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About the story
What’s with this “Wren” thing?
   The oldest extant version of the fable we are presenting here appeared in 1913 in the first volume of a two-volume anthology of Low Saxon folktales (Plattdeutsche Volksmärchen “Low German Folktales”) collected by Wilhelm Wisser (1843–1935). Read more ...

Mongol xel

Photograph of a yurt colony outside Ulaanbaatar
Symbols of nomadic tradition, yurts house semi-
urbanized Mongols on the outskirts of Mongolia’s
capital Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator, “Red Hero”),
home to one third of the country’s population.

Language information: Little is known about the Mongol people and their language prior to the time of the Great Mongol Conquest that began with the unification of Mongol tribes under Temüjin, later known as Genghis Khan (Jengis Qaghan, Čingis Xaan, ca. 1162–1227). It was at that time that a body of Mongol documents began to be amassed. While Mongol might subdued numerous Eurasian nations and integrated many of them into its power structure, Mongolian culture blossomed at great speed in part because of foreign contacts. Compared with Europe, Mongolia, at that time Europe’s worst nightmare, was remarkably open-minded and tolerant with regard to cultural diversity and personal beliefs as long as this did not dilute essential Mongol identity and domination. Shamanism (including Tengriism), Buddhism, Manichaeism, Islam and Christianity were practised not only in the Mongolian vassal states but also in Mongolia itself.
Photograph of a traditional Mongol musician
Great pride in Mongol history favors
continuation of Mongol traditions and thus
affords Mongolian language and language-
based arts a relatively secure position, at
least in the independent country of Mongolia.
    In 1208, Mongols began to write their own language with a vertical writing system they had developed on the basis of the script of their Turkic-speaking, then predominantly Buddhist Uyghur (Uighur) neighbors. This script had been derived from the Syriac script whose ancestry goes back to the Old Aramaic script.
    The direction of the Old Uyghur script and its Mongol, Manchu, Oyrad-Kalmyk, Buryat and Evenki derivatives have been turned 90 degrees counterclockwise from horizontal right-to-left to vertical left-to-right. In Southern (“Inner”) Mongolia (now an autonomous region of China) this script remains in use to this days. In Northern (“Outer”) Mongolia it came to be replaced by a Cyrillic-based system under Soviet domination. While the Cyrillic-based system is easier to learn, its “phonetic” character makes it dialect-specific, and this led to the domination of the Qalq-a (Khalkh, Halh) dialect in Mongolia. The traditional script orthography, on the other hand, is based on the pronunciation of Old Mongolian of the Mongol’s golden age. While it is cumbersome to learn and to use, its advantage is that it is dialectically neutral and has the potential of uniting under the same umbrella not only all Mongolian dialects but also other Mongolic languages (such as Bonan, Buryat, Darkhat, Kangjiang, Moghol, Monguor, Ordos, Oyrad-Kalmyk, Santa and Eastern Yughur). Since the collapse of Soviet power, there has been talk about reintroducing the vertical script in Northern Mongolia. However, this would be a dramatic and costly program. Nevertheless, the old script is now being taught in all Mongolian schools, whereas not long ago familiarity with it was limited to specialist education.
Photograph of a traditional Mongol musician
The name “Mongol” in various scripts
surrounding two versions of the
national Soyombo emblem: Tibetan
(top), ḥP‘ags-pa (right), Soyombo
(bottom center), Uyghur (left), and
Cyrillic (very bottom).
      Other scripts have been used to write Mongolian. Inspired by the Indic-derived Tibetan script, the ̣hP‘ags-pa or “Square” Script was invented in 1269, but its use was short-lived, the latest document written with it hailing from 1352. The Soyombo script, another Tibetan-inspired script that is capable of representing Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit, was invented by the Mongolian Buddhist monk and scholar Zanabazar in 1686. Its use, too, was short-lived, though one of its complex characters, the actual soyombo, has been retained as a national emblem and is featured in the Mongolian flag. The Tibetan script, too, has been used to write Mongolian, especially Buddhist works. Occasionally, the Chinese script was used to transcribe Mongolian “phonetically,” especially while the Mongol Empire held sway over China during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The original Uyghur script version of the “Secret History of the Mongols” (Mongğol-un niγuča tobčiyan, Qalq-a Mongolyn nuuc tobčoo) was written soon after Genghis Khan’s death, but it is now lost. Written much later, a copy in Chinese transcription alongside a Chinese translation allows us to reconstruct the original.
Photograph of a traditional Mongol musician
A few words occurring in the translation of the story
illustrate sound shifts from Classical Mongolian to
today’s standard language of Northern Mongolia.
      Modern Mongolian proper has two standard dialects. A Qalq-a-based dialect dominates in Northern (“Outer”) Mongolia. Another one is based on the closely related Caqar (Chakhar) dialect in Chinese-administered Southern (“Inner”) Mongolia where the ethnic Mongol population currently constitutes only 17% as a consequence of recent mass resettling of ethnic Han Chinese. Under Chinese rule, speakers of Oyrad (most of whom live in the northern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) no longer officially use their own Mongolic language and their vertical script variant known as “Clear Script” (Todo Bicig). Instead they officially use Caqar, as does Xinjiang’s Tuva minority that speaks its own Turkic language at home, Oyrad and Chinese in the larger community and Caqar Mongolian in education and local administration.
      Mongolian and other Mongolic languages are by many considered a branch of the Altaic family of languages, the other branches being Turkic and Tungusic. (Some people count Japanese and Korean as Altaic languages as well.) All of these languages have two striking characteristics in common: (1) they are agglutinative and (2) have vowel harmony (though the latter does not apply in Japanese and Korean). Agglutination is a process whereby suffixes are added to stems to derive new meanings, both lexically and grammatically. Vowel harmony is based upon the principle of two classes of vowels: front and back (usually referred to as “feminine” and “masculine” in Mongolian contexts); the class of a suffix vowel must be the same as that of the last vowel of the stem to which the suffix is attached. However, unlike most Turkic and Tungusic languages, Modern Mongolian and other Mongolic languages have a strong tendency toward reducing or even deleting unstressed vowels, and this, in conjunction with phonetic shifts, makes Mongolic vowel harmony appear flawed on the phonetic surface.
      Mongolian has absorbed many foreign words. Turkic-derived words are the result of longstanding contacts and collaboration with Turkic-speaking nations. Mongols have had neighborly contacts with Tibetan speakers, especially with those of the northern Amdo region (in today’s Gansu and Qinghai of China), for centuries, and they adopted Tibetan-style Vajrayāna Buddhism and with it Tibetan book learning, which resulted in the absorption of numerous Tibetan words. Contacts with China are very old as well, and the Mongol occupation of China (during the Yuan dynasty) intensified Chinese influences. Russian language influences and with it absorption of words from other European languages in the form of Russian loanwords are mostly due to Soviet domination of Mongolia from 1924 until 1990.
      Mongols are extremely proud of their historical golden age in which they see themselves in a uniting role (much like that of the no more gentle Franks under Charlemagne and his descendants in Europe some time earlier). Chinggis and numerous variants of it remains a popular first name in most parts of the Mongolic- and Turkic-speaking world to this day, much like Charles and its variants remains popular centuries after Charlemagne in the West. In the European-dominated West there is a tradition of viewing the Mongol conquest with dread, while in most of Asia farangî and similar names derived from “Frank” (from the times of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, or Charles “the Great,” 742~747–814, and his heirs) evokes dreadful images of marauding barbarians and tends to denote “Westerner,” usually as an unflattering term.
      Their pride in their history according to their view of it makes most Mongols cherish their traditional heritage. This affords Mongolian language and language arts a rather secure position in Northern (“Outer”) Mongolia which in 1992 became a fully independent and democratic country.

Genealogy: Altaic > Mongolic > Eastern > Mongol-Oyrad > Qalq-a-Buryat

    Click to open the translation: [Click]Click here for different versions. >

Author: Reinhard F. Hahn

© 2011, Lowlands-L · ISSN 189-5582 · LCSN 96-4226 · All international rights reserved.
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