What Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Sounded Like – and how we know

Genghis Khan was an unusual conqueror. Yes,
he subdued vast lands from atop a horse, but he didn’t brag loudly across the ages. He
kept secrets. A secret history. A secret burial. No images from his life. Conquered peoples
weren’t even allowed to learn his language. With all this secrecy, could we ever know
what his language sounded like? My first encounter with Mongolian. Imagine
me working at a coffee shop. For years I spent my mornings steaming customized espresso elixirs
for customers to carry out with style. But after my shift, I’d relax… by heading three
blocks to the library and picking grammars off the stacks. On this day I noticed a new
book. I opened it and met a language that built
words mechanically, that had vowel harmony, long vowels and an “L” it warned me was tricky
to pronounce. Fun! Until one example broke my flow: something something something…
Chinggis Khaan. Suddenly this wasn’t just grammar. It felt like history. Mongolian.
Ah, the Mongols! Was this the remnant voice of the Great Khan himself? I didn’t realize it at the time, but this
curiosity would lead me down an epic road: books, maps, epigraphy late into the night,
following nomadic hoofprints to chase a language. And if you want in on that journey, we travel
to Mongolia today. Fly into Ulaanbaatar, the Red Hero city, and
you’ll see one name at the airport, on bottles, a hotel, a bank, and the character atop the
world’s largest man-on-horse statue southeast of town: not Genghis Khan but Чингис
хаан. Yes, in Cyrillic. No, this isn’t Russian.
It’s Mongolian. Just like in that grammar. Endings with vowel harmony, postpositions
not prepositions, long vowels like /xaːŋ/, and Ls and Ls of /ɮ/. Cross the border into China and you’re in
Inner Mongolia. As you look around at shops and signs, it can be hard to imagine that
a roving shrine to Genghis Khan once toured this region for the devout after his death.
But focus above the Chinese and you’ll spot some Mongolian. In an older alphabet, with
toothy consonant-vowel letters connected along a cursive spine. It’s unique in the way it’s
written from top to bottom in rows from left to right. For beginners, it’s a challenging script.
I mean, this thing kind of breaks webpages. But to ease the pain, children here learn
it as syllables. When they recite words with these syllables, something strange happens.
Extra unspoken syllables emerge. The word /xiɮ/: xe-le. Hohhot, the Blue City of Inner
Mongolia, is xö-xe-xo-ta. And the four syllables of Ulaanbaatar are written with six! Where
do these extra syllables come from? From back in time. 1204, before he is Khan, the up-and-coming
Temüjin conquers a tribe to the south, the Naiman. Among his new subjects is a scholar,
Tatatungga, who writes in the Uyghur script, which his people inherited, ultimately from
Aramaic. (There’s a whole backstory, but if it reminds you of rotated Arabic, there is
a reason.) Temüjin may be illiterate, but he immediately recognizes the use for his
dawning empire. And so trusted Mongol nobles learn to write. Later that same century, a great stone goes
up with an inscription telling us that a skilled archer Yesüngge shot a target from 335 alds
away, more half a kilometer. The first words in the text reveal who was there to witness
it: Chinggis Khaan and his Mongol dignitaries. This is preclassical Written Mongol. It often
resembles modern Mongolian: a “ger” is still a “ger”. But it preserves sounds that have
since changed, like edür has since harmonized to ödör. Those long vowels were actually
two vowels split by /x/: /kʰaxan/ instead of /xaːŋ/. Which by the way is why “Khan”
also gets spelled with two a’s and a g between. This official written language takes us back
to the right time, but another line of evidence suggests it might be suspiciously archaic.
How dignitaries wrote but not how the Khagan spoke. A crucial piece of the Mongolian story was
nearly forgotten: a history book disguised as a language instruction text was rediscovered
by Russian Orthodox monk Palladius in China in the mid 1800s. This book was written entirely in Hàn Chinese
characters, but despite appearances, it doesn’t make sense if it’s read in Chinese. Listen
to the very first words: ching-gi-s qa-han. We meet again. What emerges is a long name-filled text telling
the inside story of the man himself: his origins from Tengri, his anda (his blood brother),
his conquests with his general, struggle for succession, even a cameo by that same longshot
archer. Oh, and time and again you’ll read how when Chinggis Khaan made a decree, he
made a decree, saying dotdotdot. It all struck scholars and nomads alike as
authentic, perhaps composed upon his very death, when nobles gathered to remember his
story, their story, and wrote down what came to be known as nighucha tobchiyan, the Secret History. It’s from the right time, but something felt
off. Edür had already changed to üdür. They were already dropping their middle /x/’s.
And yet t hey kept around an initial /x/: xuja’ur. In all, the Secret History looked different,
mostly younger. Maybe Written Mongol was too old for the language of the Khaghan. Maybe
this was his Middle Mongol. So why not just roll back today’s pronunciation
and undo sound changes to revert to our best Middle Mongol accent? …is the question you ask yourself as we
travel the open road through the Ordos in Inner Mongolia, to the site of the Mausoleum
of Chinggis Khaan. “Ordos” became our “horde” but it means “palaces”. His tomb remains a mystery,
yet after his death, tent palaces wandered this land as a shrine to what one scholar
terms “Genghisid theology” in Tengriism. A people called the Darkhad vowed to guard it
forever, and their Mongolian is different. They’re not alone. There are languages in
Russia that inherit over 90% of their words from Middle Mongol, while one in China keeps
less than half. I promised a lot of wandering, but the point is there’s not one Mongolian.
It’s a Mongolic family. Even my grammar, naïvely titled “Mongolian”, was teaching just one
variety: Khalkha. Linguists sifted through Mongolic cognates
to piece together a common ancestor. Proto-Mongolic had a /l/ not /ɮ/. It had no f’s. The /xaːŋ/
had /k/ not /x/ and final /n/ hadn’t merged with /ŋ/, so they were saying /kaxan/. /x/s
were dropping but lingered at the start of words: ulaan was *xula(x)an. Sometimes evidence conflicts. Was their garb a “depel” or a “dexel”? Or it reveals quirks. Mongols used echo nouns for “and things like that”: “mori mari” for “horses and more…ses”. It looked so much like Middle Mongol, like another
line of evidence pointing back to the exact same time. Only 800 years ago; that’s a very young family compared to others we’ve met. It’s hard to reach beyond that. So here he
sits. Before him, we detect Turkic loans, like his very title. Maybe dialects or even
a link to this mysterious script. After him, many Mongolic descendants. And between, a
“linguistic bottleneck” caused by a man who united a people and drew a line in the Gobi
sand from which emerged a language family. Through old texts and modern voices we still
hear echoes of when he made a decree, he made a decree, but without saying the sound /f/.
So add his linguistic legacy to the many accomplishments of a man who to us is Genghis Khan, who in
Mongolia is remembered as Chinggis Khaan, but who in his own tongue may have been Cinggis Kaxan. Stick around and subscribe for language.

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