The Mongolian vertical script developed as an adaptation of the Old Uyghur alphabet for the Mongolian language.:545 From the seventh and eighth to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Mongolian language separated into southern, eastern and western dialects. The principal documents from the period of the Middle Mongol language are: in the eastern dialect, the famous text The Secret History of the Mongols, monuments in the Square script, materials of the Chinese–Mongolian glossary of the fourteenth century, and materials of the Mongolian language of the middle period in Chinese transcription, etc.; in the western dialect, materials of the Arab–Mongolian and Persian–Mongolian dictionaries, Mongolian texts in Arabic transcription, etc.:1–2 The main features of the period are that the vowels ï and i had lost their phonemic significance, creating the iphoneme (in the Chakhar dialect, the Standard Mongolian in Inner Mongolia, these vowels are still distinct); inter-vocal consonants γ/g, b/w had disappeared and the preliminary process of the formation of Mongolian long vowels had begun; the initial h was preserved in many words; grammatical categories were partially absent, etc. The development over this period explains why the Mongolian script looks like a vertical Arabic script (in particular the presence of the dot system).:1–2
Eventually, minor concessions were made to the differences between the Uyghur and Mongol languages: In the 17th and 18th centuries, smoother and more angular versions of the letter tsadi became associated with [dʒ] and [tʃ] respectively, and in the 19th century, the Manchu hooked yodh was adopted for initial [j]. Zain was dropped as it was redundant for [s]. Various schools of orthography, some using diacritics, were developed to avoid ambiguity.:545
Traditional Mongolian is written vertically from top to bottom, flowing in lines from left to right. The Old Uyghur script and its descendants, of which traditional Mongolian is one among Oirat Clear, Manchu, and Buryat are the only known vertical scripts written from left to right. This developed because the Uyghurs rotated their Sogdian-derived script, originally written right to left, 90 degrees counterclockwise to emulate Chinese writing, but without changing the relative orientation of the letters.:36
The reed pen was the writing instrument of choice until the 18th century, when the brush took its place under Chinese influence.:422 Pens were also historically made of wood, reed, bamboo, bone, bronze, or iron. Ink used was black or cinnabar red, and written with on birch bark, paper, cloths made of silk or cotton, and wooden or silver plates.:80–81
Mongols learned their script as a syllabary, dividing the syllables into twelve different classes, based on the final phonemes of the syllables, all of which ended in vowels.
The traditional Mongolian script is known by a wide variety of names. Because of its similarity to the Old Uyghur alphabet, it became known as the Uigurjin Mongol script.[lower-alpha 3] During the communist era, when Cyrillic became the official script for the Mongolian language, the traditional script became known as the Old Mongol script,[lower-alpha 4] in contrast to the New script,[lower-alpha 5] referring to Cyrillic. The name Old Mongol script stuck, and it is still known as such among the older generation, who did not receive education in the new script.
The traditional or classical Mongolian alphabet, sometimes called Hudum 'traditional' in Oirat in contrast to the Clear script (Todo 'exact'), is the original form of the Mongolian script used to write the Mongolian language. It does not distinguish several vowels (o/u, ö/ü, final a/e) and consonants (syllable-initial t/d and k/g, sometimes ǰ/y) that were not required for Uyghur, which was the source of the Mongol (or Uyghur-Mongol) script. The result is somewhat comparable to the situation of English, which must represent ten or more vowels with only five letters and uses the digraphth for two distinct sounds. Ambiguity is sometimes prevented by context, as the requirements of vowel harmony and syllable sequence usually indicate the correct sound. Moreover, as there are few words with an exactly identical spelling, actual ambiguities are rare for a reader who knows the orthography.
Letters have different forms depending on their position in a word: initial, medial, or final. In some cases, additional graphic variants are selected for visual harmony with the subsequent character.
The rules for writing below apply specifically for the Mongolian language, unless stated otherwise.
Traditional: n, q/k, γ/g, b, p, s, š, t, d, l, m, č...:7
Modern: n, b, p, q/k, γ/g, m, l, s, š, t, d, č...:7
Other modern orderings that apply to specific dictionaries also exist.
The back, male, masculine,hard, or yang vowels a, o, and u.
The front, female, feminine,soft, or yin vowels e, ö, and ü.
The neutral vowel i, able to appear in all words.
Any Mongolian word can contain the neutral vowel i, but only vowels from either of the other two groups. The vowel qualities of visually separated vowels and suffixes must likewise harmonize with those of the preceding word stem. Such suffixes are written with front or neutral vowels when preceded by a word stem containing only neutal vowels. Any of these rules might not apply for foreign words however.:11, 35, 39:10:4
Separated final vowels
A separated final form of vowels a or e is common, and can appear at the end of a word stem, or suffix. This form requires a final-shaped preceding letter, and an inter-word gap in between. This gap can be transliterated with a hyphen.[note 1]:30, 77:42:38–39:27:534–535
The presence or lack of a separated a or e can also indicate differences in meaning between different words (compare ᠬᠠᠷᠠ⟨?⟩qar‑a 'black' with ᠬᠠᠷᠠqara 'to look').:3:535
Its form could be confused with that of the identically shaped traditional dative-locative suffix ‑a/‑e exemplified further down. That form however, is more commonly found in older texts, and more commonly takes the forms of ⟨ᠲ᠋ᠤᠷ⟩tur/tür or ⟨ᠳ᠋ᠤᠷ⟩dur/dür instead.:15:46
All casesuffixes, as well as any plural suffixes consisting of one or two syllables are likewise separated by a preceding and hyphen-transliterated gap.[note 2] A maximum of two case suffixes can be added to a stem.:30, 73:12:28:534
Such single-letter vowel suffixes appear with the final-shaped forms of a/e, i, or u/ü,:30 as in ᠭᠠᠵᠠᠷᠠ⟨?⟩γaǰar‑a 'to the country' and ᠡᠳᠦᠷᠡ⟨?⟩edür‑e 'on the day',:39 or ᠤᠯᠤᠰᠢ⟨?⟩ulus‑i 'the state' etc.:23 Multi-letter suffixes most often start with an initial- (consonants), medial- (vowels), or variant-shaped form. Medial-shaped u in the two-letter suffix ᠤᠨ⟨?⟩‑un/‑ün is exemplified in the adjacent newspaper logo.:30:27
In the modern language, proper names (but not words) usually forms graphic compounds (such as those of ᠬᠠᠰᠡᠷᠳᠡᠨᠢQas'erdeni 'Jasper-jewel' or ᠬᠥᠬᠡᠬᠣᠲᠠKökeqota – the city of Hohhot). These also allow components of different harmonic classes to be joined together, and where the vowels of an added suffix will harmonize with those of the latter part of the compound. Ortographic peculiarities are most often retained, as with the short and long teeth of an initial-shaped ö in ᠮᠤᠤᠥ᠌ᠬᠢᠨMuu'ökin 'Bad Girl' (protective name). Medial t and d, in contrast, are not affected in this way.:30:92:44:88
Isolate citation forms
Isolate citation forms for syllables containing o, u, ö, and ü may in dictionaries appear without a final tail as in ⟨ᠪᠣ⟩bo/bu or ⟨ᠮᠣ᠋⟩mo/mu, and with a vertical tail as in ⟨ᠪᠥ᠋⟩bö/bü or ⟨ᠮᠥ᠋⟩mö/mü (as well as in transcriptions of Chinese syllables).:39
Notes on letter tables
A dash indicates a non-applicable position for that letter.
Parentheses enclose glyphs or positions whose corresponding sounds are not found in native Mongolian words.
Palatalized phonemes have been excluded. These are conditioned by a following i.:178
Listed in the table below are letter components (graphemes, or in Mongolian: ᠵᠢᠷᠤᠯᠭᠠǰirulγ‑a / зурлагаzurlaga) commonly used across the script. Some of these are used with several letters, and others to contrast between them. As their forms and usage may differ between § writing styles however, examples of these can be found under this section below.
Medial and final forms may be distinguished from those of other tooth-shaped letters through: vowel harmony (e), the shape of adjacent consonants (see QA-q/k and GA-γ/g below), and position in syllable sequence (n, ng, q, γ, d).
The final tail extends to the left after bow-shaped consonants (such as b, p, f, KA-g, and KHA-k), and to the right in all other cases.
ᠠ᠋ = medial form used after the junction in a proper name compound.:44
Medial and final forms may be distinguished from those of other tooth-shaped letters through: vowel harmony (a) and its effect on the shape of a words consonants (see QA-q/k and GA-γ/g below), or position in syllable sequence (n, ng, d).
The final tail extends to the left after bow-shaped consonants (such as b, p, QA-k, and GA-g), and to the right in all other cases.