What Genghis Khan's Mongolian Sounded Like – and how we know
Genghis Khan? Or Chinggis Khaan? Maybe Khagan? History’s most famous conqueror kept many secrets. Yet with some clever linguistic investigation, we can reanimate the sounds of his language.
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~ Summary ~
Our journey starts with a Mongolian grammar and a trip to modern Mongolia, a language with some standout features. You’ll see the Khan’s name written everywhere… but in the Cyrillic script. Cross the border to Inner Mongolia in China to see everyday use of a much older script, a script with extra “hidden” syllables.
We’ll trace those syllables back to when the soon-to-be-Khan, Temüjin, conquered the Naiman and encouraged his dignitaries to use the newfound Uyghur script. That Written Mongol has some archaic features, and comes from the time of the Khan, but another piece of evidence suggests it’s too archaic.
In the 1800s, a scholarly Russian monk found a history book in China. It was written in Hànzì (Chinese characters), but the text didn’t read well… unless you pronounced it in Mongolian. This turned out to be the Secret History of the Mongols. The language of the text was similar to Written Mongol, but it had notable differences, including modern-looking features. Still, it also seemed to come from the Khan’s time. Was this Middle Mongol more authentic?
That’s when we’ll run into a third line of evidence: linguists comparing Mongolic languages and reconstructing Proto-Mongolic. There’s not just one modern Mongolian; there’s an entire Mongolic family. The features of this reconstructed proto-language matched the slightly modern-looking Middle Mongol.
In the end, these three ways of looking back to the early Mongols situate the Khan in linguistic history. Before him, there were Turkic loans (including the Khahan, the state (ulus), and the hero (baatur) in Ulaanbaatar), maybe dialects, and perhaps sibling Para-Mongolic languages. After him, a diversification into the modern languages. Between those, he unified his people and, in a “linguistic bottleneck”, created a common Mongol language that turned into a language family in a relatively short time.
Along the way, we’ll meet these forms of the language:
– Mongolian: the modern standard language of Mongolia, a standardized form of Khalkha
– Mongol: a general term for stages of the standard or prestige language, as well as a native term for many individual Mongolic varieties (Mongol, Mangghuer, Moghol, …)
– Written Mongol (WM): the archaic language behind a continuous stream of texts in the Mongol script
– Secret History (SH): the longest early Mongol text, here claimed to represent a different form of MM
– Middle Mongol (MM): the oldest attested stage of Mongol, typically including SH and Preclassical WM, plus later material like ‘Phags-pa texts
– Mongolic: the language family branching from early Mongol after the time of Genghis Khan
– Proto-Mongolic (PM): the reconstructed common ancestor of modern Mongolian and its sibling languages
These discussions were heavily, heavily trimmed for time. They’re mostly a given by Genghis Khan’s era, but they definitely matter when we’re digging into the backstory of PM and early Mongol:
– (Mongolized) Turkic: Mongolic has many Turkic words that must predate PM but show clear signs of borrowing, not common ancestry
– Para-Mongolic: a headscratcher of a hypothesis, but we may possess evidence of ancient siblings to the Proto-Mongolic or pre-PM language itself (not direct ancestors of modern Mongolian), with current focus on Khitan
~ Credits ~
Art, animation and narration by Josh from NativLang. Some of the music, too.
Other music by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) and one by Josh Woodward (joshwoodward.com). Full credits in the sources doc below.
Sources for claims and credits for images, sfx, music and fonts:
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