Most people who are not aware of Mongolian culture would assume the writing system in Mongolia is either Mandarin or somewhat related to other East Asian languages. It is an understandable misconception as Mongolia was a former colony of Manchuria until 1921 and is a neighbor of China, however it still is a misconception as Mongolia today uses the Mongolian Cyrillic for its writing system.
Do Mongolians use “Russian Letters”?
Mongolian Cyrillic, while very similar to other Slavic writing systems, has 2 extra letters and is actually a language that’s completely different from Eastern European and Eastern Asian languages. The root of the Mongolian Language is believed to have originated in either Siberia or Central Asia.
The Cyrillic Alphabet itself was introduced by Cyril, an orthodox missionary and philosopher, who migrated from Greece to Moscow during the reign of Byzantine Empire. Slowly over the years his teachings spread throughout Eastern Europe and his writing system came to be the most popular. For more in-depth history of Cyril specifically, you can read at Blazing Bulgaria.
Mongolians previously used The Traditional Mongolian Script, Tibetan Sanscript, and even Latin at one point as an official writing system. However due to Soviet influence during the 1940s it made more economical sense to change to Cyrillic. As a close ally and trading partner of USSR, it allowed for improved political relationship and economic growth over the decades. With the aid and help of the Soviets during the 19 hundreds, Mongolia industrialized from the feudal ages to a modern country.
What about Inner Mongolia?
Inner Mongolia, a province of China, still uses the Mongolian Traditional Script as an official writing system.
This is probably the root of the confusion or the misconception that most people seem to have. While Inner Mongolia and Mongolia used to be one country during the Mongolian Empire, series of inner strife as well as the independence movement in 1921 led to their separation.
Ethnically and culturally Inner Mongolians and Mongolians share many similarities however due to political reasons, Mongolia is becoming more Westernized while Inner Mongolia more Sinicized. While they both share similar cultural roots, with time the differences will become more apparent.
Why doesn’t Mongolia change back to Traditional Script?
- Changing back to traditional script is a very implausible scenario for Mongolia. Not only would it require almost every building, road sign, and educational book to be replaced with enormous costs, but logically there is no benefit to changing the writing system back to the traditional script.
- There are about 10 million people who speak some version or language similar to Mongolian, and only 5 million or so Mongolians use traditional script. However, there are over 300 million people who use some form of the Cyrillic alphabet. Traditional Mongolian script also poses a lot of problems when it comes to use of computers and font support on the internet since it’s written vertically rather than horizontally. There are many filler words and in general traditional script takes up more space than Cyrillic.
- However, most importantly, the Cyrillic alphabet is a symbol of Mongolian sovereignty from Manchuria’s 300 years of rule, present day China. Reverting back to traditional script in way would signify Mongolia giving up their sovereignty and undoing the hundreds of years of independence movement efforts. Mongolia and China relationship is still a touchy subject for most modern day Mongolians.
Do Mongolians use or learn the traditional script though?
Most middle schools teach the traditional script for a few years and a lot of people would be able to make out the general idea when reading in Mongolian script. Traditional script is still a part of Mongolia’s cultural identity and history, denying it would be a sacrilege to Mongolian ancestors. During holidays, festivals, and exhibitions you will also come across Mongolian script for cultural and aesthetic reasons.