Two Swiss in Mongolia – trying to learn some Mongolian

We two Swiss like to contact people in their own language, when traveling, also in Mongolia

To learn some of the most important Mongolian words like “thank you” and “good-bye” and to acquire a basic understanding of the Mongolian language, Ursula acquires the “Kauderwelschführer” and loads their audit guide on to her iPod. After having browsed the appstore, I select the app “uTalk Mongolian” and I also find a PONS  dictionnary “German to Mongolian” (sorely Mongolian to German seems not to be available). We both dive into our material… and are soon confused, as…

Mongolian is spoken differently than it is written – and we can hardly discern the sounds

As I scan through the words, I expect to remember them easily, because Mongolian uses the cyrillic alphabet. Well, I experience an easy start – тийм (tijm) means “yes” and угуй (uguj) means “no”. It is exactly spoken as it is written. I move on to баярлалла (bajarlalla) – and the Mongolian voice of “uTalk Mongolian” says something like “bajrsa”. Hm… What about “good-bye”?  Again I am confused – баяртай (bajartaj) is pronounced something like “baijsta”. Some other words are again easier such as yc (us – Wasser), утас (utas – telephone), суу (su – milk) and шар арайг (schar ajrag – beer, whereby I learn later that people say пив or “piv”). I also find a word for “please” – ажаммуу (adjamy).

Aika, please explain this to us…

On the lake Khögsvöl, we share our language guidebooks with Aika, our local Mongolian guide and translator: “How can it be that “thank you” is written so differently from what it is pronounced.” Aika confirms that the pronounciation is correct and gently practices “thank you” over and over again with us: “Bajrla, bairla.” The “l/л” sounds almost like an “s”: Our tongues have to move forward and touch the teeth both for the “r” as well as for the “l-s”. Ursula with her language background from the Swiss canton of Berne soon gets this right, but my language background from Basel (with the French “r”) makes it hard on me. I think I never got it fully right, but I reached the level, where Mongolians gently understood me, when I was trying to say “bajrla” or “thank you”. They even answered, when I said өглөөний мэнд or “öglönij mend” for “good morning” and удшийн мэнд  or “udschijn mend” for “good evening”.

Then Aika tells us: Watch out the Mongolian word “us” is not equal to “us”!

More hurdles. I was so proud to be able to ask for water or “us”. Aika laughs: “Careful, you have just asked for “hair” and not for “water”. “Us” with a short and closed “u” is “hair”. To ask for water, you have to say “uos”. This is one of the two vowels that do not exist in the Russian alphabet. The second one is “ө”.” Okay, I will remember the “uo” and the “ө”. This “ө” seems to be close to our German “ö” which makes it easier to be pronounced by us.

And… frustration… “please” does not exist as a separate word in Mongolian

Aika frowns at my App uTalk: “Nobody says “adjamu” for “please” in Mongolian, this is old fashioned. “Please” is part of the verb that we ask for – we add “yy” (uu).” I give up on “please”, as I will never be able to learn so many verbs to be able to politely express “please” with each of them. I hope the Mongolians will forgive me for that. And why is this App “uTalk Mongolian” getting this wrong? I am disappointed about its wrong teachings.

Mongolian is very different – and more related with Hungarian/Finnish than with Turkish

On our Wikinger group tour, Matthias gives us an excellent introduction into Mongolian. He is our German guide with Mongolian roots and he is kindly assisted by Jacqui, our engaged and lively Mongolian guide.

Like Hungarian and Finnish, Matthias explains, Mongolian is an agglutinative language applying the harmony of vowels (only “harmonious” vowels are combined in one word… I remember the words with many “ö”and “ä” in Hungarian and Finnish). Also the grammar is related: Prepositions such as “with” are embedded into the noun. Verbs have an ending that makes them more or less “polite”. Mongolians even have a word for the question mark and say it explicitly.

By having been in touch with the Turkish culture, Mongolians also use some words related with Turkish, but Mongolian and Turkish grammar are different.

My Swiss newspaper NZZ (October 8th) underlines the relation between Finns and Mongolians from the opposite angle: In the 19th century, the German philosopher Ernst Häckel spread the stereotype that the Finns are Mongolians and differ from the Aryan race that the Swedes belong to and some Swedish researchers followed him. Racism is a sad background, but this fact shows that also the Finns (and their neighbors) are aware of their relation with the Mongolians.

Here is a list of bread and butter words – Matthias recommended: “Write them down, as you hear them!”

Matthias procedes with a list of the most important words that we might want to surprise Mongolians with. He asks us to write them down, as we hear them… and not to try to spell them correctly. I think, this is an excellent list:

Sain ban u = how are you? (сайн байна уу)
bajrla = thank you (баярлалла)
bairtä = good bye (баяртай)
saikhan holoroj = good evening
saikhan amraraj = good night
otschlarjai = sorry (уучлаарай)
bäkhguj = does not exist
tiim = yes (тийм)
uguj = no (угуй)
za = okay (за)
dzugerj = you are welcome
irul mindin tulo = cheers (эруул энхийн төлөө)

zaj = tea (цай)
kofe = coffee (кофе)
su = milk (суу)
uos = water (ус)
(us = hair)
piv = beer (schar ajrag proposed by my App seems not to be in use; piv comes from Russian “pivo/пивo”)
arkh = wodka (арх)
sachar = sugar (сахар)
zugin bal = honey (зөгийн бал)
talkh = bread (талх)
hool = meal (хоол)

haluon = hot (халоон)
khuiten = cold (хуйтэн)

nolinj zas = toilet paper (цаас=paper)
jamer untä vä = how much does it cost? (энэ ямер унэтэй вэ)
un = price (унэ)
tä (appended) = with
vä = question mark (вэ)

nolj = 0
nig  = 1 (нэг)
heuor = 2 (хоер (jo))
gurow = 3 (гурав)
duroe = 4 (дөрөв)
taov = 5 (тав)
dzuorgaa = 6 (зургаа)
dolloo = 7 (долоо)
fnaim = 8 (найм)
jüs = 9 (ес (jo))
arav = 10 (арав)
arav nig = 11 etc (арван нэг)
zoo = 100 (heuor zoo – зуу)
miang = 1000 (мянг)

nig zar = it is one o’clock (нэг цаг)

Bajrla – this is how we said farewell after two weeks of traveling with you, Matthias and Jacqui

Masch sakhen bailaa (it was great).
Ikh bajrla (thank you very much).
Darajil masch sain tschultschen ultschlere (have more nice tourists).

Matthias and Jacqui, why do you not create an App for tablets that has no mistakes, gives some background information and focuses on what is important? And, PONS, would you not also offer a dictionnary Mongolian to German (to English would also be okay) and sell it as an App?

In my blog I might not get everything right when trying to make some steps into Mongolian – I will be happy to learn and improve. Matthias told us that many who visited Mongolia came back again… and perhaps I will do so as well!

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