Friday, November 11, 2005

Spelling Disaster?

This is the second time I've heard about this, so I thought I'd post a quick link to it--though there must be a more complete treatment of this somewhere:
The [Mongolian] government also is working with the United States on a project to change the Mongolian language from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet.
I mentioned this to Mongol, who was outraged about the whole thing. I must admit I'm scratching my head about it, too. I mean, I'm a dyed in the cashmere conservative (with a small c). Change doesn't come easy to me (read my thoughts on land-privatization in Mongolia here and here to see what I'm talking about). If it works one way, why tinker with it and in the process blow everything up?

From a purely practical standpoint, I can forsee any number of problems tied with this: Everything in modern Mongolian history/government/society/culture, etc. is in the Cyrillic alphabet. Switching to the Roman alphabet seems like a recipie for a disaster of discontinuity between Mongolia's past century and the years to come. How much will quite literally lost in translation? How does one bridge the gap that will inevitably open? What will happen when older people can no longer read the "new" Mongolian? For that matter, what will happen when young people can no longer read the "old" Mongolian? Mongolia was robbed once of their history when the USSR russified everything. Is Mongolia going to lose it again when the most recent 100 years of history become locked behind a Cyrillic alphabet that no-one but older generations and scholars can decipher? Besides, hasn't Mongolia already tried to make a switch to the classic Mongolian script, only to have it founder and for the most part disappear?

This isn't to say that I don't understand the arguments in favor of the switch. Indeed, those arguments are formidable, especially from a pragamatic standpoint. Let's face it--English is the new lingua franca of the world, and anything a country can do to make its language accessible to English speakers, so much the better. Success (economic, political, etc.) is in large part due to how integrated one is with the world as a whole, and the world speaks English. Still, though, the whole idea seems too dismissive of heritage (no matter how recent, no matter how Russian, no matter how imperialist) and the way things are on the ground to be very appealing to me.

Having said all that, I hope with all my heart that the change is more successful than my admitedly narrow mind can imagine.

For another perspective, I'd be interested to read Mongol's thoughts about this if time permits posting.


Anonymous Bill Walsh said...

Myself, I'd welcome it. I think Cyrillic is fine, but its use of the я, ю. ё, etc. aren't particularly suited to the underlying Mongolian phonology (as can be seen when you compare classical script to Cyrillic). I don't see this as being a particularly drastic historical cut off, as for anyone who wants to learn Cyrillic, it's not hard at all to go from Roman, since they're both fundamentally alphabetic and have a lot of correspondence.

The more dramatic example from last century was the transition from the Arabic-based Ottoman script to Roman. While the ensuing script is vastly easier to learn and use, the Ottoman heritage has largely become only accessible to speciallists (not least because the language was changed drastically as well: see Geoffrey Lewis's brilliant and occasionally hilarious, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Succcess, Oxford.)

I think in the case of Mongolia, going from Cyrillic to Roman is a defensible step if they're trying to establish their identity as distinct from Russia and China, as have Uzbekistan and Türkmenistan. (The former in an especially idiosyncratic fashion.) Kazakhstan, which will inevitably always be concerned with Russia's favor, will probably never give up Cyrillic (and perhaps shouldn't). (Tatarstan is an interesting case: they went Latin, but were forced by a Russian law to return to Cyrillic...)

Finally, the internationalization argument is perhaps the most persuastive. Cyrillic is not going to be a world script any time soon, and given the terrible demographics of Russia, it will become even less useful. Roman is likely the only real alternative, unless a return to classical Mongolian is in the cards—and however beautiful that'd be, it'd be pretty impractical.

Still, sticking with Cyrillic does have the significant force of tradition, which is never to be overlooked. I'd tend to lean towards Roman if it's really an open question, but the status quo certainly ain't bad.

11/11/2005 7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Nabetz, I can imagine how difficult and ultimately confusing this change will be on the people. Isn't this a political maneuver? Is there any kind of public referendum on this issue? I can't imagine it being very popular, except, perhaps among the easily swayed young. In other countries, such as Ukraine, the changes that occurred in the Ukrainian script, however seemingly insignificant they were, during Soviet times (to make the language even more compatible to Russian than what it already is), were revoked in the early 1990s.

By the way, its not a bad thing to be conservative "with a small c." It show me, at least, that you love your country and its traditions. Thank for your example.

11/12/2005 1:15 PM  
Anonymous yan said...

I'd welcome it too, even if for purely egoistic reasons. However, the plan seems kind of ironic when you look at the success of the re-introduction of the classic script some years ago.
OTOH if you take a look at forums like (or maybe at your wife's emails and sms's), there seems to be no real problem with using the latin alphabet instead of the cyrillic one. Latin letters might also be easier to read for Inner Mongolians - since they learn them for Hanyu Pinyin at school anyway - but I don't think that's an issue here.
I could imagine the switch wouldn't be much harder than the switch from Gothic letters to modern ones in Germany. If you know your language, it should be possible to figure out what those other letters mean, at least after some practice.

11/14/2005 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yan, does Inner Mongolians use Latin script when writing in their language at the Hanyu Pinyin school? Are you Mongolian and speak and write the language? Its seems to me that there is quite a bit difference between cryllic and latin. The same appearing letters have entirely different pronunciations, don't they? Wasn't Gothic just a form of Latin script? Excuse my ignorance, but enlighten me. Thanks

11/14/2005 2:07 PM  
Anonymous yan said...

I'm German. If I'd be Mongolian, I'd probably have no real reason to favor another alphabet over the one already in use :) . Although one might still question the use of letters like the 'shch'.

Inner Mongolian children use Latin script for learning chinese pronounciation, since those chinese characters don't really give you a hint how to pronounce them (I guess that's true for all chinese & other minority pupils, not just inner mongolians). I think that may be one reason why the Hanyu pinyin transscription system was introduced in the first place.
I don't know what letters Inner Mongolians use to learn their own script (classic mongolian), but since classic mongolian is an alphabetic script, even if not really phonetic anymore, the use of latin letters would seem redundant.
Anyway, those inner mongolians i have met were generally able to decipher mongolian written in latin letters, but not mongolian written in cyrillic letters.
I agree that the step from cyrillic to latin would be somewhat bigger than from gothic to modern script, but I think it's definitely do-able without too much confusion or loss of heritage.

Letters that look the same, but have different pronounciation would (IIRC) be capital H,Y,C,P,B,X + small y,c,p,x,s,m. Of those, c would be pretty redundant when not in 'ch', and x could actually be used like now, to represent the 'kh' sound - that would also make the 'h' redundant except in 'ch'. 'ya' and 'i' look somewhat similar to R and N - only about as similar as some of those cyrillic letters look to each other (e.g. 'ds' and 'e'), OTOH, the vowels except u are quite similar, as are letters like T,M,K(k) and small b (although the letter looks a lot like the 'soft sign'.

11/15/2005 12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, yan, for the comments and answers. And, I agree with you: if I'd be Mongolian ...

Maybe I missed something, but why is there a desire for the change in the first place? Why go from being Russified to Latinized/ Westernized, instead of just, say, making English a required course in schools?

11/15/2005 4:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, I would like to apologize for my poor English /vocabulary and grammar/.

As a child gone through reconstruction period, as a person learnt Russian since 3 years old, I disagree to change the alphabet:
1. Lot of Mongolians /my mothers and even grandparents age/ know Russian. My mother studied in Russian secondary school so did I. Now I have pure Mongolian vocabulary that lacks me to read books of Mongolian writers in my own language. But Cyrillic gave me advantage to learn and write even with some mistakes Mongolian, that wouldn’t happen if it was Roman. There lots of kids are studying in Russian school now.
2. As a sandwich country, in my opinion, we’d better have one of the 2 countries alphabets to ease learning their language and I would prefer /Russian/ Cyrillic.
3. Personally, I’ve studied Mongolian Cyrillic and old script grammar for only 3 years: during reconstruction period in Russian schools started to teach some Mongolian. But from my mother to my generation no Mongolian was taught. These people always talk about difficulties connected with lack of grammar. If you’ll see vacancies in Mongolian newspaper, it says: fluent English and Mongolian. Russian school graduates have good English due to similarity of the languages.
For me it’s better to improve my “Cyrillic and old script Mongolian” rather than changing it. The old script is so interesting and not confusing: a word with several meaning is wrote differently. Our teacher used to laugh when we used to say “translation from old to new”. I’ll be first in protest rally against alphabet change.

11/19/2005 5:30 PM  
Anonymous mgl girl said...

Preposterous! Cyrilic scrypt works out fine for us, why changing it? I hope they are not serious...

11/21/2005 12:14 PM  
Anonymous bilguun said...

Having used Cyrillic all my life, I have grown fond of the Cyrillic script and I believe it does complement the Mongolian phonology. Of course, Mongolian language must have changed considerably as a result of introducing the Cyrillic script. Personally, I would prefer Mongolia retain the Cyrillic alphabet.

Speaking of the Roman alphabet, I believe for a period of time in the 30's and 40's before the 1946 cultural exchange agreement between the Soviet Union and Mongolia, Mongolians had used the Roman alphabet briefly. The suitability of the script can not properly be verified due to the briefness of the experiment.

12/15/2005 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Mongolian man, I prefer the Cyrillic script. I also learned Russian as the majority of our people, and am a Civil Aeronautics Engineer. Russian afforded me the ability to study highly technical manuals (airplane avionics) and it seems to me, Cyrillic alphabet is working very well for us.

Undoubtedly, as an Engineer I would prefer to improve a working system than scrap it in favour of something new entirely.

There is just no reason for it. Teach English in schools and be done with it.

These days, I take pride in my ability to speak/write/read Fluent Russsian, something the Russians immigrants themselves have forgotten. Most of the literature I've read was in Russian, and most of my reading material, from technical books to science fiction is written in Russian.

Let's look at it this way. Cyrillic works for Mongolia. WHY oh WHY change it? Has there been a national referendum? Are the people crying out in the streets? Of course not!

Regards to all my brothers and sisters,
~Baatarsaikhan K.

8/05/2007 6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What? are you kidding me? okay im a 100% mongolian ,i was born in mongolia but my parents ended up sending me to russian school.Ones in 7th grade i told my mom i want to go to mongolian school, so she sent me to her friends school i went to 2-3 classes and i couldnt take it anymore! the reason is i couldnt take any notes my spelling in mongolian was horrible even thou its same alphabet as russian now days. they have a class where they supposedly tech u the old mongolian but scince no one really uses it i didnt have a chance to master it. ok my grandmother and my grandfather they grow up in the old mongolian script writing time and my grandfather keeps all his business records written in script mongolian and none of us new how to read it. when he passed away my moms family was left practicly with notthing because we didnt know to whom my grandfather landed money .

im fluent in russian and english and mongolian i say but everything mixes up sometimes in my head and if goverment decides to change the writing again it would be pure disaster , why do are we trying to copy everyone else why not just keep the old one? better would be i say go back to script writing!

4/02/2008 5:05 PM  
Blogger Mithridates said...

I just bought a Mongolian textbook today here in Korea (in Korean) and was showing it to a few people and they loved the similarities to their language (word order, grammar etc.) but said it would be a lot more obvious to them if written in the Latin script. Not that I necessarily think Mongolia should change their script based on that, but it's good to remember that the Latin script isn't for English speakers alone. A lot of people here love how Vietnam uses the Latin script for example - since the grammar is as easy as Chinese all you have to worry about there is pronunciation.

5/10/2008 9:27 AM  
Blogger samraat said...

4/04/2010 9:45 PM  

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