Monday, April 2, 2012

Mongolian Language: Part 1

One of the things most difficult about living in a foreign culture is the trouble with communication. In non-native English countries, it's hard to find fluent English speakers outside of the capital city. It becomes even harder to find someone to converse with in English the further you travel from one of these native English countries. Mongolia, landlocked between Russia and China, is very far from any such country: India is the closest and I'm not sure that it counts as native English.

That being said, although my main purpose here is to teach English, communication is often easier if the visitor simply learns the country's native tongue (duh...). For my next few blog posts, I'm going to be educating (and probably boring) you dear readers with what I consider interesting Mongolian information, words and phrases. Very little of this information will be actually useful if you want to speak the language, but enjoy nonetheless.

Next post, we'll do something fun with the language, but first I think you need to know something about Mongolian before you can find its constructions and translations humorous. Bear with me.

Basic Mongolian Information

Mongolian and English are different for a lot of reasons, but essentially two main things: the alphabet and the prepositions.
The alphabet is cyrillic. It's the alphabet used by Russia and a lot of the former soviet states. Before I came to Mongolia, I had a bit of fun naming the characters to remember what they were and what sounds they made. A capital в does not make a 'b' sound. It sounds like a strange combination between V and W. The alphabet doesn't distinguish between the two which is why my students and many Soviet born actors have difficulty with V and W words in English. The я which I called the backwards 'R' makes a 'ya' sound. The lowercase 'R' or г is actually a G, although it has a 'ck' sound to it occasionally. You can look up lists of what the different characters sound like on google if you're actually interested. I'll type out some simple words at the bottom. Try to read them for fun.
Secondly, Mongolian doesn't have prepositions. The language does everything with suffixes. It still does have pronouns, verbs and subjects, so at least it isn't as crazy as I imagine Latin to be. But with a simple two words you can convey “I am at my home” би (I) гэр(home)т(at)ээ(my). The be verb is usually unnecessary in such simple sentences. The suffixes have various meanings and change depending on which word they are attached to, so learning them was/is quite a challenge for me. It was difficult to force my brain to accept that people don't see that би гэр and би гэртээ as the same (I am a home vs. I am at home). Suffixes have never meant much in my mind. Anyway, there might be a list of Mongolian suffixes online, but I'll give you a small sampling here.
тай – with
т – at, on, in (pretty much all location prepositions)
руу - to
ийн – of (mostly for possessive)
ний – for/of (or to make a word into a modifier 'food store' 'clothing dresser')
ийг - ~to (this is used to show the object of certain verbs. I hit him. Him would get the suffix.)

Two more small differences between Mongolian and English before we end this post. Vowels in Mongolian can be short or long. They don't sound different (not like the difference between bot and boot), they just last longer. You pronounce the а in ав for half the time that you pronounce the а in аав. The first is a verb meaning to take, the second is father. It's sometimes an important distinction. The word for бас is only one а short of becoming defecation баас: a mistake that natives find hilarious.
Finally, much like in French, the final letter isn't always pronounced. Mongolians do not say the last letter if it is a single vowel. Just end the word with the consonant. Try out your new Cyrillic skills on the following words. Next post I'll try to have something a bit more fun.