The language of Genghis Khan
I have been reading and loving a biography of Genghis Khan that came out in 2015 by Frank McLynn. Did you know that Mongols tamed snow leopards and used them for hunting? And that they fetishized small noses? And that Genghis Khan, when he was about thirteen and still called Temujin, shot his brother to death with arrows after the brother took and ate an entire fish without sharing? I am learning a lot.
The book has veered into many areas, including flora and fauna of the Mongolian steppe, but it has not yet moved into language. Wikipedia confidently reports that Genghis Khan, who was illiterate his whole life, spoke Middle Mongolian, from which contemporary Mongolian derives.
Fun facts about Mongolic languages
1. Familiarity. You won’t find them very familiar. The Mongolic languages, of which Mongolian is the most spoken, belong to their own family. While some linguists propose grouping Mongolic languages with Turkish, Korean, and Japanese in the “Altaic family”, because of similarities around vowel harmony and agglutinative grammar, these linguists are mostly waved away.
2. Oldest written record. The oldest written Mongolian known to us is either a sports report carved onto a stele around 1220 AD, or the enticingly named Secret History of the Mongols. The latter was actually captured as transliteration in Chinese characters.
3. Script. Varying by geography, contemporary Mongolic languages are written in Cyrillic (like Russian) or classical Mongolian script, which is vertical! For social media, as with many languages, people use the Latin script (like English).
4. Geography of speakers. Most speakers of Mongolic languages live in the sparsely populated country of Mongolia, with others living in China, Russia, and Afghanistan.
5. Learning Mongolian. Here are 10 phrases to get you started. When I listen, I am totally baffled. Personally, I hear hints of Turkish, Arabic, Russian, and Coast Salish languages. You?