Mongolian Writing

Professional calligraphy.

Modern Mongolia has adapted remarkably in terms of its writing system. The split between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia began in 1921 when Russia helped the Mongolians push out the Chinese. Why didn’t they take the whole pie? I’m told it’s because Inner Mongolia was too close to Beijing for the Russian’s comfort, so they stopped at the edges of the Gobi.

During the Soviet era, about 1941, Mongolia adapted the cyrillic alphabet. They added another vowel (Ү, which has the oo sound, such as in “goo”), changed the spelling of certain words, and simplified the language. I imagine it was so that it would be easier to educate the masses. This has been the standard writing system in modern Mongolia for quite some time, but there is a new writing push.

So, what did Mongolia ditch for cyrillic? The answer is the traditional Mongolian script. Back in the day, I am told, when Mongolia wanted to develop their own script, they borrowed heavily from their partners to the East: The Uighur and Turkish people. Why not China? It’s complicated, but many are none-too-fond of China, and that dislike is deeply embedded in the far reaches of history. As such, Mongolians didn’t want anything to do with China, not even linguistically. Hence, we see a vertical script with distinct beginning, middle, and ending shapes for the different letters.

I have started to learn Mongolian script in an attempt to understand the culture better. You can learn a lot about a place by its writing, especially if it has its own distinct style and alphabet. There are two alphabets for Mongolian script: the traditional letters and a block script. Spelling is the same for both, but with the square writing, as it is called, there are no curves or flair. You can see both alphabets on every piece of Mongolian money, but don’t read the block letters on money! I am told it brings bad luck.

I have doomed you all.
Block letters on the 20 Tugruk bill.

After the recent election of President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, there came a new edict on education: Among many other reforms, he made a push for the re-learning of the classic Mongolian script. At my school, this meant mandatory script lessons for all of the teachers. I would copy their notes, and practice writing the letters on the board with them.

In Inner Mongolia, China, the Mongolian minority still learns the script; they never made the switch to cyrillic. You can hear the difference in their speech sometimes. Certain words in the script are written completely different from their cyrillic counterparts. Example: sorguul (school, or сургууль) becomes sorgagoli (сургаголи; my apologies for horrendous spelling). Some of the pronunciations have been kept in Inner Mongolia Mongolian language. I’ve had many Mongolian friends make note of this difference when I spoke to them on the issue.

You can see the classic script on many official documents, signs, and sold as art, but cyrillic still dominates the Mongolian sign-scape. While I don’t necessarily see this changing anytime soon, it is nice to see that thought, time, and effort is being given to preserve this traditional form of writing on a larger scale.

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2 thoughts on “Mongolian Writing

  1. Russian Cyrillic already had the letter У. The new letter added for Mongolian Cyrillic was Y. They may look the same to Anglophones, but to Mongolians they are very distinguishable letters.


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