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Review of  The Phonology of Mongolian

Reviewer: Amy LaCross
Book Title: The Phonology of Mongolian
Book Author: Jan-Olof Svantesson Anna Tsendina Anastasia Karlsson Vivan Franzin
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): Mongolian, Classical
Issue Number: 17.2300

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AUTHOR: Svantesson, Jan-Olaf; Tsendina, Anna; Karlsson, Anastasia; Franzen,
TITLE: The Phonology of Mongolian
SERIES: The Phonology of the World's Languages
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005

Amy LaCross, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.

In The Phonology of Mongolian, Svantesson et al. offer one of the most
comprehensive descriptions and analyses of the phonetics and the phonology
of Khalkha Mongolian as well as its major dialects and language family to
date. Using a formidable array of both synchronic and diachronic sources,
the authors not only provide a thorough analysis of the phonetics and
phonology of Modern Khalkha, as spoken in the capital of the Republic of
Mongolia, but also a complete historical analysis of the sound changes in
Old and Middle Mongolian to present and the languages of its respective
language family.


Chapter 1: Vowels.

These chapters offer a thorough acoustical analysis of the phonemic
inventory in Khalkha Mongolian. The data in these chapters is based on
fieldwork done by Svantesson in Ulaan Baatar with three male native
speakers. Though it would perhaps be helpful to base the resultant
analyses on a larger number of speakers, the authors are to be commended on
the completeness of the information provided in a variety of charts
detailing duration of long and short vowels, formant frequencies, and F1-F2
vowel plots. The authors also provide acoustical analyses of the phonetic
bases for vowel harmony, palatalized vowels, and a brief description of the
four diphthongs.

Chapter 2: Consonants

This chapter offers an acoustical analysis of the consonantal inventory
based on the analysis of the same three speakers from the previous chapters
as well as another speaker, a middle-aged woman recorded in Moscow.
Beginning with stops and affricates, it clarifies questions left by the
analysis of Ramstedt 1902 and others with a description of the contrastive
role of aspiration in Khalkha. Of interest and in contrast to previous
descriptions of the language, Svantesson et al. include an aspirated and
non-aspirated stop series (/pʰ/, /tʰ/, etc. with /p/, /t/, etc.) rather
than the voiced and voiceless series commonly used in other descriptions of
the language. Their attention to positional effects is particularly
compelling in the exploration of pre- and post-aspiration effects. The
authors include brief descriptions of stops in other Mongolian dialects
including Buriad and Kalmuck. Continuing the analysis, the authors go on
to provide brief descriptions of the fricatives, nasals, liquids, glides
and palatalized consonants present in the inventory. The authors briefly
mention the tendency of one of their speakers to devoice /ɮ/. The authors
further note (using the spectrogram and waveform of another speaker as
illustration): ''The lateral fricative /ɮ/ is rather voiceless for some
speakers, but at least its first part is usually voiced. Before an
aspirated consonant it becomes completely voiceless and has more
high-frequency noise'' (p. 16, caption for Fig. 2.5). However, in my
experience with the language, the voiceless /ɬ/ is much more widely
instantiated than indicated by the authors and perhaps deserves a more
formal treatment.

Chapter 3: Phonemes

This chapter offers an analysis of Mongolian segmental phonemes. One of
the strengths of this chapter, and indeed of the book, as the authors
themselves note, is that it offers an alternative analysis to that of many
Western authors like Ramstedt (1902), Poppe (1951, 1970), and Street
(1963), offering instead an analysis more in line with hitherto less
accessible Chinese, Russian, and Japanese scholars. The authors offer a
description of the vowel and consonant phoneme inventories, with special
emphasis on positional effects and alternations and the effects of vowel
harmony on phoneme distribution. The authors continue with a look at
loan-word phonology effects on the many Russian, Chinese, Tibetan, and
English words that have entered the lexicon.

Chapter 4: Writing Systems

The main purpose of the chapter appears to be a brief explanation of the
phonemic correlates of the Cyrillic letters used in Mongolian orthography.
The bulk of the historic information and description is located in Chapter
Ten. One of the book's attributes is the attention paid to the writing
systems of the Mongolic language family. The inclusion of all data sets in
IPA as well as the Cyrillic throughout the book is particularly helpful.
This chapter includes information on both Cyrillic and Modern Written
Mongolian (the traditional, vertically written phonemic script). A brief
section on Cyrillic Buriad and Kalmuck is also included, with a small
comparative chart of Mongolian, Buriad, and Kalmuck orthographic forms.
The clear descriptions of the near phonemic spelling allowed by the
Cyrillic alphabet offer an excellent argument for the appropriateness of
the Cyrillic alphabet for Mongolian, a point which has been the subject of
some debate.

Chapter 5: Phonological Processes

Working with the assumption of privative features, the authors focus on an
auto-segmental analysis of vowel harmony in this chapter, with some
attention to velar nasal assimilation and reduplication at the end of the
chapter. Vowel harmony is perhaps the best known phonological process in
Mongolian and has been well documented and studied by a variety of scholars
around the world. Svantesson et al. submit an excellent, and perhaps most
importantly, phonetically grounded analysis of the phenomenon. The chapter
is complete with superb data sets illustrating the domain of the phenomenon
and the role of transparency and opacity.

Chapter 6: Syllabification and Epenthesis

Continuing the auto-segmental analysis, the authors examine syllable
structure and type. Syllable type is illustrated by four full data sets:
monosyllabic words, word-initial syllables, word-internal syllables, and of
course, word-final syllables. Codas, sonority and epenthesis conditions
are clearly illustrated with a full table detailing possible permutations
for two consonant codas. A section on the syllabification conditions
governing monomorphemic forms as well as a section on a schwa-zero
alternation for epenthesis in derived and inflected words. (As a side
note, the word for 'garlic' is misspelled twice in two different data sets
and as such is used improperly as an example of a complex coda.)

After a look at the cyclic nature of syllabification, its implications for
the verb suffix '-(ə)x,' the authors present an examination of the phonemic
status of glides, a section which offers a logical argument for the
complementary distribution of glides in Mongolian, referencing the
historical development of Old Mongolian. The chapter concludes with a
several-page data set illustrating final consonant combinations.

Chapter 7: Prosody

This chapter, complete with waveform and spectrogram information, details
the focal accent, boundary signaling, and word stress. It also examines
the existence of a 'final prominence tone' present in many Mongolian
utterance. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the chapter is the
summary discussion of prevailing and contrastive views on Mongolian word
stress. The authors provide a fairly succinct account of varying analyses.
Of interest however, is the authors' conclusion that no unified phenomenon
of word stress exists in the language. One would like here to see concrete
evidence and a clear exploration of the discrepancies which could support
such a statement.

Chapter 8: Old Mongolian

This chapter offers one of the most comprehensive and readable historical
descriptions of Old Mongolian available. With sections on Uigur Mongolian,
Sino-Mongolian, Arabic Mongolian, and 'Phags-pa Mongolian, the authors
provide a thorough examination of the relationship between these languages,
their respective writing systems and their contributions to modern
Mongolian. Data sets and comparative orthographic charts add much to these
sections. The chapter continues with a comprehensive analysis of the
phonology of Old Mongolian, including sections on vowels, and positional
effects. Data sets are complete with comparative tables detailing forms
within the Mongolic family. Incidentally, the authors should be cautioned
that the wording of some sections may lead the reader to believe that /l/
and /r/ do not occur word initially in modern Mongolian, which while true
for Old Mongolian, does not hold true today. The chapter concludes with an
extensive data set of Old Mongolian vocabulary, complete with IPA
transcriptions and the Classical Written Mongolian script.

Chapter 9: The Mongolic Languages

In this chapter, the reader is introduced to the many dialects and
languages in the Mongolic language family. In additional to Mongolian,
Buriad, Oirad, Kamniagan, Dagur, Shira Yugur, Monguour, Santa, Bonan,
Kangjia, and Moghal are each at least briefly examined and compared.
Criteria for Mongolian dialect division are given, as well as maps and
brief demographic notes. The main appeal of this chapter lies in the
complete phonemic inventories given for each language as well as the
extensive comparative form charts concluding the chapter.

Chapter 10: Development of the Modern Mongolic Languages

This chapter provides a new alternative to the works of Poppe (1955, 1960)
who has largely influenced the diachronic analysis of Mongolian. Drawing
on his and many others' work, this chapter is an extensive and valuable
resource on the development and sound change of each of the major Mongolic
languages detailed in the previous chapter.
Presented together in a concise and comprehensive way, vowel shifts, vowel
splits, and mergers, long vowels, the development of the i-diphthong, vowel
harmony shifts, vowel assimilation, positional distribution changes,
de-aspiration, politicization and word and syllable structure are examined
in turn for each Mongolic language.


This volume presents a valuable new source for any linguist or scholar of
Mongolian. This is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and succinct
treatments of the language to date. Its strongest attributes lie in a
mind-boggling array of sources (many of which were previously inaccessible
to Western scholars), its combination of synchronic and diachronic
analyses, the extensive and largely error-free data sets and its extreme


Poppe, Nikolaj Nikolaevic (1955). Introduction to Mongolian Comparative
Studies. SUST 110. Helsinki: SUS.

_____ (1960). Buriat Grammar. Uralic and Altaic Series, 2. Bloomington:
Indiana University.

Ramstedt, John C. (1902). Das schriftmongolische und die Urgamundart
phonetisch verglichen. JSFOu 21: fasc. 2 (pp. I-IV, 1-60).

Street, John C. (1963). Khalkha Structure. Uralic and Altaic Series, 24.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Amy LaCross is currently a graduate student at the University of Arizona,
the Department of Linguistics. She lived and studied Khalkha Mongolian in
Baruun-Urt, Mongolia for two years. In addition to Khalkha Mongolian, her
current research interests include speech perception and cognition, as well
as acoustic and articulatory phonetics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199260176
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 336
Prices: U.S. $ 125.00