This one’s for the linguistic nerds! Today’s post is all about Mongolian grammar. Necessary caveat: I’m not proficient in Mongolian, but I don’t think a single blog post is capable of covering the entirety of any language’s grammar anyway. This is just some interesting basics.
For me, one of the hardest elements of Mongolian language is the grammar of its sentence structure. I’m a native English speaker and am also proficient in French and conversational in Spanish. Those three languages share a lot in common, so I thought I was really adept at language learning when in reality, I just happened to study three similar languages. (Enter Mongolian that promptly humbles me.)
In English, a typical simple sentence structure is SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT (ex: I ate an apple.) . You can toss in adjectives before the object or add some adverbs if you’re feeling extra (ex: I hungrily ate the delicious red apple.), but that’s the gist of it. Spanish and French follow suit. Mongolian sentence structure is as follows: SUBJECT-ANY AND ALL MODIFIERS-VERB (ex: I the apple ate.). Why is this so hard? And sometimes the verb is somewhat implied? For instance, in English, I would say, “I am an English teacher,” but in Mongolian, a direct translation is more like, “I English teacher.”
Let’s look at a more complex sentence structure: “When I was six years old, I used to dance.” A rough transliteration from Mongolian to English would be, “Six years old [used to be] I danced.” As tough as this is for me to learn, our former Mongolian students had the same issues in learning English, just coming the opposite direction. (Fun fact: once we started taking Mongolian language classes, I began to realize why my students made certain errors consistently. So if you’re an ESL teacher and you’re able to learn some of your students’ native languages, it could really help you be more understanding.)
In Mongolian, there are polite/formal forms in addition to less/impolite/informal forms of language. There isn’t a “please”, per se, but the verb ending changes so the command is less harsh (impolite/informal: zogs; polite/formal: zogsoorei). This was another area of cultural confusion when it came to working with Mongolian students. What came across as rude or demanding in English was really a matter of not having the right approach to politeness in English. The first example that comes to mind was having a student approach my desk and say, “Teacher, check my work.” Totally legit in Mongolian. Kinda rude in English.
The other ways that Mongolian shows formal and informal speech is in their use of pronouns. This is something that was familiar from my background of French and Spanish which employ different pronouns for formal and informal “you”. In Mongolian, it is the same. If we’re friends, we would use “chi” to say “you”, but if you are older or in an otherwise higher social position than me, I would use, “ta”. Note: if you aren’t convinced that someone is much older than you, it’s safe to err on the side of caution and address someone as a peer. Otherwise, they might be offended that you think that they’re old. 😉
One of the joys of the Mongolian language is that verb conjugations remain consistent regardless of what person is speaking. This makes it nice to learn different verb tenses because it limits the number of endings. (Looking at you, French and Spanish.) Present tense “eat”: ideg. Past tense “eat”: idsen. Future tense “eat”: idne. It doesn’t matter if it’s formal or informal, I, you, she, they, we, etc., the verb remains consistent.
I had never heard of case anything until I started learning Mongolian. Eric had already been introduced to case endings from his Greek studies, but the first time our teacher brought it up, my brain fritzed out. I am grateful, however, that Mongolian only has seven cases, whereas Hungarian has fourteen. (YIKES.) The easiest case ending for me to explain is that of the possessive ending, which can be any of the following: -tai, tei, toi (ending is based off vowel harmony). This page might do a better job of explaining Mongolian cases than I can if you’re interested.
This is all I got. Kudos if you read this far! Next week, I’ll post about the written forms of Mongolian. Let me know what questions you have for us!