Between Fact and Fantasy: Early Sources on Oirat Historical Dialectology
(63rd Annual Meeting Ulaanbaatar, 2021)
The paper presents the results of a linguistic analysis of three early sources on Oirat historical dialectology, Rashīd al-Dīn’s Jāmiʿ al-Tawārīkh (Compendium of Chronicles, completed between 1306 and 1311) and the Mongol chronicles Sir‑a tuγuǰi (Yellow History, between 1651 and 1662) and Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur (The Jewel Translucent Sūtra, c. 1607). The author comes to the conclusion that these sources substantially differs in their linguistic value and reliability. The early historical accounts of the Oirat lexical differences, provided by Rashīd al-Dīn and the unknown author of the Sir‑a tuγuǰi, were most likely obtained from unreliable external sources and based on hearsay evidence, orally transmitted by non-Oirats, at best only passingly familiar with the Oirat language and its actual features. Both authors probably heard something about distinctive lexical features of the Oirat dialects of their time, but they hardly had a clear idea of what these features were and how to explain them in an adequate manner. On the contrary, the “Oirat fragment” contained in the Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur seems to be much closer to fact than to fantasy. It presents a deliberate and quite reliable attempt to introduce some features of the Oirat dialects spoken at the turn of the seventeenth century. In the absence of earlier internal evidence of the linguistic differences between the Mongolic languages, it is likely the oldest known representation of dialectal data in the Mongol literary tradition. It is especially important as containing not lexical but morphophonological (an innovative colloquial shape of the clitics ni ~ n̠i < *inu and la ~ =la < *ele) and morphosyntactic (the progressive/durative in ‑nA(y)i) features that seem to have been considered Oirat by the early seventeenth-century author(s) of the chronicle. The identification of these features as specifically Oirat appears quite plausible and, by and large, does not raise serious doubts. It may be assumed that the information on Oirat dialects, attested in the Erdeni tunumal neretü sudur, could be obtained either from an Oirat, or at least from a person who was well acquainted with the language of the Oirats of that time. This makes the chronicle an extremely valuable source on historical dialectology of Mongolic languages, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.