The Mongolian language has a rich heritage that dates back centuries. Intertwined with the nomadic past of the Mongol people, the Mongol Empire and the conquests of Genghis Khan, the development of the Mongolian language is part of the long and colorful history of the Mongol people.
The development of spoken and written Mongolian can be divided into three time periods each; the history between the spoken and written language do not correspond perfectly, however, as the written Mongolian language developed much later than spoken Mongolian.
Difficult Classification of the Mongolian Languages
Mongolian is classified as a subfamily of the Altaic language family. The classification of the Mongolian languages, which are spoken throughout Mongolia and areas of east-central Asia, has been an issue of dispute among linguists for many years. While the following classification is accepted by many linguists, it has not been universally accepted.
Most linguists classify the central Mongolian languages into two primary groups: the western Mongolian languages (which include Oryat and Kalmyk) and the eastern Mongolian languages (which include Buryat and Mongol). An additional group of outlying languages is also considered part of the Mongolian language family. Interestingly, while all of the central Mongolian languages have written forms, none of the outlying languages do.
Early History of the Spoken Language: The Old Mongolian Language
Old Mongolian is believed to have lasted until the 12th century. Linguists now can reconstruct this ancient language by borrowing from other living languages and using examples of recorded Mongolian languages. Toward the end of this era, the Mongolian language began to migrate from its original homeland.
Middle Mongolian Spoken Language: Expansion Under Genghis Khan
The Middle Mongolian period is dated from approximately the 13th to the 16th centuries. The earlier years were marked by a period of intense conquest and expansion under the famed Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.
With this territorial expansion, the Mongolian language spread rapidly and moved further away from its original homeland. It was during the time of expansion under Genghis Khan that those languages now classified as “outlying Mongolian languages” first developed.
Development of Outlying Mongolian Languages During the Middle Period
Due to the linguistic migration and contact with outside peoples in the time of Genghis Khan’s conquests, a number of Mongolian dialects began to diverge from the main Mongolian language and develop into distinct languages. Existing languages that are believed to have developed at this time include the Moghol language of present-day Afghanistan and the Mongour or Tu language of southern Mongolia.
These and other outlying languages became isolated from the main Mongolian language, especially as the area of Mongol conquest receded, leaving them to develop on their own. Due to this isolation, the Mongolian languages we now classify as “outlying” have retained a number of archaic characteristics that were once standard to the Middle Mongolian language but are no longer apparent in modern Mongolian.
Modern Mongolian Spoken Language
The modern Mongolian spoken language dates from approximately the 17th century onward. The development of modern Mongolian was marked by the loss of many archaic features of the language that are now found only in some of the outlying Mongolian languages.
Pre-Classical Period of Written Mongolian: Advent of Written Mongolian
It is believed that the vertical script utilized in the written Mongolian language was developed around the end of the 12th century, marking the start of the pre-classical period of written Mongolian.
The advent of written Mongolian corresponds to the time period of middle Mongolian in the history of the spoken language. The oldest known example of Mongolian language text dates from circa 1225.
Classical Period of Written Mongolian: Conversion to Buddhism
The Classical period of written Mongolian dates from the early 17th to 18th centuries, debuting around the same time as the Modern period of the spoken Mongolian language. This era in the written Mongolian language was ushered in by the Mongols’ conversion to Buddhism.
This Classical period is marked by the translation of works of Buddhist texts, which lead to the translation of Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan language scriptures into Mongolian. In the process, the Mongolian language adopted many words from these languages, including religious terms, proper names and terms related to astronomy and the calendar.
19th Century Debut of Modern Written Mongolian
It was not until the 19th century that the modern spoken Mongolian language that had developed around the 17th century was translated into the written form. It was during this time that features of the contemporary spoken tongue first appeared in written texts.
The traditional Mongolian script that developed in the 12th century was written vertically from left to right. This written script was replaced by a modified Russian Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s.
The 1924 founding of the Mongolian People’s Republic made Mongolia the world’s second communist state of the time. Modeled after the USSR, the Mongolian People’s Republic was a one-party state centered on the communist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.
One aspect of the MPRP’s agenda included the quashing of religious freedom, and under this communist regime a significant number of Buddhist temples and monasteries were closed down. Despite this blow to such a significant part of Mongolian culture, the traditional Buddhist religion survived. Today it is still the most-practiced religion in the country.
The Soviet Union withdrew military forces from Mongolia from 1990 to 1991, and in 1992 Mongolia adopted a new democratic constitution and officially changed the country’s name from the Mongolian People’s Republic to Mongolia.
Mongolian Language Today
The Mongolian language now serves as the official language of Mongolian. The country is sparsely inhabited, with a total population of approximately 3 million people, most of them living in urban centers that developed in the 20th century.
In an attempt to promote traditional Mongolian culture, in 1990 the Mongolian government reinstated the traditional Mongolian script, which is now taught in Mongolian schools. The Cyrillic script, however, is still commonly used for everyday purposes.
Still, efforts to revive traditional Mongolian language and culture have proved successful. The tradition of folklore has been maintained, and centuries-old myths, epics and traditional stories still survive in the modern Mongolian language.
Mongolian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: HALH, KHALKHA MONGOLIAN, MONGOL, CENTRAL MONGOLIAN
Language Family: Altaic, Mongolian, Eastern, Oirat-Khalkha, Khalkha-Buriat, Mongolian Proper.
Spoken by Approximately 2,330,000 people
Spoken In: United States
Learn About Other Languages
Spanish (Latin America)