Thursday, December 18, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘Will Mongolia have the Courage to Scrap the Russian Alphabet?’

Paul Goble


            Staunton, December 18 – Mongols live in three states, Mongolia, Buryatia within the borders of the Russian Federation, and Inner Mongolia within the borders of the Peoples Republic of China. They share many things in common including their language, but they are divided by alphabets imposed by outsiders.


            The Buryats are currently compelled to use a Cyrillic alphabet as a result of a 2002 Russian law. The people of Inner Mongolia use the traditional Mongol alphabet which is written vertically. But the people of Mongolia are caught not only between those two scripts but also between them and the possible introduction of a Latin-based script as well.


            Because alphabets can divide otherwise common linguistic communities and thus change the pattern of influence from the outside in a region, the question of alphabet reform in Mongolia not only reflects changes in the balance between Russia and China but also the possibility of the growth of a pan-Mongol identity challenging both Moscow and Beijing.


            In an article for the Asia-Russia Daily portal, Yikiyasu Arai, a correspondent for Japan’s JB Press, explores the complicated history of alphabets among the Mongols and pointedly asks “will Mongolia have the courage to scrap the Russian alphabet?” (


            The traditional Mongolian script was introduced in the 12th to the 14th centuries by the Uyghurs, who drew on Arabic script as their model but wrote it vertically rather than horizontally. Some explain this by reference to the fact that it was easier for Mongol horsemen to reach a vertical text, but others say this is the result of Chinese influence.


            This script won out over the block alphabet from Tibet which was introduced by the Buddhist monk Pagba-Lama in large measure because the latter was both more complicated to write and did not have letters for all the sounds in the Mongol language, Yikiyasu Arai says.


The traditional script lasted until the 1921 revolution and the establishment of communist power in 1924.  Under the influence of the Soviet Union whose leaders believed that Latin script could help “backward” peoples overcome their illiteracy functional and political faster than any other, Ulan Bator was pushed into adopting a Latin script.


The Latin script gradually replaced the traditional one, although the latter was still taught because so much of Mongolia’s literary heritage was written in it.  Then, in 1941, Moscow decided that Mongolia should go over to a script based on the Russian Cyrillic in order to be more tightly integrated with the communist world.


            (Some activists in Inner Mongolia pushed for the adoption of the Cyrillic script after the communists took power in China, but they were suppressed as relations between Moscow and Beijing worsened in the late 1950s and 1960s.)


            With the weakening and then collapse of the Soviet Union, some in Mongolia began to press for dropping Cyrillic and going back either to the traditional script or to a Latin-based one. For many Mongols, the traditional script became a symbol of their national tradition, and beginning in 1992, Mongol schools began to teach the first classes in it.


            But because Ulan Bator did not have the funds to pay for new textbooks and because the traditional script did not allow for the expression of certain scientific formulas, Mongolian school children after being exposed to the traditional script in the first two grades have been forced to shift back to the Cyrillic beginning in grade three.


            The alphabet struggles are likely to continue, Yikiyasu Arai says, because the various scripts “mark out a definite cultural circle and sometimes a religious sphere of influence as well. In some cases,” he concludes, “scripts disappear with the collapse of empires and the destruction of their spheres of influence.”


            That is what makes this issue so important not only in Mongolia but for Mongols in China and Russia and for those two countries more generally.

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