My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.
But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.
So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.
Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.
Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.
Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida. (If you’ve never heard of one, you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.
Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.
Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.
Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.
Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.
To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.
This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.
Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, ye, yo, yu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:
However, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.
Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur.
Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.
A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.