While people in Mongolian People’s Republic speak Mongolian, they write with the Russian alphabet in normal cases. Mongolian students said although the Russian alphabet has provided more readability and convenience, the traditional Mongolian script still contains their culture and has great worth in calligraphy.
Traditional Mongolian script
The traditional Mongolian script, Hudum Mongol Bichig, has been used by Mongolians since the 13th century, and it’s still used as the only way to write Mongolian in Inner Mongolia, according to the Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets.
Saruul Ochirbat, a freshman from Mongolia studying psychology, explained, “We believe the traditional script represents Mongolian culture.” The structures of traditional characters can be related to the animals and people in Mongolia.
“One character has a big belly, it looks like a sheep. There is another that has a tail. One has a head and one has hair. It’s vertical. It represents how Mongolians stand straight and they’re strong and proud,” Ochirbat explained.
The traditional Mongolian script is also called the standing Mongolian script because of its vertical structure, Ochirbat said. “One of the most famous calligraphists in Mongolia said writing Mongolian is the fastest, comparing with all other languages in the world, because you write from the top and then all the way to the bottom with gravity.”
Tsetsgee Enkhbold, a freshman from Mongolia studying business management, added, “Also when you read Mongolian, you nod your head because you read from the top to the bottom. When you read other languages, you read from left to right, so you shake your head.”
Division of Mongolia and different official writing systems
Mongolia has been colonized by China since the 17th century. In 1924, it was divided into two parts. The north part, Outer Mongolia, became an independent country, Mongolian People’s Republic. The south part, Inner Mongolia, remained a colony of China. It has become Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region today, according to Independence Documents of the World No. 2.
People in Inner Mongolia kept the traditional script as the only way to write Mongolian. In the 1940s, however, under Soviet influence, the Cyrillic alphabet, also known as the Russian alphabet, was introduced to Mongolian People’s Republic. Since then, people in the country started to write Mongolian in Russian letters and it became the official writing system of the country, according to the Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets.
Why did Mongolians adopt Russian alphabet?
Before the Russian alphabet was introduced to Mongolian People’s Republic, less than three percent of the citizens in the country could read and write the traditional Mongolian script, which has more complex structure and variable pronunciations for each character, according to Enkhbold.
Enkhold said, even as native Mongolians, the traditional Mongolian script is not easy for them to read. “You read it, and it may not make sense. You read it again and again to understand the meaning of the characters.”
Ochirbat explained, “In English for example, ‘entrepreneur’ doesn’t sound how it’s written. In the traditional Mongolian script, there are exceptions for pronunciation like that, but in Cyrillic, you just read as for how the letters are pronounced and there are a lot fewer exceptions.”
Can Mongolians read Russian?
Interviewed Mongolian students said they had studied Russian because they attended public schools, but if it were a Mongolian who never learned the Russian language, he wouldn’t be able to understand a Russian text, said Enkhbold.
“He could pronounce the words according to the letters, but it wouldn’t make sense to him. Russian is a different language. Also, even on the same word, Russian might have a different pronunciation for it,” explained Enkhbold.
Originating from Russia, Nikita Shchankin, a sophomore studying biomedical science, said he couldn’t understand a Mongolian text either. He only learned Mongolians also use the Russian alphabet after he came to BYU–Hawaii. He first expected similarity in words between Russian and Mongolian, but it was the opposite.
Shchankin shared, “The letters are the same, but the words are completely different. It doesn’t make sense to me at all.”
The two writing systems in Mongolia today
In 1990, the traditional script was once considered the official script for Mongolia again, but the plan was called off. However, the traditional script became a compulsory subject in elementary schools and high schools in Mongolia, according to Gogo.mn.
Today, the Russian alphabet is the mainstream for writing in Mongolian People’s Republic, and children are first taught to write with Russian letters in school. Interviewed Mongolian students said, however, they still learned to read and write the traditional script from sixth to ninth grade. Mongolian traditional calligraphy is also an available extra-curricular activity for students in Mongolia.