Middle Mongolian language

Middle Mongolian
Spoken in Mongolia, China, Russia
Extinct developed into Classical Mongolian by the 17th century
Language family
  • Middle Mongolian
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xng

Middle Mongolian is an ancient Mongolic language formerly spoken in the Mongol Empire and later on in Greater Mongolia during the 13th to at least the early 15th century.


Definition and historical precessors

Middle Mongolian is close to Common Mongolian, 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. The term "Middle Mongolian" 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. The Khitan language seems to share a common ancestor with Proto-Mongolic, thus is further remote.


The temporal delimitation of Middle Mongolian causes some problems as shown in definitions ranging from the 13th until the early 15th[1] or until the late 16th century.[2] 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[3] or whether the vaster definition is just intended to fill up the time gap for which little proper evidence is available.

Middle Mongolian survived in a number of scripts, namely notably Phagspa (decrees during the Yuan Dynasty), Arabic (dictionaries), Chinese, Mongolian script and a few western scripts.[4] Usually, the Stele of Yisüngge 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.[5] 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[6] 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 1228, but which only survives in an edited version as a textbook for learning Mongolian from the Ming period, thus reflecting the pronunciation of Middle Mongolian from the second half of the 14th century.[7]

The term Middle Mongolian is problematic insofar as there is no body of texts that is commonly called "Old Mongolian".[8] While a revision of this terminology for the early period of Mongolian has been attempted,[9] the lack of a thorough and linguistically based periodization of Mongolian up to now has constitutes a problem for any such attempts. The related term Preclassical Mongolian is applied to Middle Mongolian documents in Mongolian script that show some distinct linguistic peculiarities.[10]


Middle Mongolian 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/.[11] The main difference to older approaches[12] is that <γ> is identified with /h/ and /ɡ/ (sometimes as [p] before /u/ and /y/), so that *pʰ[13] 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.


Middle Mongolian 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. Arabic Middle Mongolian rather freely allows for predicate–object, which is due to language contact.[14] 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 in number with it.


Middle Mongolian 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.[15]

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!’[16]
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’[17]

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?’[18]

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)'[19]

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[20]
(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):[21]

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'[22]
qarčiqai-bar bari’uluqsan noqut (§31)
hawk-instrumental seize-causative-perfect_participle duck-plural
'the ducks ... caught by his hawk'[23]
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 ...'[24]
'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'[25]

Next to these morphemes, Middle Mongolian also had suffixes to express reciprocal and cooperative meaning, namely -ldu- ~ -lda- and -lča-.[26] On the other hand, while the plurative/distributive -čaγa- is Common Mongolic, it is not attested in Middle Mongolian.[27]

See also

  • Praise of Mahakala


  1. ^ Rybatzki 2003: 57
  2. ^ Poppe 1964: 1
  3. ^ Cleaves 1950
  4. ^ Rybatzki 2003: 58
  5. ^ eg Γarudi 2002: 7
  6. ^ de Rachewiltz 1976
  7. ^ de Rachewiltz 2004: xxix-xxxiv, xl-lix
  8. ^ See Rachewiltz 1999 for a critical review of the terminology used in periodizations of Mongolian
  9. ^ Svantesson et al. 2005: 98-99
  10. ^ Rybatzki 2003: 57
  11. ^ Svantesson et al. 2005: 111, 118
  12. ^ eg Poppe 1955
  13. ^ Note that while Poppe writes /p/ and /b/, he explains it as /p ~ b/ and /pʰ/.
  14. ^ Rybatzki 2003: 78
  15. ^ 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).
  16. ^ de Rachewiltz 2004: 101
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Cleaves 1982: 46
  19. ^ 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).
  20. ^ Bira et al. 2004
  21. ^ The argument and the four examples below are taken from Ōsaki 2006: 245-247.
  22. ^ de Rachewiltz 2004: 109, 667. He points out that Kököčü most likely held considerable social status.
  23. ^ de Rachewiltz 2004: 6
  24. ^ de Rachewiltz 2004: 110
  25. ^ Cleaves 1982: 116. The plural reading is perhaps more likely here.
  26. ^ Гarudi 2002: 336-339
  27. ^ Rybatzki 2003: 65


  • Bira, Š. et al. (2004): Mongolyn nuuc tovčoo. Ulaanbaatar: Bolor sudar.
  • Cleaves, Francis Woodman (1950): The Sino-Mongolian edict of 1453. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 13, No. 3/4: 431-454.
  • Cleaves, Francis Woodman (1982): The Secret history of the Mongols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • de Rachewiltz, Igor (1976): Some Remarks on the Stele of Yisuüngge. In: Walter Heissig et al.: Tractata Altaica - Denis Sinor, sexagenario optime de rebus altaicis merito dedicata. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz: 487–508.
  • de Rachewiltz, Igor (2004): The Secret history of the Mongols. Brill: Leiden.
  • Γarudi (2002): Dumdadu üy-e-yin mongγul kelen-ü bütüče-yin kelberi-yin sudulul. Kökeqota: Öbür mongγul-un arad-un keblel-ün qoriy-a.
  • Ōsaki, Noriko (2006): “Genchō hishi” no gengo ni mirareru judōbun. In: Arakawa, Shintarō et al. (ed.): Shōgaito Masahiro sensei tainin kinen ronshū - Yūrajia shogengo no kenkyū. Tōkyō: Yūrajia gengo no kenkyū kankōkai: 175-253.
  • Poppe, Nicholas (1955): Introduction to Mongolian comparative studies. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian society.
  • Poppe, Nicholas (1964 [1954]): Grammar of Written Mongolian. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Poppe, Nicholas (1965): The passive constructions in the language of the Secret history. Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher 36: 365-377.
  • Rybatzki, Volker (2003): Middle Mongol. In: Janhunen, Juha (ed.) (2003): The Mongolic languages. London: Routledge: 47-82.
  • Svantesson, Jan-Olof, Anna Tsendina, Anastasia Karlsson, Vivan Franzén (2005): The Phonology of Mongolian. New York: Oxford University Press.

External links

  • Monumenta Altaica grammars, texts, dictionaries and bibliographies of Mongolian and other Altaic languages
  • Lingua Mongolia information on Classical Mongolian, including an online dictionary

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