Mongolian languages belongs to Altaic family of languages showing structural (and also lexical) similarities with languages of the Tungusic group of this family (e.g. Manju) and the Turkic group of this family (e.g. Turkish). Mongolian has strong vowel harmony: all vowels within one word and even all grammatical particles must be chosen from one of two vowel sets which are known as male and female or back and front vowels. Mongolian has a total of seven short vowels. There are also seven long vowels. The distinction between short and long vowels is essential as it alters the meaning: [tos] is ``grease, oil'' while [toos] is ``dust''. Besides simple short and long vowels there are also diphtongs which have duration values similar to long vowels. The stress is usually put on the first syllable if all syllables of a word are short; otherwise the stress is put on the first syllable carrying a long vowel. The set of consonants has many constraints: [r] may not occur at the beginning of a word. [f] only occurs in foreign loans and is frequently converted to [p]. [w] and [b] though phonetically different do not form an opposition on the phonological level. The same holds true for [c] and [q] ([c] as [ts]ar, [q] as [ch]ill) as well as [j] (as in [j]eep) and [z] (best described as fairly unvoiced [ds]). Both pairs are expressed by the same symbol in Classical writing and the development of different phonetical realisations is mainly due to vowel environment and dialect situation. The consonants [k] and [g] are linked to vowel harmony. In words containing back vowels, [k] changes to [x] and [g] becomes [G] (a voiced velar). Beginners frequently confuse the latter with something like a French [r].
Mongolian grammar and structure
The grammar of Mongolian is quite easy: all predicates are put at the end of the sentence resulting in a S.O.P. (subject - object - predicate) structure. There are no subordinate clauses in the sense of Indo-European languages. Attributes are placed in front of the denominated entity. Indo-European style subordinate clauses (Relativsatz, etc.) are resolved as attribute constructions. Verbs can be collated to form new meanings or expand or intensify the meaning of the main verb. Verbs occur in two distinct categories: 1) the ``genuine'' or finite verb forms finish phrases, serve as predicates and can be compared to ordinary verbs of Indo-European languages; 2) all other verb forms, be they converbs (modifiers of other verbs), verbal nouns (usually translated as verbs but with the complete behaviour of nouns like the ability to form oblique cases) or the equivalents to participles and gerundial forms cannot be used to finish phrases. As a rule of thumb, a Mongolian phrase usually has numerous occurrences of verbs of the second class but only one finite verb at the end of the phrase. As an exception to this rule of thumb, under certain circumstances phrases may also end with a verbal noun as predicate. All grammatical functions and relations are expressed by suffixes which are ``glued'' to the end of a root be it noun or verb hence the term ``agglutinative language''. More than one suffix can be attached to a word: e.g. tääsh ``bag''; tääshääs ``out of the bag''; tääshääsää ``out of his/her bag''); bolgoomj ``care''; bolgoomjtoï ``with care'' -> careful (as adjective); bolgoomjtoïgoor ``acting with care'' -> doing something carefully (as adverb).
The repetitive nature of similar endings has strongly influenced traditional lyrics which uses line alliterations and line-internal alliterations as a main element for structuring versed speech. The emphasized beginnings of words thus form a healthy offset to the grammatical suffices.
Mongolian classical writing (Uighur)
The traditional Mongolian script is written in vertical lines from left to right, very much like an Arab page turned counter-clockwise by 90 degrees. Though this script (called Uighur script because the Uighurs had used it first) has been the main vehicle of written Mongolian, a number of other writing systems have been and are being employed. The earliest documents still existing date back to the 13th century.
Despite numerous other attempts to introduce different types of writing, this script has proven to be to most stable vehicle of written Mongolian. It was used up to the 1930s in Mongolia when it was first replaced with a short-lived Latin script (until 1938) and then replaced by a modified Cyrillic script in 1940.
In Southern Mongolia or China's Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongol Autonomous Region, or Öwörr Mongol Öörtöö Zasax Oron) Uighur or Classical Mongolian writing is still the official writing system.
Similar to the historical orthography of English, Classical Mongolian as it is used today contains a lot of phonological archaisms and historical features which make it sometimes not perfectly easy to learn but which offer valuable insight for linguists and provide enough of dialect neutrality for modern-day speakers from most Mongolian language areas.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Mongolia was considering the return to the Classical script despite the heavy financial and social cost: New schoolbooks had to be compiled and many adults who were born after 1940 must now learn a completely different writing system which does not only look different but which also represents a different historical development stage of the Mongolian language. In 1992, A law was passed to the effect that from 1994 on Mongolian Classical script be the official writing of Mongolia again. Even the new constitution of Mongolia passed in 1992 was printed in Modern (Cyrillic) and Classical (Uighur) Mongolian (see the Constitution in Modern Mongolian, MLS-encoded and Constitution in Classical Mongolian, MLS-encoded, both in Infosystem Mongolei) but one year after this magic date nothing really changed substantially.
Mongolian - Writing
Mongolian writing is a fairly complex topic. In the history of the written language, numerous scripts were either accepted from other cultures or domestically designed. The most important scripts are Uighur, Chinese, Phagsba, Soyombo and Cyrillic. Other scripts than these five were also employed at given times in history, e.g. Latin which had been used during the 1930s.
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