LINGUIST List 17.2300

Thu Aug 10 2006

Review: Phonology, Classical Mongolian: Tsendina et al. (2005)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Amy LaCross, The Phonology of Mongolian

Message 1: The Phonology of Mongolian
Date: 10-Aug-2006
From: Amy LaCross <>
Subject: The Phonology of Mongolian

Announced at AUTHOR: Svantesson, Jan-Olaf; Tsendina, Anna; Karlsson, Anastasia; Franzen,Vivan.TITLE: The Phonology of MongolianSERIES: The Phonology of the World's LanguagesPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2005

Amy LaCross, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.

In The Phonology of Mongolian, Svantesson et al. offer one of the mostcomprehensive descriptions and analyses of the phonetics and the phonologyof Khalkha Mongolian as well as its major dialects and language family todate. Using a formidable array of both synchronic and diachronic sources,the authors not only provide a thorough analysis of the phonetics andphonology of Modern Khalkha, as spoken in the capital of the Republic ofMongolia, but also a complete historical analysis of the sound changes inOld and Middle Mongolian to present and the languages of its respectivelanguage family.


Chapter 1: Vowels.

These chapters offer a thorough acoustical analysis of the phonemicinventory in Khalkha Mongolian. The data in these chapters is based onfieldwork done by Svantesson in Ulaan Baatar with three male nativespeakers. Though it would perhaps be helpful to base the resultantanalyses on a larger number of speakers, the authors are to be commended onthe completeness of the information provided in a variety of chartsdetailing duration of long and short vowels, formant frequencies, and F1-F2vowel plots. The authors also provide acoustical analyses of the phoneticbases for vowel harmony, palatalized vowels, and a brief description of thefour diphthongs.

Chapter 2: Consonants

This chapter offers an acoustical analysis of the consonantal inventorybased on the analysis of the same three speakers from the previous chaptersas well as another speaker, a middle-aged woman recorded in Moscow.Beginning with stops and affricates, it clarifies questions left by theanalysis of Ramstedt 1902 and others with a description of the contrastiverole of aspiration in Khalkha. Of interest and in contrast to previousdescriptions of the language, Svantesson et al. include an aspirated andnon-aspirated stop series (/pʰ/, /tʰ/, etc. with /p/, /t/, etc.) ratherthan the voiced and voiceless series commonly used in other descriptions ofthe language. Their attention to positional effects is particularlycompelling in the exploration of pre- and post-aspiration effects. Theauthors include brief descriptions of stops in other Mongolian dialectsincluding Buriad and Kalmuck. Continuing the analysis, the authors go onto provide brief descriptions of the fricatives, nasals, liquids, glidesand palatalized consonants present in the inventory. The authors brieflymention the tendency of one of their speakers to devoice /ɮ/. The authorsfurther note (using the spectrogram and waveform of another speaker asillustration): ''The lateral fricative /ɮ/ is rather voiceless for somespeakers, but at least its first part is usually voiced. Before anaspirated consonant it becomes completely voiceless and has morehigh-frequency noise'' (p. 16, caption for Fig. 2.5). However, in myexperience with the language, the voiceless /ɬ/ is much more widelyinstantiated than indicated by the authors and perhaps deserves a moreformal treatment.

Chapter 3: Phonemes

This chapter offers an analysis of Mongolian segmental phonemes. One ofthe strengths of this chapter, and indeed of the book, as the authorsthemselves note, is that it offers an alternative analysis to that of manyWestern authors like Ramstedt (1902), Poppe (1951, 1970), and Street(1963), offering instead an analysis more in line with hitherto lessaccessible Chinese, Russian, and Japanese scholars. The authors offer adescription of the vowel and consonant phoneme inventories, with specialemphasis on positional effects and alternations and the effects of vowelharmony on phoneme distribution. The authors continue with a look atloan-word phonology effects on the many Russian, Chinese, Tibetan, andEnglish words that have entered the lexicon.

Chapter 4: Writing Systems

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

Chapter 5: Phonological Processes

Working with the assumption of privative features, the authors focus on anauto-segmental analysis of vowel harmony in this chapter, with someattention to velar nasal assimilation and reduplication at the end of thechapter. Vowel harmony is perhaps the best known phonological process inMongolian and has been well documented and studied by a variety of scholarsaround the world. Svantesson et al. submit an excellent, and perhaps mostimportantly, phonetically grounded analysis of the phenomenon. The chapteris complete with superb data sets illustrating the domain of the phenomenonand the role of transparency and opacity.

Chapter 6: Syllabification and Epenthesis

Continuing the auto-segmental analysis, the authors examine syllablestructure and type. Syllable type is illustrated by four full data sets:monosyllabic words, word-initial syllables, word-internal syllables, and ofcourse, word-final syllables. Codas, sonority and epenthesis conditionsare clearly illustrated with a full table detailing possible permutationsfor two consonant codas. A section on the syllabification conditionsgoverning monomorphemic forms as well as a section on a schwa-zeroalternation for epenthesis in derived and inflected words. (As a sidenote, the word for 'garlic' is misspelled twice in two different data setsand as such is used improperly as an example of a complex coda.)

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

Chapter 7: Prosody

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

Chapter 8: Old Mongolian

This chapter offers one of the most comprehensive and readable historicaldescriptions of Old Mongolian available. With sections on Uigur Mongolian,Sino-Mongolian, Arabic Mongolian, and 'Phags-pa Mongolian, the authorsprovide a thorough examination of the relationship between these languages,their respective writing systems and their contributions to modernMongolian. Data sets and comparative orthographic charts add much to thesesections. The chapter continues with a comprehensive analysis of thephonology of Old Mongolian, including sections on vowels, and positionaleffects. Data sets are complete with comparative tables detailing formswithin the Mongolic family. Incidentally, the authors should be cautionedthat 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 truefor Old Mongolian, does not hold true today. The chapter concludes with anextensive data set of Old Mongolian vocabulary, complete with IPAtranscriptions and the Classical Written Mongolian script.

Chapter 9: The Mongolic Languages

In this chapter, the reader is introduced to the many dialects andlanguages 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 andbrief demographic notes. The main appeal of this chapter lies in thecomplete phonemic inventories given for each language as well as theextensive 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. Drawingon his and many others' work, this chapter is an extensive and valuableresource on the development and sound change of each of the major Mongoliclanguages detailed in the previous chapter.Presented together in a concise and comprehensive way, vowel shifts, vowelsplits, and mergers, long vowels, the development of the i-diphthong, vowelharmony shifts, vowel assimilation, positional distribution changes,de-aspiration, politicization and word and syllable structure are examinedin turn for each Mongolic language.


This volume presents a valuable new source for any linguist or scholar ofMongolian. This is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and succincttreatments of the language to date. Its strongest attributes lie in amind-boggling array of sources (many of which were previously inaccessibleto Western scholars), its combination of synchronic and diachronicanalyses, the extensive and largely error-free data sets and its extremereadability.


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

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

Ramstedt, John C. (1902). Das schriftmongolische und die Urgamundartphonetisch 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 inBaruun-Urt, Mongolia for two years. In addition to Khalkha Mongolian, hercurrent research interests include speech perception and cognition, as wellas acoustic and articulatory phonetics.