Middle Mongol Language: History
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Middle Mongol or Middle Mongolian was a Mongolic koiné language spoken in the Mongol Empire. Originating from Genghis Khan's home region of northeastern Mongolia, it diversified into several Mongolic languages after the collapse of the empire. In comparison to Modern Mongolian, it is known to have had no long vowels, different vowel harmony and verbal systems and a slightly different case system.

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1. Definition and Historical Precessors

Middle Mongol is close to Proto-Mongolic, the ancestor language of the modern Mongolic languages, which would to set at the time when Genghis Khan united a number of tribes under his command and formed the Mongol clan federation.[1] The term "Middle Mongol" is somewhat misleading, as what would generally by language naming rules be termed "Old Mongolian" in this terminology is actually Proto-Mongolic. The existence of another ("old") Mongol clan federation in Mongolia during the 12th century is historical, but there is no language material from this period.[2] The Khitan language seems to share a common ancestor with Proto-Mongolic, thus is further remote.[3] According to Vovin (2018), the Ruanruan language of the Rouran Khaganate was a Mongolic language and close but not identical to Middle Mongolian.[4]

2. Corpus

The temporal delimitation of Middle Mongol causes some problems as shown in definitions ranging from the 13th until the early 15th[5] or until the late 16th century.[6] This discrepancy is mainly due to the fact that there are very few documents written in Mongolian language to be found between the early 15th and late 16th century. It is not clear whether these two delimitations constitute conscious decisions about the classification of e.g. a small text from 1453 with less than 120 words[7] or whether the vaster definition is just intended to fill up the time gap for which little proper evidence is available.

Middle Mongol survived in a number of scripts, namely notably Phagspa (decrees during the Yuan Dynasty), Arabic (dictionaries), Chinese, Mongolian script and a few western scripts.[8] Usually, the Stele of Yisüngge (ru) is considered to be its first surviving monument. It is a sports report written in Mongolian writing that was already fairly conventionalized then and most often dated at the verge of 1224 and 1225.[9] However, Igor de Rachewiltz argues that it is unlikely that the stele was erected at the place where it was found in the year of the event it describes, suggesting that it is more likely to have been erected about a quarter of a century later, when Yisüngge had gained more substantial political power. If so, the earliest surviving Mongolian monument would be an edict of Töregene of 1240[10] and the oldest surviving text arguably the Secret History of the Mongols, a document that must originally have been written in Mongolian script arguably in 1252,[11] but which only survives in an edited version as a textbook for learning Mongolian from the Ming period, thus reflecting the pronunciation of Middle Mongol from the second half of the 14th century.[12]

The term "Middle Mongol" is problematic insofar as there is no body of texts that is commonly called "Old Mongol".[13] While a revision of this terminology for the early period of Mongolian has been attempted,[14] the lack of a thorough and linguistically-based periodization of Mongolian up to now has constituted a problem for any such attempts. The related term "Preclassical Mongolian" is applied to Middle Mongol documents in Mongolian script that show some distinct linguistic peculiarities.[15]

3. Phonology

Middle Mongol had the consonant phonemes /p, m, tʰ, t, s, n, l, r, t͡ʃʰ, t͡ʃ, j, kʰ, k, h/ and the vowel phonemes /i, e, y, ø, a, u, o/.[16] The main difference to older approaches[17] is that ⟨γ⟩ is identified with /h/ and /ɡ/ (sometimes as [p] before /u/ and /y/), so that *pʰ[18] for Proto-Mongolic cannot be reconstructed from internal evidence that used to be based solely on word-initial /h/ and the then rather incomplete data from Monguor.

4. Grammar

Middle Mongol is an agglutinating language that makes nearly exclusive use of suffixes. The word order is subject–object–predicate if the subject is a noun and also object–predicate–subject if it is a pronoun. Middle Mongol rather freely allows for predicate–object, which is due to language contact.[19] There are nine cases, the nominative being unmarked. The verbal suffixes can be divided into finite suffixes, participles and converbal suffixes. Some of the finite suffixes inflect for subject number and sex. Adjectives precede their modificatum and agree with it in number.

4.1. Voice

Middle Mongol exhibits a passive construction that is peculiar to it and maybe Buryat as well, but is not present in the other dialects or in the other Mongolic languages. While it might also have fulfilled the function to foreground the patient, it usually seems to mark actions which either affect the subject directly or indirectly affect it in a harmful way.[20]

belgütei teyin čabčiqdaju bö’et (§131)
(person name) so chop-passive-converbum imperfecti be-converbum perfecti
‘Belgütei, having been chopped in that manner’
ke’üt minu qat bolju’u ke’ekdemüi bi (§112)
son-plural my khan-plural become-past say-passive-present I
‘I am told that my sons have become khans’
ma’ui setki’esü ene metü čisuban qarqaqdasu (§178)
bad think-converbum conditionale this like blood-one’s_own come_out-passive-voluntative
‘If I think evil I shall be subject to letting out my blood like this’
‘Now if I think evil ..., let my blood by shed like this!’[21]
naimana irge orqoban eme kö’üben da’uliqdaba bi (§163)
(tribal name)-dative people homestead-one’s_own woman son-one’s_own pillage-past I
‘I have been spoiled by the Naiman in respect of my people and folk and wives and sons’[22]

In §131, Belgütei is negatively affected by an unknown actor. In §112, the addressee is the passive subject. While it is possible for the speech content to be passive subject, it is far less frequent. In §178, the referent of the subject is directly affected, but syntactically, the affected noun phrase is marked with the reflexive-possessive suffix (that on its own can resemble the accusative case in other contexts). In §163, it is not the referent of the subject noun phrase, but people related to it that are directly affected to the distress of the subject. The agent may be marked by the dative (-a and -da, but in contrast to Classical Mongolian never -dur) or the nominative:

Ögödei qahan ebetčin gürtejü (§272)
(person name) Khan illness reach-passive-converbum imperfecti
‘Ögödei Khan being befallen by an illness’
qalqa kene boldaquyu bi (§111)
shield who-dative become-passive-present I
‘By whom shall the office of shield be done for me?’[23]

In both of these examples, the verb stems to which the passive subject is suffixed are intransitive. Passive suffixes get suffixed to phrases, not verbal stems, e.g.:

Jamuqa nökötte'en bariju irekdejü (§200)
(person name) companion-dative-one's_own seize-converbum imperfecti come-passive-converbum imperfecti
'Jamuqa, being seized by his companions and forced to come (unto Genghis Khan)'[24]

In modern Mongolian, neither the passivization of ir- nor the suffixing of passive suffixes to phrases are possible, so the modern translation of §200 runs:

Jamuha nöhöddöö barigdaž ireed[25]
(person name) friend-dative-one's_own seize-passive-converbum imperfecti come-converbum perfecti

Next to the passive, there is also a causative that is, however, less notable. Subjects of intransitive verbs of clauses that are causativized get accusative marking (as in §79), while former subjects of transitive verbs get marked with dative or instrumental case (as in §188 and §31). In contrast to the passive suffix, the causative suffix doesn't attach to a phrase, but to single verbs (as long as they denote different actions):[26]

Temüjin-i morila’ulju (§79)
(person name)-accusative mount_a_horse-causative-converbum imperfecti
'they had Temüjin mount a horse'
mori-yan Kököčü aqtači-da'an bari’ulju’ui (§188)
horse-one's_own (person name) keeper_of_geldings-dative-one's_own seize-causative-past
'He gave his horse to his equerry Kököčü to hold'[27]
qarčiqai-bar bari’uluqsan noqut (§31)
hawk-instrumental seize-causative-perfect participle duck-plural
'the ducks ... caught by his hawk'[28]
berined-iyen berile’üljü ötökle’üljü qu’urda’ulju (§189)
daughter-in-law-one's_own to_daughter-in-law-converbum imperfecti present_ötög-c i play_qu'ur-c i
'She had her daughter-in-law perform the rites pertaining to a daughter in law, ordered that the ceremonial wine be drunk and the horse fiddle be played, and ...'[29]
'making the daughters in law perform the rites of a daughter in law, making one to present the ötög, making one to play the qu'ur'[30]

Next to these morphemes, Middle Mongol also had suffixes to express reciprocal and cooperative meaning, namely -ldu- ~ -lda- and -lča-.[31] On the other hand, while the plurative/distributive -čaγa- is common to modern Mongolic languages, it is not attested in Middle Mongol.[32]

The content is sourced from: https://handwiki.org/wiki/Social:Middle_Mongol_language


  1. Janhunen 2003a: 2-3
  2. For a fine-grained discussion on this matter, see de Rachewiltz 1999
  3. Janhunen 2003b: 391-394
  4. Vovin, Alexander. "A Sketch of the Earliest Mongolic Language: the Brāhmī Bugut and Khüis Tolgoi Inscriptions" (in en). International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 1 (1): 162–197. ISSN 2589-8825. https://www.academia.edu/39716045/A_Sketch_of_the_Earliest_Mongolic_Language_the_Br%C4%81hm%C4%AB_Bugut_and_Kh%C3%BCis_Tolgoi_Inscriptions. 
  5. Rybatzki 2003: 57
  6. Poppe 1964: 1
  7. Cleaves 1950
  8. Rybatzki 2003: 58
  9. e.g. Γarudi 2002: 7
  10. de Rachewiltz 1976
  11. Atwood 2007
  12. de Rachewiltz 2004: xxix-xxxiv, xl-lix
  13. See Rachewiltz 1999 for a critical review of the terminology used in periodizations of Mongolic
  14. Svantesson et al. 2005: 98-99
  15. Rybatzki 2003: 57
  16. Svantesson et al. 2005: 111, 118
  17. e.g. Poppe 1955
  18. Note that while Poppe writes /p/ and /b/, he explains it as /p ~ b/ and /pʰ/.
  19. Rybatzki 2003: 78
  20. Except for the marked translations from de Rachewiltz and Cleaves, all information in the following discussion up to but not including the comparison with modern Mongolian were taken from Poppe 1965. Poppe also argues for a “passive of necessity and possibility”, but part of his examples can be refuted and part are rhetorical questions that don’t fit the category (although they are peculiar).
  21. de Rachewiltz 2004: 101
  22. Cleaves 1982: 87. “wives and sons” might also have been a general term for ‘family’. De Rachewiltz 2004: 82, 591 simply translates "of my people and my wife here" in accordance with his interpretation of §162.
  23. Cleaves 1982: 46
  24. Ōsaki 2006: 216. The translation adapts elements from Cleaves 1982: 136, but follows the Mongolian translation below in assuming that ir- is related to the position of Genghis, not of Jamuqa. This interpretation is in full agreement with de Rachewiltz 2004: 129: 'when Jamuqa was brought here by his companions' (cursive marking by de Rachewiltz).
  25. Bira et al. 2004
  26. The argument and the four examples below are taken from Ōsaki 2006: 245-247.
  27. de Rachewiltz 2004: 109, 667. He points out that Kököčü most likely held considerable social status.
  28. de Rachewiltz 2004: 6
  29. de Rachewiltz 2004: 110
  30. Cleaves 1982: 116. The plural reading is perhaps more likely here.
  31. Гarudi 2002: 336-339
  32. Rybatzki 2003: 65
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