Fighting for ‘pure’ Mongolian

Image of dictionary burning circulating on social media

On New Year’s Eve, when many people around the world were excited about firework shows, a group of Mongols in remote Inner Mongolia had “fireworks” of a different kind: they were busy burning dictionaries. The dictionaries that ignited their rage were the Mongolian Chinese Dictionary (Mongol Hyatad Toli; 1999, Inner Mongolia University Publishing House) and the Dictionary of Correct Mongolian Spelling (Mongol Jüb Bichilgiin Toli; 1998, People’s Publishing House of Inner Mongolia). The scenes of destruction (in addition to burning the dictionaries, copies were also destroyed by soaking them in water) were photographed and videoed and widely shared on social media.

What attracted the book burners’ ire on social media was the inclusion of Chinese loanwords in the Mongolian-Chinese dictionary. Controversial examples such as the following were discussed on social media: jintüü (Chinese pinyin: zhen tou; English: “pillow”), damen (Chinese pinyin: da men; English: “gate”), leu (Chinese pinyin: lou; English: “building”), yeye (Chinese pinyin: ye ye; English: “grandfather”) or yintai (Chinese pinyin: yin de; English: “addicted”). Examples such as these – transliterated Chinese loan words – were viciously attacked in WeChat groups. Equivalent Mongolian expressions exist for these words: there is der for “pillow”, üüd for “gate”, asar for “building”, ebeg for “grandfather” and shunaltai for “addicted”.

Image of dictionary burning circulating on social media

By way of background, it is important to know that Khorchin Mongols, who live in the eastern part of Inner Mongolia and who are “notorious” for code mixing, use the offending Chinese expressions often in their everyday Mongolian interactions. Nevertheless, seeing these local vernacular expressions printed in the dictionary as “Mongol” words is unacceptable for many Mongols, including Khorchins.

The outrage against the inclusion of Chinese loan words in the dictionary had been simmering even before the actual book burnings took place. For instance, a WeChat page entitled Please Speak Pure Mother Tongue (in Chinese pinyin: qing jiang chun mu yu; please note that WeChat pages can only be registered with a Chinese name) complained already on December 21 that Mongolians did not even have “a good-quality dictionary”. This WeChat group posts a transcript of a Mongolian-Chinese mixed conversation every day. This “incorrect” version is then followed by a “pure” corrected version of that same conversation underneath. In a third version, the transliterated Chinese words are highlighted and they are followed by “correct” Mongolian and Chinese characters, like a vocabulary list.

Loan words in the dictionary that stirred debate on social media

Mongolian and Chinese have a long history of language contact and so Mongolian-Chinese code-switching is nothing new. Why then does it attract so much anger and sensitivity at this point in time? Why the ever-increasing emphasis on language purity, as expressed in the public destruction of “poisonous” dictionaries, social media campaigns for “pure” Mongolian or a recent rally in Hohhot for Mongols to sign their names in Mongolian (instead of Chinese) on bank forms? Why do we see this outburst of anger now when the offending dictionaries were, in fact, published in the late 1990s and have been in circulation ever since?

In my view, it is the contemporary context of language shift and assimilation in Inner Mongolia that drives Mongols to feel increasingly protective about their language and to promote “pure” Mongolian.

The young generation in Inner Mongolia, a society that is rapidly urbanizing and where Mongols now constitute a minority in their own land, is switching to Chinese at an unparalleled rate. According to the title of a WeChat post: “the Mongolian language is facing an unprecedented crisis”. The post goes on to cite Hexigtogtah Č., a scholar at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing, who shows that the number of textbooks published in the Mongolian language for primary school students dropped from 68,000 in 1992 to 21,000 in 2012.

Another indicator of language shift in the younger generation comes from the fact that the average Mongolian language test score in the university entrance exam is lower than it was in the early 2000s. During my fieldwork in Inner Mongolia in early 2016, one of my informants, a junior high school teacher said: “Nowadays it is very hard to find a satisfying essay from students; some high school graduates can’t write a proper essay Mongolian.”


“Pure” and “impure” Mongolian juxtaposed on WeChat

This decline of the mother tongue is largely caused by urbanization, as studies carried out by master students in the Department of Ethnology and Sociology in Inner Mongolia University have shown. They have found that the socialization processes of Mongol migrant children in Hohhot differ significantly from traditional ways (Sachirengui, 2013). They also illuminate the problems caused by the closure of primary schools in pastoral areas after “The Decision on Basic Educational Reform and Development” issued in 2001 (Uyanga, 2014) and the effects of the changes in pastoralism as a result of the development and “opening-up” of Ujumchin right banner (Bai, 2007). These studies all illustrate from different angles how urbanization and industrialization has sped up the process of Sinification and caused the dissolution of the Mongolian community vital to Mongolian cultural and linguistic transmission.

In sum, social transformation provides both the context and one explanation for the language purification efforts described above. While it is the key factor in rapid language shift and the related blow-back in the form of language purification movements, other factors also play a role, including cross-border influence from Outer Mongolia and social media use for ideological dissemination. References

Bai, F. (2007). Neeltiin yabch deh übür mongoliin maljih oroni soyol-in hobiralt [Cultural Change in a Pastoral Region in the Process of Development]. (Masters thesis), University of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot.

Sachirengui (2013). Mongol nüüdel hüühediin niigemchileltiin tuhai sudalal [A Study on the Socialization Process of Mongol Migrant Children in Hohhot] Masters thesis, University of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot.

Uyanga. (2014). Hüdee-gin surguulii nigetkhen tüblürülsenii daraa üüsen asuudaliin tuhai sudalal [A Study on the Regulation of Primary Schools in a Pastoral Region]. (Masters thesis), University of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot.

Author Gegentuul Baioud

Gegentuul Baioud is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Under the supervision of Prof. Ingrid Piller her sociolinguistic research focuses on the sociolinguistics of multilingualism in Inner Mongolia, China. She is particularly interested in social change and language in contemporary Inner Mongolia in the context of nationalization and globalization. She has a Masters in Applied Linguistics from East China Normal University.

More posts by Gegentuul Baioud
  • Daobilige Su

    A deep insight into this special social problem. A nice reading material during a 20 minutes coffee break.

  • Daobilige Su

    I believe that social identity is a complex inferential and social process and if we want to understand as researchers and acquirers of language and culture why an acquirer’s claim to a social identity failed at some particular moment, we need to sort out the level that accounts for the failure. It makes good sense to understand social identity as a social construct that is both inferred and interactionally achieved through displays and ratifications of acts and stances, from the point of view of an infant or small child coming to understand social order. Failure to establish social identity may not be due to the acquirer’s lack of understanding of how to perform particular acts and stances linguistically but to a lack of understanding as to how in that particular community those acts and stances are conventionally related to particular social identities.

  • Anne

    Where do language educators go with these issues? In situations where “pure” varieties are expected to be taught or spoken but heteroglossic varieties are used every day, language teachers, and I would argue, academics writing about the issues are in a somewhat precarious situation. There are strong sociocultural and social justice arguments for starting with the student/individuals and legitimizing and drawing on the varieties they speak in learning, i.e. in this case, “impure” Mongolian. On the other hand, the fear of language loss sets up equally compelling arguments for resisting mixing. How do we reconcile translanguaging with the movement for language revival and development? Revival and development should not have to mean freezing languages in past forms, but how do we work through these issues with minoritized languages?

  • Pingback: В борьбе за чистоту монгольской речи | заметки о языках и лингвистике()

  • Dee

    Your post reminds me of a foreign correspondent episode aired on the abc in May, 2017. It also showed the effect of urbanization in Mongolia, however it focused on eagle hunting. The report showed that eagle hunting is a dying tradition, it is a skill that takes many years to master. The episode focused on a family where the father was passing his knowledge to his daughter. Traditionally only male members of their community are trained to hunt; but the male members of this family had moved away from the village to urban places for purposes of education and employment. Just as urbanization and industrialization have given way to a decline in the use of the mother tongue; centuries of traditional and cultural processes such as eagle hunting have also similarly been affected.
    Information on the foreign correspondent episode can be found on the following link:

  • Pingback: В борьбе за чистоту монгольской речи()