Article by M.-D . Even (CNRS), Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités (EPHE/CNRS)

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

Mongol is one of the languages belonging to the Altaic family, subdivided into three principal branches: Turkish, Mongolian, and Tungusic (or Manchu-Tungus). The populations speaking these languages live in a large band across Eurasia, from Anatolia and southern Russia in the west to Manchuria and the Russian Far East in the east.

From the perspective of the common morphological, syntactic and lexical elements among these languages, but equally the regular phonological correspondences, it is clear that some of these similarities were not the result of borrowings, but indicate a common proto-language, and many eminent linguists (G.J. Ramstedt, N. Poppe, J.C. Street, T. Tekin, S. Starostin, D. Tömörtogoo) have been convinced of their genetic affinity, although others have considered this as possible but in need of better corroboration (L. Ligeti, A. Benzing). Other specialists still (J. Janhunen, S. Georg, A. Vovin) continue to reject this hypothesis, following G. Clauson and G. Doerfer who see these common elements as nothing more than the result of contact and borrowings.

The similarities of Korean and Japanese to the Altaic languages have been noted, but an affinity with these last has not been convincingly demonstrated.

The Altaic languages are generally characterised, from a phonological perspective, by vowel harmony and the length opposition of the vowel phonemes; from a morphological perspective, by agglutination (the formation of words by adding suffixes); and from a syntactic perspective, by a subject-object-verb word order, and the rule of the determiner preceding the determined noun.

Writing system

The Mongolian script

The most ancient trace of Mongolian writing is the “Stone of Genghis Khan”, dating to 1225: five lines engraved in Mongolian writing celebrating the exploits of a nephew of Genghis in an archery contest. Discovered in Far East Siberia, it is currently in the Hermitage Museum.

The Uighurs succeeded the Turks in Mongolia (744-840), and thereafter became sedentary in the area of Turfan where they borrowed and adapted the Sogdian alphabet, derived from Aramaean via Syriac. The language of the Sogdians, an Iranian people with powerful mercantile networks, served as the lingua franca in Central Asia, not only for commerce, but also for the diffusion of Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Christianity in China and in the steppe khanates. Chinese sources indicate that it was a Uighur chancellor of the Naiman Khanate, partially Christian, that Genghis Khan ordered in 1204 to teach Uighur writing to his sons, which leads us to think that the Uighur alphabet was borrowed at that date.

Nevertheless, the use of Uighur writing to write Mongolian is at least two centuries older, in fact: by the thirteenth century the writing already demonstrated stable rules and reflected an older stage of the language. Some specialists (Ts. Shagdarsürung) have advanced the hypothesis that there was a direct transmission from the Sogdians to one of the Mongol-speaking peoples of the steppes.

The Mongolian writing system is written, unlike Sogdian, from top to bottom, and from left to right. It is scarcely distinguishable from Uighur script until the sixteenth century, when it develops its own characteristics, in particular following the important (re-)conversion of the elites to Buddhism in the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century. It remains to this day the official writing of the Mongols of China, and was used in Mongolia until the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet in 1941-1946.

From the Mongolian script are derived:

  • the Oirat alphabet, also known as “clear script” (todo üseg), developed by the lama Zaya Pandita in 1648 for the Western Mongols (preserved by the Kalmyks of the Volga until the 1917 revolution, by the Oirats of the west of Mongolia until the 1940s, and by the Oirata of modern Xinjiang until the 1990s when they were forced to use the Mongol script);
    • Manchu was originally written directly in the Mongolian script (in 1599), to which was then added diacritic signs (in 1632, the Manchu script proper);
    • The ’Phags-pa script: Following the tradition of the steppe conquerers who had preceded them in the Chinese territory (Tanguts/Xi, Xia, Khitans/Liao, Jurchen/Jin), Kublai wished to introduce a “national” alphabet which could write the principal languages of his empire, a task which he confided to his Tibetan chaplain, ’Phags-pa (a title). He created a syllabic script inspired by the Tibetan writing system, written entirely vertically and drawing on certain principles of the Mongolian script. This writing system, also known as “square script”, was above all used by the Mongols during their rule in China (Yuan, 1279-1368), generally for official documents, edicts, seals, and stelae.

Chronological and Geographical Extent

N. Poppe (1965, 1976) distinguishes three principal stages of the development of the Mongol language.

Proto-Mongolic (until the twelfth century), for which we do not have direct linguistic material, but the Manchu-Tungus dialects present material which is clearly borrowed from Proto-Mongolic, and material occasionally preserved by certain dialects. We thus know that it possessed the phoneme */p/ which became /f/ in initial positions (cf. the /f/ of words borrowed from Proto-Mongolic by Manchu, and which lay behind the intervocalic occlusives */b/, */g/, and */γ/.

A stage already developed from this Proto-Mongolic is reflected in the language of the Mongolian script, where the initial */p/ and */f/ have already become /h/ (which the script does not note, but which is present in Middle Mongolian in the more precise ’Phags-pa script, and in foreign sources).


  • Proto-Mongolic: *ujapūr ‘source’ > Manchu: fujuri, Mongolian script: ijaγur, Middle-Mongolian: hija’ur ;
  • Proto-Mongolic: *kebēr ‘steppe’ > Evenke: kewer ‘prairie’, Mongolian script: keger, Middle Mongolian: ke’er;
  • Proto-Mongolic: *adugūn ‘herd of horses’ > Evenke: adugun, Mongolian script: aduγun, Middle Mongolian: adu’un.

Middle Mongolian was the language spoken from the twelfth to fifteenth or sixteenth century. It consists of at least three dialects:

  • the Eastern dialect, which developed into Buryat and modern Mongolian; it is represented by the language of the Secret History of the Mongols, written in Mongolian in the first half of the thirteenth century, and which was written phonetically in Chinese characters from the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), by the Sino-Mongol glossary of Hua-yi yi-yu of 1389, and by the texts and inscriptions written in the ’Phags-pa script;
  • the Western dialect, the ancestor of the Mongolian of Afghanistan and of Oirat, which is principally represented in the Mongolian of the Arab-Mongol and Persian-Mongol glossaries of the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, such as the Mukaddimat al-Adab, an Arab-Persian dictionary of the twelfth century, to which was added Turkish and Mongolian in the fourteenth century;
  • the Southern dialect, from which came the Dagur of Manchuria, Monguar, and the Donxiang of the Gansu-Qinghai frontier; it has not left any written traces.

The principal characteristic of Middle Mongolian is the preservation of the initial /h/, or even sometimes of the /f/ < */p/, and the disappearance of the intervocalic */b/, */g/, and */γ/; Cf.:

  • aula < *aγula “mountain”
  • ima’an > *imagān “goat”

Modern Mongolian, from the sixteenth century, and its dialects, characterised amongst other features by the contraction to a single long vowel of vowels which were separated by an intervocalic consonant. Cf.:

  • ūla < aula “mountain”
  • yamā > ima’an “goat”

Text Corpus for the study of Peace

Relevant Mongolian sources include:

  • Mongolian chronicles preserved by the Genghiskhanids (the Secret History of the Mongols) but equally other parts of later Mongolian chronicles which incorporated elements taken from lost chronicles (the most remarkable example of which is the Altan Tobci, which has allowed us to recover, with variants, a large part of the Secret History of which the Mongolian original was lost);
  • letters addressed by Mongolian sovereigns or rulers, diplomatic correspondence, edicts, inscriptions, commemorative inscriptions on stelae;
  • bilingual glossaries;

Other sources include:

  • descriptions, travelogues, accounts (principally in Persian and Chinese) by Chinese envoys (Peng Daxia, Zhang Dehui); written accounts from the missionaries of European kings, Plan Carpin, and Rubrouck in particular;
  • the account written by Juvaini, who visited Karakorum in the middle of the fourteenth century, but also of Rashid ad-Din, later but containing exceptional examples of Mongolian writing and rich information;

In addition there are Chinese sources, among which is:

  • ’The History of the Campaigns of Genghis Khan”, translated from a Mongolian original, a story from the Yuan Dynasty (Yuan shi) which is based on the Chinese historiographical practices and documents collected under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.


  • Denise Aigle, The Mongol Empire Between Myth and Reality. Historic Anthropological Studies, Leiden, Brill, 2014
  • Bonvini E., Busuttil J. Peyraube A. (dir.), Dictionnaire des langues, Quadrige/PUF, 2011
  • Cleaves, F. W. : Among others, several articles on sino-mongol inscriptions on stelae of 1362, 1335, 1338, 1346, 1240, 1348, respectively in Harvard Journal of Asian Studies, vols. 12, 13, 14,15, 23.
  • Doerfer G., Türkische und mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen, I-IV, Wiesbaden, 1963-1975 .
  • Juvaini, ‘Ala’al-Din ‘Ata-Malik, History of the World-Conqueror, translated by John Boyle from the text of Mizra Muhammad Qazvini, 2 vols., Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1958 (re-edited with an introduction by D. Morgan, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1997)
  • Kotwicz W., Les Mongols, promoteurs de l’idée de paix universelle au début du XIIIe siècle, Rocznik Orientalisttyczny 16, 1950, pp. 199-204
  • Ligeti, L., ‘Un vocabulaire mongol d’Istanbul’, Acta Orientalia Hungarica 14, 1962, pp. 3-99
  • Lewicki, M., La langue mongole des transcriptions chinoises du XIVe siècle, le Hua-yi yi-yu de 1389, Wroclaw 1949 (I) et 1959 (II)
  • —    ‘Les inscriptions mongoles en écriture carrée’, Collectanea Orientalia, 12, Wilno, 1937
  • Mostaert, A., Le matériel mongol du Houa i i iu de Houng-ou (1389), Bruxelles, I (1977) and II (1995).
  • Mostaert, A, F.W. Cleaves, Les lettres de 1289 et 1305 des Ilkhans Argun et Oljeïtü à Philippe le Bel, Cambridge, 1962.
  • Pelliot, P., ‘Les Mongols et la Papauté’, Revue de l’Orient Chrétien, 23, 1922-1923
  • Poppe, N., Mongols’ksii slovar’ Mukaddimat al-Adab, parts 1-III, Moscou-Leningrad, 1938-1939.
  • —    The Mongolian Monuments in ’Phags-pa Script, second edition translated by J.R. Krueger, Wiesbaden, 1957.
  • —    Introduction to Altaic Linguistics, Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz, 1965.
  • —    Ancient Mongolian, Studies on East Asia, 13 (Studies on Mongolica, G. Schwartz ed.), 1979, pp. 30-37.
  • Rachewiltz, I. de, The Secret History of the Mongols, translated with a historical and philological commentary, 2 volumes, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2004
  • Rashid al-Din. The Successors of Genghis Khan, tr. J.A. Boyle, NY, Columbia UP, 1971
  • Rashiduddin Fazlullah, Jami‘u’t-tawarikh : Compendium of Chronicles (3 parts), A History of the Mongols. Translated and annotated by W. Thackston. Cambridge, Mass., 1998-99
  • Shagdarsürüng, Ts, Mongolčuudiin üseg bicigiin tovčoon (History of Mongol Scripts), Oulan-Bator, Urlakh Erdem Press, 2001
  • Sumyabaatar, B., The Secret history of the Mongols (transcription phonétique en caractères chinois avec leur prononciation et restitution du texte mongol en écriture ouïgouro-mongole et en romanisation), Oulan-Bator, Presses d’Etat D. Süxbaatar, 1990
  • Tömörtogoo, D., Mongol xelšinžileliin onol, tüüxiin asuudaluud (Historical and theoretical questions in Mongol linguistics), Oulan-Bator, 2002
  • Yuan shi (édition par Song Lian de l’histoire dynastique des Yuan compilée en 1370), 15 vol., Pékin, Zhonghua Shuju, 1976

Principal modern dictionaries:

  • The Mongol dictionary of A. Mostaert (Dictionnaire Ordos, Monumenta Serica, Université catholique de Pékin, 1941-1944) ;
  • The Kalmyk Mongol dictionary of G.J. Ramsted (Kalmückisches Wörterbuch, Helsinki, Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura,1935);
  • The dictionary of Ya. Tsevel (Mongol xelnii tovč tailbar toli, 1966 and its augmented new edition, which appeared in 2013);
  • The five-volume dictionary of the Academy of Sciences of Mongolia (Mongol xelnii delgerengüi tailbar toli, Oulan-Bator, 2008).

To cite this article

M.-D . Even, "Mongolian", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line]. Translated by Korshi Dosoo. Uploaded 24/02/2016, accessed