Reading Between the Lines: The Adoption of Cyrillic and the Continued Role of the Traditional Mongolian Script
By Rebecca Rich
I was recently fortunate enough to participate in the ANU’s second iteration of the Modern Mongolia course, a winter-based study tour which saw sixteen students delve into a wide range of topics impacting Mongolia today. Throughout our time in Mongolia we also dipped our toes into the Mongolian language. Under the tutelage of Dr Bat-Ireedui, one of the writers of the Lonely Planet’s Mongolian Phrasebook and Dictionary,[i] we learnt some basic phrases and tackled the Cyrillic script. During these lessons it occurred to me that upon first arriving in the country it would be easy to mistakenly assume that Mongolia has always utilised this alphabet in written communications. Once you scratch the surface, however, and look beyond the Cyrillic coating on the buildings and menus within the city you will find that Mongolia did not always adopt this script and that the change to Cyrillic is rooted in Mongolia’s political past.
The Traditional Mongolian script as displayed at the Genghis Khan Statue Complex. Photo: Rebecca Rich.
First originating in the 12th century, the Mongolian script is comprised of 26 letters consisting of seven vowels, two diphthongs and 17 consonants. The script is a vertical one and is written from left to right, derived from the Uighur alphabet and linked to the Tibetan script.[ii] Following the formation of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) in 1924 and under the influence of the Soviet Union, the MPR successfully and officially adopted the Cyrillic script in the 1940s.[iii]
Over the course of several lectures we heard of the many detriments of Soviet influence in Mongolia during the period of the MPR; however, one of the main benefits that was reiterated throughout these lectures was the literacy rate of nigh on 100 percent. Through this lens it is easy to see that although the Soviet Era severely limited the political freedoms of the people, education of the expanding population was a focal point and it greatly improved during this time. For this reason Mongolians still harbour feelings of gratitude and view the period when the country was a satellite state of the Soviet Union with mixed feelings.
Following the democratic revolution in Mongolia during the early 1990s and the rise of the sovereign state now simply called Mongolia, it was debated in parliament whether Mongolia would dispose of Cyrillic and readopt the Traditional Mongolian script to echo the dissolution of the MPR. However, this ideology was short lived as it would cause a large portion of the population to become illiterate overnight, untenable for a country that prides itself on its literacy rate.[iv] Furthermore, due to the recent adoption of the Cyrillic script it is largely phonemic: that is the written script represents the sounds of the spoken language. Albeit similar to the development of English, the Mongolian language has adapted over the centuries—with one letter representing several vowel or consonant sounds—making mastery of the Mongolian script much more difficult than Cyrillic.
Although the Cyrillic script is adopted throughout the country, in parts of central Mongolia, as well as within the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the Traditional Mongolian script—also known as the Old Mongol script—is still utilised as the main script for writing in Mongolian. Furthermore, after the democratic revolution, the script became a compulsory subject in schools and its popularity has been steadily increasing. It remains to be seen whether or not the traditional script will play a larger and more official part in everyday Mongolian life in the future, but I believe it is fair to say that even if Cyrillic continues to be used for practical purposes, with the traditional script so closely tied to Mongolian identity it will certainly not be rendered obsolete.
Road sign with Cyrillic script.
[i] Bat-Ireedui, Jantsan, et al. 2014. Mongolian: Phrasebook & Dictionary. Lonely Planet.
[ii] “Mongolian Alphabet.” Encyclopædia Britannica Accessed 24 October, 2016. www.britannica.com/topic/Mongolian-alphabet.
[iii] Yukiyasu, A. 2006. “Integration and Separation of ‘Language’: Language Policies of Mongolian Peoples in the USSR and Mongolia, 1920–1940.” Reconstruction and Interaction of Slavic Eurasia and its Neighboring Worlds, Osamu, L. and Tomohiko U. (eds.) Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, pp. 309–34, http://srch.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/coe21/publish/no10_ses/11_arai.pdf.
[iv] Franck, B. 2010. “Sounds and Scripts of Modernity: Language Ideologies and Practices in Contemporary Mongolia.” Inner Asia 12(2): 231–52.