Mongolia to Restore Traditional Alphabet.

Ankhtuya reports on the latest linguistic developments in Mongolia:

Mongolia has announced plans to restore the use of its traditional alphabet by 2025, replacing the Cyrillic script adopted under the Soviet period as it moves away from Russian influence. It will take transitional measures to prepare for the “comprehensive restoration” of the traditional alphabet, which is written in vertical lines, said a representative of the ministry of education, culture, science and sports.

The ministry has ordered the department of information and communication technology to adopt traditional Mongolian to the “electronic environment”. Scientific, literary and state registry offices have been asked to establish a system for Mongolian names. Media are required to publish in both scripts until 2024, and schools must increase learning time to study the traditional vertical script. Cultural centres must study and promote the Mongolian written heritage, according to an official statement.

Mongolia, which is between Russia and China, adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s as Moscow sought to control it as a buffer against Beijing. For many years Mongolia was seen as the “16th Soviet republic”. The difference in alphabets has split the Mongolian people, with three million living in Mongolia and writing in Cyrillic, and nearly six million in Inner Mongolia, a Chinese region who use the traditional script is used.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed Mongolia has been returning to its linguistic roots. A generation has grown up without learning Russian, and in 2003 it was replaced by English as the mandatory foreign language in schools.

A tip o’ the Languagehat hat to Garrigus Carraig.


  1. That’s inaccurate reporting. The plan merely calls for Mongolia to become “two-script” (khos bichigten) country by 2025 like Serbia.

    Wishful thinking, of course.

    Not much will come out of it, I am sure.

    Old script will be slightly more visible maybe, but will remain marginal and everything important will continue to run on Cyrillic Mongolian as before.

    There were numerous such plans and proposals since 1990. All failed.

    However, kids do learn Classical script in school, so it was hoped that eventually transition to the old script will occur naturally and without need for costly sacrifices and effort.

    But it seems Mongolian kids simply don’t use Classical script and probably forget it as fast as trigonometry after graduation.

  2. I figured it was probably mostly hot air; thanks for the clarification!

  3. But it seems Mongolian kids simply don’t use Classical script and probably forget it as fast as trigonometry after graduation.

    I imagine that issue would probably not apply to the proposed romanization of Kazakh, which is also supposed to be completed by 2025.

  4. There is a huge difference between the examples of Serbian being biscriptal or Kazakh switching from Cyrillic to Latin and Mongolian restoring the traditional alphabet. Serbian or Kazakh in Latin or Cyrillic are just different expressions of the same underlying orthography.

    For Serbian and Kazakh, there is almost a one-to-one correspondence between the spellings in Latin and Cyrllic so that if you know the spelling in one script, you automatically know the spelling in the other in most cases. The Serbian Latin digraphs ⟨dž⟩, ⟨lj⟩, and ⟨nj⟩ are theoretically ambiguous, but most of the time they would correspond to ⟨џ⟩, ⟨љ⟩, and ⟨њ⟩ respectively.

    Indeed, some of the strange choices in the new Kazakh Latin alphabet, such as ⟨w⟩ representing either a consonant (/w/) or a phonological sequence of a vowel and a consonant (/ʊw/ or /ʏw/), seem to result from the desire to preserve the isomorphism with the Cyrillic spelling as much as possible. There is some loss in information in going from Cyrillic to Latin as well, with ⟨и⟩ and ⟨й⟩ merging as ⟨ı⟩ and ⟨х⟩ and ⟨һ⟩ merging as ⟨h⟩. This is consistent with the intent being a switch from Cyrillic to Latin—legacy texts in Cyrillic can be converted to Latin automatically, while no consideration is being given for the other direction.

    In the case of Mongolian, however, the orthographic basis is completely different for the two scripts. The traditional Mongolian script is based on Classical Mongolian, while Mongolian Cyrillic is based on Modern Khalkha Mongolian. The term Khalkha itself is written ᠬᠠᠯᠬ᠎ᠠ Qalq-a in the traditional spelling, and Халх Halh in Mongolian Cyrillic. Not only have pronunciations changed between Classical Mongolian and Modern Khalkha Mongolian, Mongolian Cyrillic orthography is based on a different analysis of the underlying forms when vowels are reduced or silent in the modern pronunciation. Also, the traditional script contains many ambiguities in using the same symbol for different sounds. I’m sure Bathrobe will have more to say about this.

    In short, the two scripts have to be learned separately and there is no simple conversion between the two. Will the traditional script be restored simply as used for Classical Mongolian? Or will there be some attempts to reform the spelling to fit Modern Khalkha Mongolian better, and maybe even disambiguate the different sounds that are written identically in the traditional script? I haven’t seen much information on this.

  5. There is a radical and simple solution which would solve the problem.

    Introduce Manchu or Oirat modification of the Classical Mongolian script and spell words as they are pronounced now in Khalkha Mongolian.

    Zero chances for that, though.

  6. @SFReader, that would indeed be a very simple solution if we just mapped the Cyrillic letters one-to-one to letters taken from the Oirat modification of the traditional script. This “Clear Script” seems to handle all distinctions used in the Cyrillic alphabet. I’m not sure the Manchu version could satisfactorily cater to all the Khalkha Mongolian vowels.

    It would indeed be radical as well, and it might be take a while to get used to all the double vowels of Cyrillic-style orthography. But perhaps being able to automatically convert legacy text in Cyrillic into the new orthography could appeal to those in charge of these measures.

    The drawback of course is that learning this reformed orthography would make traditional documents less accessible. And there is also the fact that Inner Mongolia still uses the traditional orthography. If somehow Inner Mongolia could join in the reform (unlikely given the political situation), the fact that the pronunciation standard used there is based on Chakhar Mongolian rather than Khalkha Mongolian as used across the border poses another obstacle. The traditional orthography is a pretty neutral choice for speakers of different core varieties of Mongolic, with the ambiguous letters and retention of older forms turning into an advantage in this case.

  7. There was also an Inner Mongolian modification of Mongolian script which existed in 19th century. Very similar to Manchu, but with some changes to accommodate pronunciation of local eastern Inner Mongolian dialect.

    Forgot the details, read about it in some book.

  8. Very interesting. I’m guessing the Inner Mongolian modification didn’t see widespread use into the 20th century?

    The Perso-Arabic alphabet was reinstituted for writing Uyghur by the Chinese government in 1983 after a flirtation with Cyrillic and Latin, but in a modified version made official in 1978. I wonder if a similar modification would have been in the cards for the traditional Mongolian script in Inner Mongolia had history played out differently.

  9. Jongseong Park says: In short, the two scripts have to be learned separately and there is no simple conversion between the two.

    In Croatia, the Glagolitic is taught at school, with some sort of a one-to-one correspondence to the Latin alphabet. This has produced spellings in Glagolitic that are nothing like the traditional forms. This is most obvious for the consonant J, which is written consistently as a đrv in the school-taught spelling, while in the traditional spelling it was usually written as a jotated vowel (where appropriate) or left out altogether, and only occasionally written as a đrv

    For example, traditional: B+JAT+L, school-taught spelling: B+I+ĐRV+E+L, for modern Croatian “bijel” = white.

    Finally, I do not suggest that Glagolitic is being brought into official use in Croatia, only that it is taught in Croatian schools as a point of interest, a bit like Runic here in Australia. My comment is more about providing an example of how a traditional writing system has been repurposed for a modern language even where there have been sound changes.

  10. I’ve been absent without leave for the past few days. I actually posted this on Facebook on 19 March, Mr Hat, …. but the article was in Mongolian 🙂

    I agree with SFReader’s appraisal. It’s going to be hard to turn the clock back. In fact, I think there is a greater chance of Mongolia switching from Cyrillic to Latin than there is of people actually going back to using the traditional script. The most we can hope for is that Mongolians will feel more comfortable with the traditional script as their heritage script. At the moment, most people in Mongolia can’t read it, even though they have learnt it at school.

    I have heard that reform of the traditional script is a topic of discussion in Inner Mongolia (perhaps only at the academic level). I do think it likely that the two sides would try to cooperate if concrete proposals to reform the script came up, although the chances of actually reaching agreement might be somewhat less.

  11. Apart from a brief period in the 1950s, when they were solely in Cyrillic, Mongolian stamps have always had some Mongolian script on them, usually for the currency denomination. Mongolian banknotes have also used Mongolian script and Mongolian numerals.

    This would have ensured the continued familiarity with the traditional script in Mongolia. Has that been your experience Bathrobe?

  12. John Cowan says

    About as much, I’d say ex cathedra from my bellybutton, as the Palaeo-Hebrew script on the Israeli shekel.

  13. Neo-Tifinagh is a modern modification to the ancient Tifinagh abjad for Berber languages with additional signs to represent all vowels and distinguish more sounds, making it fully alphabetic. I have seen variations in how the same name is written in Neo-Tifinagh, typically in the absence or presence of ⴻ for /ə/, and in the absence or presence of doubled letters indicating gemination. I wonder about the influence of the Latin and Arabic orthographies for these languages, though I understand that there is variation involving the dropping of ⟨e⟩ according to variety in the Latin orthography as well.

    Bathrobe: In fact, I think there is a greater chance of Mongolia switching from Cyrillic to Latin than there is of people actually going back to using the traditional script.

    There is indeed increasing use of the Latin alphabet on phones and on social media. I was surprised at the extent of this during my informal investigation on a certain geosocial dating app with a young user base—it turned up several instances of people writing Mongolian in the Latin alphabet, but just one in Cyrillic. I’ll get around to blogging about it at some point.

  14. Has that been your experience Bathrobe?

    No. It’s purely decorative. Most people find the old script very hard — as pointed out above, the orthographic rules are fairly different from Cyrillic, it contains all kinds of archaic spellings, and the letters are insufficient to represent the sounds of Mongolian. Not a few people dislike it or don’t think it’s worth maintaining knowledge of it, even if they were good at it at school.

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