Я, or ya: a letter not present in the Latin alphabet, but the beginning of several important phrases that I used regularly during my time in Mongolia.
A phrase that roughly translates to oh no. Spill your suutei tsai? Miss the bus? Drop a folder that sends a sheaf of papers flying every which way? Forced to pick up a ton of cards because you can’t beat them while playing huzur? Express your dismay with a sigh of, “oh, yanaa.”
While it’s generally regarded as a “girly” phrase, I’ve definitely heard men use it as well. Yanaa is one of the first phrases I learned in Mongolian – because, alas, I picked up on the useless filler that everyone uses constantly faster than, y’know, the vocabulary I actually needed for day-to-day life. But at least it made me feel more culturally integrated: Mongolian friends applauded my use of the phrase, and strangers expressed surprise and delight at hearing a Westerner use one of their words for such a universal sentiment.
My American friends and I even used it when talking to each other, so of course it’s carried over into my everyday speech even now that I’m back in America. So if you hear me sigh it, now you know what it means. Though chances are you’d figure it out without the explanation: context and inflection usually make this one pretty obvious.
Another phrase I picked up before without actually learning its spelling or literal meaning. Yasaa is a shortened form of yasan be, and Mongolians use it as we would what’s up? or what happened? The full form, yasan be? (“yah-sun bay”), is another easy one to figure out; when I asked it of a non-Mongolian-speaking friend after witnessing her start and squeak at something I couldn’t see, she replied that she had spilled something on herself without me needing to translate.
Yasaa‘s a little harder to figure out, though. For one thing, the two sounds lost in the truncation are the grammatical markers a low-level speaker is most likely to recognize: the past tense suffix -сан (-san), and the question particle бэ (be). Even without contextual clues to help, it’s obvious to anyone who knows even the rudiments of Mongolian language structure that ясан бэ? is a question about something that happened in the past. Without the -сан and the бэ, though, all you’re left with is an unfamiliar syllable that could mean anything.
For another, it’s used more broadly than the English what happened?. English speakers ask this question as a response to an obvious indication that something has just happened, and often we use it interchangeably with what’s wrong?. We don’t typically answer the telephone by asking “what happened?” But Mongolians, when picking up their cell phones, often skip over Байна уу? (baina uu; are you there?) and just open with “yassa?”
This one’s exactly what you think it is. I’d never played Yahtzee before I went to Mongolia; while I like board games, this one just didn’t sound interesting. But when the Internet is too slow for streaming and downloads can take an entire day, or the only available screen is too small for eight people to watch a movie on it, or electricity is unreliable, you spend a lot of time on pastimes my generation has largely foregone, and you don’t quibble about which ones sound boring. Board and card games are not relegated to “game nights” that are considered a throwback-type rejection of electric amusement; they’re standard group activities. Between the eight Americans in Erdenet, we had Apples to Apples, Scrabble, Phase 10, Set, Yahtzee, and Cards Against Humanity (in addition to innumerable decks of standard playing cards). Since it was A) not limited to certain number of players, B) playable even by those with limited English, and C) conducive to continued conversation, we played a lot of Yahtzee.