Aspects of Mongol writing today

Michael Balk

Aspects of Mongol writing today

(63rd Annual Meeting Ulaanbaatar, 2021)

One of the most important cultural commonalities is writing. The traditional Mongol script goes back to the Aramaic and ultimately Phoenician alphabets, purely consonantal in character. The Semitic origin is still clearly noticeable in the Mongol script. There is a pronounced reductionism that affects both the notation of vowels and the spelling of consonants. While on the one hand the number of characters and letters used is smaller than the number of phonemes designated by them, on the other hand we encounter the phenomenon that characters or combinations of characters can only appear in certain positions of a word. If the number of characters is greater than the number of phonemes they indicate, the result is a better degree of recognisability of particular written terms presented in the script.

The high degree of abstraction of the Mongolian script – a high degree of reduction with regard to phonemes combined with graphemic differentiation in the spelling of words – makes it a handy instrument of communication across pronunciation-related differences. A sequence of glyphs in Mongol script has much in common with a purely graphic code that is associated with particular semantics. It is true that a given orthography reflects a linguistic historical reality from which it has emerged. In the reality of communicative exchange, however, historical phonetics play no present role. A native speaker will always read the script as the words noted by it are spoken in his or her own language. Precisely because the correspondence between sound and letter is comparatively unspecific, the Mongolian script can be accepted across linguistic boundaries. It offers a commonality that is accomplished on an abstract level, which is in fact corroborated by its graphic elaboration in the spelling and identity of words.

When the Mongolian script was encoded in Unicode (Range 1800 to 18AF) – the creation of which I was able to witness at first hand as German representative in the 1990s – the abstract nature of the Mongolian script was not adequately taken into account. Certain readings of the script, comprehensible in their historical context, have been cast in a modern-looking traditional form, and at the same time positionally nuanced markings were levelled. As a result, the quality of Mongolian writing that reduces the phonological inventory has been lost, as has its refined graphemic succinctness. I will present reasons why an improvement of the Unicode tables is recommended.