Languages: Khalkha Mongol 90 percent (official language). Minor languages include Turkic, Chinese, Russian, and Kazakh. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Mongolians speak an Altaic language. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Manchu, Uigur, Turkish and other Altaic, Tungusic and Turkic languages are Altaic languages in the Ural-Altaic family of languages. Some linguists believe they are related. Other believe they share similarities because of the borrowing of words by traditionally nomadic peoples. Ural-Altaic languages include Finnish, Korean and Hungarian.

In Mongolia, Mongolian is the official language. In Inner Mongolia, Mongolian and Chinese are official languages. The languages of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Uyghurs are so similar that they can easily communicate with each other and often eat and party together when they live near one another.

Spoken Mongolian has clipped tones and is difficult to learn and speak. Travel writer Tim Severin wrote it sounds “like two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up..” Some of the more guttural sounds sound like someone is having difficulty breathing.

Russian has traditionally been the most common second language in Mongolia. But that is less the case than in the past. English is not widely spoken but more and more people are learning it all the time. There are a lot of different Roman letter spelling of Mongolian names and places. The “H” and “Kh” as well as “o” and “u” and “a” and “aa” are used interchangeably. Some names and places are written with two words. Other times they are written with the same two words placed together. Ulaanbaatar, for example, can also be written Ulaanbaatar or Ulaanbaatar. The “Khalkha Mongols” are also written as the “Halha Mongols.” “Khoomi” singing is also written “hoomi” singing.

Mongolian Dialects

In Mongolia, the largest and most important dialect is Khalkha. Oirat is the only other major dialect. By contrast in Inner Mongolia there are a number of dialects, often localized to a certain region. In the central area people speak the Chahr-Shiliingol, which is closely-related to standard Khalkha; in the northeast Inner Mongolia. Barga and Buriat are spoken. For the most part these dialects are mutually intelligible. [Source: William Jankowiak and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Among the eastern Mongol dialects Khalkha and Buryat are the most important. Both have evolved as literary languages. Among the western dialects Oirat and Kalmuk are the major ones. The so-called Classical Mongol was the literary language used from the 17th century up until a few decades ago. [Source: “New Catholic Encyclopedia’, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Mongolian Written Language

Somewhat similar to written Tibetan, written Mongolian it is written vertically starting in the upper left hand corner of the page. The script was devised by the ancient Sogdian culture of Central Asia and introduced to the Mongols by the Uyghur people of western China in the 13th century. Mongolian can also be written in Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet) or with the Roman alphabet.

In the early 13th century, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols created a vertical script based on the Uyghur script, which was also adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples and is related to the alphabets of Western Asia. It looks like Arabic written at a slant. The source of the Uyghur alphabets was the alphabet of the Sogdians, a Persian people centered around Samarkand in the A.D. 6th century.

Uyghur-derived written Mongolian uses a phonetic alphabet with 27 consonants and seven vowels sounds. The words look like characters, They are often written vertically. In Mongolia, Mongolian script was formally displaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in 1946. Mongolians kept their elaborate script alive in private. In Inner Mongolia in China, the Uyghur-based script was retained and now two written languages are used: Mongolian and Chinese. In China, Mongolian, is written from the left to the right with two or more syllables joined together to make a word unit.

Cyrillic is still used in Mongolia. The 35 Cyrillic letters are better adopted for Mongolian sound than the 26 Latin alphabet letters. There is currently an effort to replace Cyrillic script with Mongolian script. Some people oppose this on the grounds it will increase illiteracy and isolate Mongolia from the modern, globalized world. Since the collapse of the Communist regime, Mongolia has made an effort to bring back its traditional alphabet. The effort has been hampered by fact that few teachers know enough about it to teach it in schools.

Phags-pa Script: Kublai Khan’s Mongolian Tibetan Writing

Kublai Khan ordered a Buddhist monk from Tibet to reform an ancient writing system. The system had been used to record oral literature but had ultimately been abandoned. The Mongolian writing system was later revised several times by native Mongol linguists so as to conform to the spoken language. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Bruce Humes wrote in Ethnic China Lit: “Kublai Khan commissioned the creation of a unified script for the vast Mongolian-controlled Yuan Dynasty ((1271-1368). To do the Khan’s bidding, Tibetan Lama Drogön Chögyal Phagpa extended his native Tibetan script to encompass the sounds of the empire’s disparate languages such as Turkic, Mongol, Chinese and Tibetan. Now dubbed the “Phags-pa script,” it consisted of 38 letters written vertically. Experts classify it an abugida, i.e., a segmental writing system based on consonants wherein vowel notation is obligatory but secondary, in contrast to European languages where vowels and consonants have equal status. [Source: Bruce Humes, Ethnic China Lit, January 21, 2011]

“The Phags-pa script was never widely accepted and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. But scholars such as Gary Ledyard believe that the hangul alphabet, Korea’s national language, may have links to the alphasyllabary. Significantly, the script also provides linguistic clues about the evolution of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian during the Yuan era. Perhaps surprisingly, many extant examples of the writing are to be found in traditionally Tibetan regions. “The Phags-pa script was once the official written language of the Yuan Dynasty,” says scholar Wuli Jibaiyila, “and for that reason there should be many written records, but they simply haven’t been uncovered yet. But there are many Phags-pa relics among the people and in temples in the Tibetan region, particularly variant forms, many of which contain errors. Among temples, inscriptions at the Potala Palace are the best preserved, but they can’t be photographed, so I haven’t been able to put them in order. Since Phags-pa [the script’s Tibetan creator] himself was the fifth-generation founder of the Sakya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Phags-pa script was passed down within Tibetan areas, and continued to be used particularly as a form of Tibetan calligraphy.”

Swear Words

Mongolian (Khalkha) Swearing — English Translation: Al — Pussy; Pizda — Pussy (adopted from Russian); Boov — Dick; Bomboo — Cock; Zail — Get lost; Khuur — Corpse; Sha — Fuck (verb); Novsh — Garbage; Uhej baisan al — You dying pussy; Bogs — Ass (polite); Hoshnog — Ass (not polite); Bogseig min doloo — Lick my ass; Chatsag — Diarrhea; Baas — Shit; Shaes — Piss; Nuss — Snot; Taviur — Cum; Bogsnei amsar — Asshole; Teneg — Stupid; Mulgui — Idiotic. [Source: ^^]

Booveig min khoh — Suck my dick; Tomsog — Balls; Jingir — Bitch; Gomo — Homosexual, fag. Amaa tat — Shut up (lit. pull your mouth); Yamar gomo pizda bai?! — What a gay cunt?!; Nusaa chirsen pizda — Snot-dragging cunt; Uhsnei hiej? — What the fuck for?; Huts — To bark; Hutsaad bai — Don't bullshit me; Sha naadhai — Fuck him/her up; Umbuu — Cow (referring to a fat/ugly female); Chatsag aldsan — Diarrheic; Galzuu — Crazy, insane; Saltai — Crotch. ^^

Altsaasan — Spread-legged; Yanhan — Whore; Vashka — Whore; Vanik — Whore; Muu altsaasan yanhan — Dirty spread-legged whore; Ungas — Fart; Ungas sormor — Fart sucker; Buduun — Fat; Bugsruugai hie — Put it in your ass; Oudgui — Lame, lousy; Omhei — Stinky; Iljirsen — Rotten; Teneg — Stupid; Mangar — Stupid; Teneg khuur — Stupid corpse; Novsh — Garbage; Umkhii novsh — Stinky garbage; Boovon tolgoi — Dick head; Iruugai avaj nuruugai maijmar, ilgai avaj bogsoo archmar. — Take your jaws and scratch your back, and take your liver and wipe your ass. ^^

Foreign Languages

Traditionally Mongolians have been good at learning foreign languages, a trait which perhaps dates to the Mongols and Silk Road era when they came in contact with many different cultures and languages.

Many Mongolians are multilingual. This partly because so many studied abroad in the Soviet era. Enkhsaikhan Jargalsikhany, Mongolia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, speaks seven languages: Mongolian, Russian, English, French, Spanish, Czech and Arabic.

Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s President and former Prime Minister, wants to replace Russian with English as the primary foreign language.

Names in Mongolia

Many Mongolians use only one name, such as Banchindorj, Bator or Jamsuren. The former leader of the Mongolian Parliament for example, is known simply as Gonchigdorj. Many names have connections to nature and the nomadic way of life. Batgerel, for example, means “strong light.”

Some Mongolians use two names. Enkhsaikhan Jargalsikhany is the former Mongolian ambassador to the United Nations. His first name means “good and peaceful.” His last name—his father’s name, plus a “y” to denote “son of”—mans “happiness is good.” Tibetans have a similar naming system.

Mongolians used to have last names. The were often clan names, such as the eagle clan, crow clan and clan names for doctor, teachers and hunters. These names were passed down orally and each family member was required to memorize seven generations of a clan’s genealogical chart.

Banning of Last Names in Mongolia

In the 1920s last names were banned as a way of improving tax collection (many people had the same last names) and disconnecting people from class and clan loyalties and relatives killed by the Communists. Foreign visitors were told that the lack of last was a tradition and after a while Mongolians began believing that themselves. [Source: John Pomfrte, Washington Post, July 10, 2000]

Serjee Zhambakdorjiin, a Mongolian historian, told the Washington Post, “People didn’t even know that 1921 happened They didn’t know they had lost their names. It was a way to eliminate the influence of the nobles and princes. This was a wiping out of nobility and names.”

One consequence of the ban is that a high degree of inbreeding occurred. In the Soviet era people were prevented from moving around. Because they didn’t have last names they often didn’t know who their relatives were and close relatives married one another without knowing they were related.

Another consequence is that many people had the same name. In Ulaanbaatar, for example, there were 10,000 women with the name “golden flower.” Four members of parliament had the same name. People had a hard time finding phone numbers of their friends in a phone book organized by first names

Resurrecting Last Names

In 1997 a law was passed that reinstated last names. Not many Mongolians gave it much attention. In 1999, identity cards began being issued with last names. More responded. Finally the government set a dead line of June 2004 and decreed anyone who didn’t have last a name by then would be fined the equivalent of two month’s pay. By the beginning of 2005, 90 percent of Mongolians had surnames. [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2005]

The move was taken partly because of the confusion caused by so many people with the same name. The first name system worked well enough among nomads because there were few people around but became a problem as Mongolians became more urbanized and specific individual had be found in a sea of people with the same name. Phone books were filled with people with same name. Police up showed at the wrong person’s house. It was also taken to mark Mongolia participation in the modern work where surnames help with mailing addresses and credit histories.

There was also the problem of inbreeding. Without knowing who was a relative and who wasn’t some people ended up marrying close blood relatives, especially when families became mixed up as a result fo Communist resettlements policies in the 1950s and 60s. The have been reports of deformed and mentally handicapped children being born because of unions between close relatives.

As of the mid 2000s many people still did not know their last names. Those that did often got no clues about their ancestry from their parents and had to return to their home villages and track down village elders to find answers. Some sought long lost family members. One man — Sholoi Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan — figured out his ancestry back 350 years and discovered he was related to 11,960 people.

Those in the countryside had an easier time trying to figure out their roots. Zhambakdorjiin, told the Washington Post, “Herders in the countryside know two things well. They have a keen eyes for animals; they know which one belongs to whom. And they know people. Who was this son, and where he was born and what he did.”

Adopting New Last Names

Many Mongolians adopted new names. Some couldn’t find out what their old family names were. Others, who found out that their family names were things like “Seven Drunk Men” and “Thief”, chose different ones. The reason that less than flattering names existed is that in the old days surnames where often chosen by neighbors rather than by the people themselves.

Many people chose Genghis or his clan (Borjigin) as their family name. One man who did so told the Times of London, “my grandmother mentioned that we are related to him but it may not be true. In any case, I like that he was a strong leader.” But having so many people named Genghis created the kind of confusion that choosing surnames was supposed to eliminate. Scholars suggested people name themselves after their hometown, nickname, profession — something unique to them.

Mongolia’s first and only man in space, the cosmonaut Gurragchaa who became Mongolia’s defense minister, gave himself the family name Sansar, the Mongolian word for “Cosmos.” Others chose the Mongolian words for “nomad,” “strong” and “wisdom” for their last names or long poetic names like “descendant of the keeper of blue falcons,” “Mountain and Sea.” Yet others picked thing like “Lord God,” “Astrologer” or “Exhausted Beast.”

In practice most Mongolians use their new names on official documents but not in everyday life. Some used their new names so infrequently they forgot what they were.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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