Mongolian language

The Mongolian language (, Mongɣol kele, Cyrillic: Монгол хэл, Mongol khel) is the best-known member of the Mongolic language family and the language of most of the residents of Mongolia, where it is officially written with the Cyrillic alphabet and of around three million Mongolian speakers in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, where it is officially written with the traditional Mongolian script. It is also spoken in some areas in the Russian Far East and Kyrgyzstan. The majority of speakers in Mongolia speak the Khalkha (or Halh) dialect, while those in China speak one of multiple Inner Mongolian dialects. There is officially a standard pronunciation “based” on the Chakhar dialect of the Plain Blue Banner. A standard grammar and vocabulary is from a so-called “Inner Mongolian dialect” which is contrasted to the Oirat and Barghu-Buryat dialect. It is thus comprised of dialectal varieties that differ from each other so substantially as to effectively preclude a common standard.


Mongolian is a Mongolic language. The Altaic theory proposes that the Mongolic family is a member of the larger Altaic family, which would also include the Turkic and Tungusic languages. Related Mongolic languages in any case include the probably extinct Moghol language of Afghanistan, Khamnigan (in the Khentij ajmag of Mongolia and the Ewenki Autonomous Arrow of the Old Bargut Banner of Inner Mongolia) and Dagur in the East of Greater Mongolia and Shira Yugur, Bonan, Santa and Monguor in Qinghai and Gansu. Oirat (consisting of Kalmyk and Oirat varieties spoken in China) and Buryat are sometimes considered to be major dialects and sometimes as Mongolic languages of their own right, and there are scientists who hold that Ordos is an independent language as well.

Geographic distribution and dialects

Mongolian is the national language of the Republic of Mongolia where it is spoken by more than two million people and an official language of Inner Mongolia where it is spoken by up to three million speakers. However, as many Inner Mongolians are bilingual in Chinese, the use of Mongolian is declining among younger speakers in urban areas.

The delimitation of the Mongolian language is a problem to which different scholars hold notably different opinions and that – in order to get a conclusive answer – would require comparable criteria within one dialectological framework that would ultimately account for the sociolinguistic as well as for the historical situation of the Mongolian dialect continuum. And while phonological and lexical studies are comparatively well developed , the basis for a comparative morpho-syntactic study, eg between such highly diverse varieties as Khalkh and Khorchin, is not yet given.

To begin with, there is no disagreement that the Khalkh dialect of the Mongolian state is Mongolian . But immediately after fixing this one point, classificational problems arise. For example, the influential classification of Sanžeev (1953) proposed that Buryat and Oirat be independent Mongolic languages, but that such dialects as Čaqar and Ordos belong to a “Mongolian language”. On the other hand, Luvsanvandan (1959) proposed a “Mongolian language” consisting of a Central dialect (Khalkh, Čaqar, Ordos), an Eastern dialect (Qaračin, Qorčin), a Western dialect (the Oirat spoken in Xinjiang and the Kalmyk language) and a Northern dialect (consisting of two Buryat varieties). Western scholars often propose that the relatively well-researched Ordos variety be an independent language (eg Janhunen 2003).

While the whereabouts of a variety like Alaša that is under the cultural influence of Inner Mongolia, but is historically tied to Oirat and the similar whereabouts of other bordering varieties must remain problematic in any classification, the question of how to classify Čaqar, Khalkh and Qorčin in relation to each other and in relation to Buryat and Oirat remains at the centre of the problem. While the split of ʧ into ʧ before *i and ʦ before all other vowels in Outer Mongolia and its lack in Inner Mongolia (eg Proto-Mongolic *ʧil, Khalkha [ʧiɮ], Chakhar [ʧil] 'year' vs. Proto-Mongolic ʧøhelen, Khalkha [ʦooɮəŋ], Chakhar [ʧooləŋ] 'few') is often cited as a criterion of importance, the split between the past tense verbal suffixes -sŋ in the Central dialect vs. -ʤɛ: in the Eastern dialect that is blurred by the school grammar which treats several dialectal varieties as one coherent grammatical system is more often only seen as a stochastic difference.


Mongolian divides vowels into two groups in a system of vowel harmony. For historical reasons, these have traditionally been labeled as "front vowels" (e, u, o) and "back vowels, "(a,ʊ,ɔ). However, an analysis of these groups as what can be termed "non-pharyngeal" (formerly "front") and "pharyngeal" (formerly "back") instead seems more appropriate. There is also one neutral vowel, /i/, which does not belong to either group.

All the vowels in a non-compound word, including all its suffixes, must belong to the same group. If the first vowel is pharyngeal, then every vowel of the word must be either /i/ or a pharyngeal vowel. Likewise, if the first vowel is a non-pharyngeal vowel, then every vowel of the word must be either /i/ or a non-pharyngeal vowel. In the case of suffixes, which must change their vowels to conform to different words, there are roughly two patterns. Some suffixes can occur with /a/, /ɔ/, /e/, or /o/, following the last phonemic vowel in the word stem, in which case /ʊ/ and /u/ lead to [a] and [e] respectively. For example, /orx/ ‘household’ + /Ar/ ‘instrumental’ → /orxor/ ‘by a household’, /xarʊɮ/ ‘sentry’ + /Ar/ ‘instrumental’ → /xarʊɮar/ ‘by a sentry’. Other suffixes can occur in either /ʊ/ or /u/, in which case all pharyngeal vowels lead to /ʊ/ and all non-pharyngeal vowels lead to /u/. For example, /aw/ ‘to take’ + /Uɮ/ ‘causative’ → /awʊɮ/. If the only vowel in the word stem is /i/, the suffixes will use the non-pharyngeal suffix forms.

Pronunciation of long and short vowels depends on the syllable's position in the word. In word-initial syllables there is a straightforward difference in length. In word-internal and word-final syllables, long vowels are not as long and short vowels are short to the point where, in many non-initial syllables, there is phonemically speaking no vowel at all. For example, 'two', 'work', and 'neutral' are, phonemically, /xɔjr/, /atʃɮ/, and /saːrmɡ/ respectively. In such cases, an epenthetic vowel is allophonically inserted so as to prevent disallowed consonant clusters. Thus, in the examples given above, the words are phonetically [xɔjɔ̆r], [atʃĭɮ], and [saːrmăɡ]. The phonetic form of the epenthetic vowel follows from that of the vowel in the preceding syllable. Usually it is a centralized version of the same sound, with the following exceptions: /u/ produces [e], /i/ will be ignored if there is a non-neutral vowel earlier in the word, and a postalveolar or palatalized consonant will be followed by an epenthetic [i], as in [atʃĭɮ].

In the consonant system, the occurance of palatalized consonant phonemes seems to be restricted to words that contain pharyngeal vowels.

Vowel chart

Front Central Back
Short Long Short Long Short Long
Close i u
Near-Close ʊ ʊː
Close-Mid e o
Open-mid ɔ ɔː
Open a

Mongolian also has four diphthongs, /ui/, /ʊi/, /ɔi/, and /ai/. Short /o/ is phonetically [[[Close-mid_central_rounded_vowel|ɵ]]].

Consonant chart

Labial Dental Palatal Velar Uvular
Plain Palatalized Plain Palatalized Palatalized Plain
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive Voiceless aspirated (pʰ) (pʲʰ) tʲʰ (kʲʰ) (kʰ)
Voiceless p t
Voiced ɡʲ ɡ ɢ
Affricate Voiceless aspirated tsʰ tʃʰ
Voiceless (f) ts
Fricative s ʃ x
Lateral fricative ɮ ɮʲ
Trill r
Approximant w̜ʲ j

Mongolian lacks a true phoneme /l/; instead, it has a voiced alveolar lateral fricative, /ɮ/. Syllable-finally, /n/ (if it doesn't precede another /n/) is realized as [ŋ]. The consonants in parentheses occur only in loanwords.


The following description is based primarily on urban Khalkha Mongolian, but much of it is also valid for Southern Central Mongolian, especially Chahar.


Modern Mongolian is an agglutinative, exclusively suffixing language; the suffixes are most often composed of a single morpheme. It has a rich number of morphemes to build up more complex words from simple roots. For example, the word consists of the root ‘to be’, an epenthetic <-g->, the causative <-uul-> (then ‘to found’), the derivative suffix <-laga> that forms nouns created by the action (‘organisation’) and the complex suffix <–ynh> denoting something that belongs to the modified word (<-yn> would be genitive).

Nominal compounds are quite frequent. Some derivational verbal suffixes are rather productive, e.g. 'to speak', 'to speak with each other'. Formally, verbal suffixes that create independent words can roughly be divided into three classes: final verbs, which can only be used sentence-finally, i.e. <-na> (mainly future or generic statements) or –ø (second person imperative); participles (often called “verbal nouns”), which can be used clause-finally or attributively, i.e. <-san> (perfect-past) or <-maar> (‘want to’); and converbs, which can link clauses or function adverbially, i.e. <-ž> (qualifies for any adverbial function or neutrally connects two sentences) or <-tal> (the action of the main clause takes place until the action expressed by the suffixed verb begins).

Roughly speaking, Mongolian has eight cases: nominative (unmarked), genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, instrumental, comitative and directional. In addition, a number of postpositions exist that usually govern genitive, ablative or comitative case or an oblique form, that is, the stem plus sometimes -Vn either for lexical historical reasons or analogy (thus maybe becoming an attributive case suffix). Nouns can take reflexive-possessive clitics indicating that the marked noun is possessed by the subject of the sentence: I friend-reflexive-possessive save-perfect ‘I saved my friend’. There are also somewhat noun-like adjectives that, however, seem to be only able to immediately take case suffixes in the case of ellipsis. Plurality may be unmarked, but there are overt markers some of which are restricted to humans. A noun that is modified by a numeral usually doesn't take any plural affix.

Personal pronouns exist for the first and second person, while the old demonstrative pronouns have come to form third person (proximal and distal) pronouns. Other word (sub-)classes include interrogative pronouns, conjunctions (which take participles), spatials and quite a few particles.

Negation is mostly expressed by <-güj> after participles and by the negation particle after nouns and adjectives; negation particles preceding the verb (for example in converbal constructions) exist, but tend to be replaced by analytical constructions.


Phrase structure

The nominal phrase has the order: demonstrative pronoun/numeral, adjective, noun. Attributive sentences usually precede the whole NP. Titles or occupations of people, low numerals indicating groups and focus clitics are put behind the head noun. Possessive pronouns (in different forms) may either precede or follow the NP. E.g. we-genitive meet-perfective that beautiful young_man-ablative focus ‘even from that beautiful young man that we have met’, Dorj teacher our ‘our teacher Dorj’.

The verbal phrase consists of the predicate’s complements and the adverbials modifying it in front of it and, mainly if the predicate is sentence-final, modal particles behind it. E.g. S/he without_saying it-accusative write-perfective particle ‘She wrote it without saying [i.e. that she would do so] (so I can assure you).’ In this clause the adverbial should precede the complement as it is itself derived from a verb and could take ‘it’ as its complement. If the adverbial was an adjective à la 'fast', it could immediately precede the predicate. There are also instances in which the adverb must immediately precede the predicate.

The predicate itself may consist of a noun or an adjective with or without a copula, but if the subject isn’t marked by or as topic, a bare noun will look a little awkward. Most often, of course, a verb is used. Auxiliaries that express direction and aktionsart among other meanings can with the assistance of a linking converb occupy the position immediately behind the verb, eg drink-CV leave-perfect 'drank up'. The next position is filled by converb suffixes in connection with the auxiliary ‘to be’, eg s/he run-converb be-nonpast ‘She is running’. Meanings expressed in this position are aspectual in nature, eg progressive and resultative. In the next position, participles followed by may follow, eg s/he come-perfect be-nonpast ‘He has come’. Here, an explicit perfect and habituality can be marked, which is aspectual meaning as well. This position can be occupied more than once in one predication, and it can still be followed by a converbal Progressive. The last position is occupied by suffixes that express tense, modality and aspect.


Unmarked phrase order is subject, object, predicate (also referred to as SOV). While the predicate generally has to remain in clause-final position, the other phrases are free to change order or to wholly disappear. The topic tends to be placed clause-initially, new information rather before the predicate. Noun phrase heads modified by long attributive clauses will for the sake of understandability be placed clause-initially. Topic can form a phrase of its own (with or even ), but this option isn’t extensively used.

Mongolian has passive and causative voice. In a passive sentence the entirely oblique agent takes either dative or instrumental case, the first of which is more common. The verb takes a suffix <-gd->. In the causative, the person caused to do something would take instrumental, or accusative, if the simple verb would have been intransitive, and the verb would take <-uul->. Causative morphology is also used in some passive contexts: I s/he-dative fool-caustive-perfective ‘I was fooled by her/him’. Animacy is an important component, thus English 'The bread was eaten by me' would not be acceptable in Mongolian. <-ld-> (reciprocal), <-tsgaa-> (plurative) and <-lts-> (cooperative) are voice constructions as well.

Compound sentences

One way to conjoin clauses is to have the first clause end in a converb. An example: I it-accusative find-conditional_converbal_suffix you-dative give-future ‘If I find it I’ll give it to you’. Some verbal nouns in the instrumental or most often dative function very similar to converbs: above sentence with find-imperfective-dative ‘When I find it I’ll give it to you’. Quite often, postpositions govern complete clauses. In contrast, conjunctions take verbal nouns without case: become_tired-perfective because sleep-witnessed_perfective 'I slept because I was tired'. Finally, there are usually clause-initial particles with relating meaning: I find-perfective but you-dative give-imperfective-negation ‘I’ve found it, but I won’t give it to you’.

Mongolian has a complementizer auxiliary verb very similar to Japanese to iu. literally means ‘to say’ and in converbal form precedes a verbum sentiendi et dicendi. As a verbal noun (with or case) it can form a subset of complement clauses. As it may function as an evidentialis marker.

Except for clauses governed by certain postpositions, attribute clauses, clauses with complementizer and some very short converbal clauses (which some speakers reject anyway), Mongolian clauses are in strictly paratactic order, such that a hypotactic sentence like 'We will, IF you help us, repair the damage.' could in this order with the same syntactic relations not be constructed in Mongolian.

In the subordinate clause the subject, if different from the subject of main clause, sometimes has to take accusative or genitive case. Subjects in either instrumental or ablative case marginally occur as well. Subjects of attribute clauses in which the head has a function (as is the case for all English relative clauses) demand that if the subject is not the head it has to take instrumental or rather genitive case, e.g. that_one-genitive eat-perfective meal ‘the meal that s/he had eaten’.


The Mongolian vocabulary includes historic loanwords especially from Old Turkic, Sanskrit (often through Uigur), Tibetan, Chinese and Tungusic and keeps adopting more recent ones from Russian, Chinese and English. Commissions in the Mongolian state have been busy translating new terminology into Mongolian, so that Mongolian words such as 'president' ("generalizer") and 'beer' <šar ajrag> ("yellow kumys") exist (though this one is second to Russian ). There are quite a few loan translations, e.g. ‘population’ (“person mouth”) from Chinese rénkŏu (人口; 'population').

Writing systems

Mongolian has been written in a variety of alphabets over the centuries.

The traditional Mongolian script was adapted from Uyghur script probably at the very beginning of the 13th century and from that time underwent some minor disambiguations and supplementations. It was used in Mongolia until 1931, when it was temporarily replaced by the Mongolian Latin script, and finally by Cyrillic in 1937. The traditional alphabet was abolished completely by the pro-Soviet government in 1941, and a short-lived attempt to reintroduce the traditional alphabet after 1990 was abandoned after a few years.

In the People's Republic of China, Mongolian is a co-official language with Mandarin Chinese in some regions, notably the entire Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The traditional alphabet has always been used there, although Cyrillic was considered briefly before the Sino-Soviet split. There are two types of written Mongolian used in China: the classical script, which is official among Mongols nationwide, and the Clear script, used predominantly among Oirats in Xinjiang.

The modified Cyrillic alphabet used for Mongolian is as follows:

Cyrillic Name IPA Transliteration Cyrillic Name IPA Transliteration
Аа а a a Пп пэ (pʰ ), (pʰʲ ) (p )
Бб бэ p,pʲ, b b Рр эр r,rʲ r
Вв вэ w,wʲ v Сс эс s s
Гг гэ ɡ,ɡʲ,ɢ´, k g Тт тэ tʰ,tʰʲ t
Дд дэ t,tʲ d Уу у ʊ u
Ее е je Үү ү u ü
Ёё ё jo Фф фэ~фа~эф (f ) (f )
Жж жэ ž Хх хэ~ха x,xʲ h
Зз зэ ts z Цц цэ tsʰ ts
Ии и i i Чч чэ tʃʰ č
Йй хагас и i j Шш ша~эш ʃ š
Кк ка (k ), (kʲ ) (k ) Щщ ща~эшчэ (stʃ ) (šč )
Лл эл ɮ,ɮʲ l Ъ ъ хатуугийн тэмдэг "
Мм эм m,mʲ m Ыы эр үгийн ы i y
Нн эн n,nʲ n Ьь зөөлний тэмдэг ʲ '
Оо о ɔ o Ээ э e e
Өө ө o ö Юю ю jʊ, ju ju
Яя я ja, j ja
Үү and Өө are sometimes written as Vv or Її and Єє, mainly when using Russian software or keyboards that don't support them.

Historical Mongolian

The first surviving Mongolian text is the Stele of Yisüngge, a report on sports in Mongolian script on stone, that is most often dated at the verge of 1224 and 1225. Other early sources are written in Mongolian, Phagspa (decrets), Chinese (the Secret history), Arabic (dictionaries) and a few western scripts. These comprise the Middle Mongolian language that was spoken from the 13th to the early 15th or late 16th century. The documents in Mongolian script show some distinct linguistic characteristics and are therefore often distinguished by terming their language Preclassical Mongolian. The next distinct period is Classical Mongolian that is dated from the 17th to the 19th century. It is a written language with a high degree of standardization in orthography and syntax that sets it quite apart from the subsequent Modern Mongolian. The most notable documents in this language are the Mongolian Kanjur and Tanjur as well as a bunch of chronicles.

Changes in phonology


Middle Mongolian documents show only two velar plosives and (and one allophone for each), but in some instances the disappeared and in others not. There is no hint as to how this might be related to contextual factors, and while there is a hypothesis that this is related to distinctive vowel length or stress , it is a matter of dispute whether there is any factual evidence for this. Now there is a word-initial that disappeared during the Middle Mongolian stage. This might be the same phoneme as one of the instances of (possibly [x]). Thus, it is likely that x → h → Ø. Eg Phagspa , Preclassical Mongolian , reconstructed in Proto-Mongolic as *haran ‘person’, became Modern Mongolian . Phagspa čaqa’an, Preclassical čaγaγan, reconstructed for Late Pre-Proto-Mongolic as *ʧʰagahan ‘white’, became Modern Mongolian /ʦʰagan/. As also apparent from this example, affricates were fronted in Northern Modern Mongolian dialects such as Khalkha. /kʰ/ was spirantized to /x/ in Ulaanbaatar Khalkha and the Mongolian dialects South of it, eg Preclassical Mongolian , reconstructed as *kʰynty ‘heavy’, became Modern Mongolian /xunt/ (but in Erdenet many speakers will say [kʰunt]). Originally word-final /n/ turned into /ŋ/; if *n was originally followed by a vowel that later dropped, it remained unchanged, eg *kʰen became /xiŋ/, but *kʰoina became /xɔin/. After i-breaking, *[ʃ] became phonemic. Consonants in words containing back vowels that were followed by *i in Proto-Mongolian became palatalized in Modern Mongolian. In some words, word-final *n was dropped with most case forms, but still appears with the ablative, dative and genitive.


Proto-Mongolic had . First, *o and *u were pharyngealized to /ɔ/ and /ʊ/, then *y and *ø were velarized to /u/ and /o/. Thus, the vowel harmony shifted from a velar to a pharyngeal paradigm. *i in the first syllable back-vocalic words was assimilated to the following vowel; in word-initial position it became /ja/. *e followed by *y was rounded to *ø. VhV and VjV sequences where the second vowel was any vowel but *i were monophthongized. Short vowels in any syllable but the first were deleted from the phonetic representation of the word; long vowels in these positions became short vowels.

Eg *imahan (*i becomes /ja/, *h disappears) → *jamaːn (instable n drops; vowel reduction) → jama(n) ‘goat’

and *emys- (regressive rounding assimilation) → *ømys- (vowel velarization) → *omus- (vowel reduction) → oms- ‘to wear’

Changes in morphology

Nominal system

While most case suffixes did change somewhat in form, ie were shortened, most of the modern case system remained intact. Important changes occurred with the comitative and the dative. The Middle Mongolian comitative <-luγ-a> could not be used attributively, but it was replaced by suffix <-taj> that originally derived adjectives denoting possession of the stem from nouns, eg ‘having a horse’ became ‘having a horse/with a horse’. As this adjective functioned parallel to <ügej> ‘not having’, it has been suggested that a “privative case” (‘without’) has been introduced into Mongolian. There have been three different case suffixes in the dative-locative-directive domain that are grouped in different ways: <-a> as locative and <-dur>, <-da> as dative or <-da> and <-a> as dative and <-dur> as locative, in both cases with some functional overlapping. As <-dur> seems to be grammaticalized from ‘within’, thus indicating a span of time, the second account seems to be more likely. Of these, <-da> got lost, <-dur> was first reduced to <-du> and then to /d/ and <-a> only survived in a few frozen environments. Finally, the directive of modern Mongolian <-ruu> has been innovated from 'downwards'. Gender agreement was abandoned.

Verbal system

Middle Mongolian had a slightly greater set of final verb suffix forms and a smaller number of participles which were less likely to be used as finite predicates. Their functional values seem to have shifted as well, but as the aspectual, temporal, modal and evidential nuances of Middle Mongolian verb forms are not well understood, it is impossible to state much about their semantic development. The linking converb <-n> became confined to stable verb combinations, while the number of converbs somewhat increased. The gender and number distinction exhibited by some final verbs got lost.

Changes in syntax

Neutral word order in clauses with pronominal subject changed from Object-Predicate-Subject to Subject-Object-Predicate, eg

Kökseü sabraq ügü.le-run 'ayyi. yeke uge ugu.le-d ta ...' kee-jüü.y. K. s. speal-converb alas big word speak-Past you say-nonfuture 'Kökseü sabraq spoke saying "Alas. You speak a great boast. ..."'

The negation of verbs shifted from negation particles preceding final verbs to a negation particle following participles; thus, as final verbs could no longer be negated, their paradigm of negation was filled by particles. Eg Written Mongolian 'did not come' vs. modern spoken Mongolian (Modern Written Mongolian ) 'did not come (yet)' or 'did not come (then)'.



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See also

External links

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