, a word just needs to have an indication of vowel harmony in order for а to be distinguished from э, and о/у to be distinguished from ө/ү. Indication of vowel harmony is found mainly in words containing the consonants х and г, and in words beginning with а or э (distinguished in initial position). Where no indication is given, there is no way of deciding between а and э. Even where the vowel harmony category of the word is clear, there is never any way of distinguishing between о and у or ө and ү.

      I think this is somewhat more severe than what is found in most alphabetic scripts.