Wednesday, July 1, 2015

MWW 59: Бөх

Little boy in a wrestler's outfit, or зодог (zodog)

1. wrestler
2. strong, firm
In Genghis Khan’s time it was böke.

Наадам (Naadam) is coming, so it's time for wrestlers. Wrestling is probably the most popular sport in Mongolia, and бөх is the Mongolian word for wrestler. Western-style wrestlers are called чөлөөт бөх (chölööt böh), "free wrestler." Western-style wrestling is important in Mongolia too, evidenced by С.Батцэцэг (S. Battsetseg), who won an Olympic medal in 2012. [1] Practitioners of judo and sumo wrestling can also be called бөх, and Mongolians excel at sumo too. (Ever heard of Asashōryu? His real, Mongolian, name is Дагвадорж (Dagvadorj).)  But by itself бөх refers especially to wrestlers in Mongolia's own national style of wrestling.

High school boys wrestling. Wrestling is a popular activity for boys all over the country. It doesn't require any fancy equipment - you already have it. Wrestling can happen anytime, and anywhere. (Even in the classroom, unfortunately.)

The activity that wrestlers engage in is called барилдаан (barildaan). They wear a distinctive tight outfit called a зодог (zodog) and attack each other with various мэх (meh, techniques). If they're successful, they get a цол (tsol, title, rank), and someone will sing their praises, known as цол дуудах (tsol duudah).

Бөх is also an adjective meaning "strong, firm, fast, hard," often together with бат (bat), which means practically the same thing. In fact, Бөхбат and Батбөх are also common names. I'm not sure whether the adjectival or nominal meaning is original. But one can talk about a бөх уяа (böh uyaa) "tight knot" [2], бөх бат хана (böh bat hana) "sturdy wall," and even a бөх нойр (böh noir) "sound sleep." [3] In general, strength, reliability, and endurance - all qualities of a good wrestler - may be called бөх чанар (böh chanar) or бат бөх байдал (bat böh baidal).

A victorious wrestler at a local Наадам (Naadam) shows does a victory dance, showing off his sequined зодог jacket.

Дүүгийн холбоо ураг төрлийнхөөс илүү бөх.
(Düügiin holboo urag törliinhöös ilüü böh.)
"A younger brother's relationship is stronger than a relative's." (i.e., "Blood is thicker than water.")

Бөөгийн хэрэгсэл ламд гай
Бөхийн зодог эхнэрт лай
Бурхан тахил чөтгөрт дараа
Буу саадаг чавганцад төвөг

A witch's wares are anathema to a priest
A wrestler's shirt is a nuisance to a wife
A god's prayer is trouble to a demon
A gun and shells are useless to granny [4]

  1. By the way, she's from my town. A famous traditional wrestler from my town is Ч.Санжаадамба (Ch. Sanjaadamba).
  2. While this may be in the dictionary, in my extensive experience with knots, I have always heard чанга уяа (changa uyaa) "tight knot."
  3. Böh noir makes me imagine a black and white movie about jaded detectives looking for Mongolian wrestlers in the shadowy alleys of the UB ger districts.
  4. By Р.Чойном (R. Choinom), my translation. A бөө isn't really a witch, but it fits the alliteration better.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

MWW 58: Зун

Layman’s Pronunciation
In Genghis Khan’s time it was jun.

Summer and the Solstice

Today is the summer solstice for 2015, so happy summer! - to the Americans at least. In Mongolia, it has already been summer for quite awhile.

In the U.S. we are used to thinking of summer as starting on the summer solstice (June 20 or 21) and lasting until the autumn equinox (September 20 or 21). If you asked an American, he would probably say the summer months were June, July, and August.

In Mongolia, the school's summer vacation зуны амралт (zuny amralt, summer vacation) runs exactly from June 1 to September 1. Nevertheless, if you asked a Mongolian, he still might say the summer months were May, June, and July, instead of June, July and August. This might be the reason a Mongolian man once told me that summer ended after Наадам (July 11-14: see here).

Even though we chose an astronomical event (the solstice) to begin summer, we chose somewhat arbitrarily. There is a succession of “landmarks” on the journey through the year, and different cultures have different ones that they find useful as signposts for the seasons. The way Mongolians have traditionally viewed the division of the year, the summer solstice marks the middle of summer, not the beginning.

Are you summering well?

Mongolians have several greetings tailored to the seasons. For summer, there's

Сайхан зусч байна уу? (Saihan zusch baina uu?)

which is pronounced rather like "SAKH-ung DZOO-such BAN oo?" and which may be translated as "Are you summering well?" To which the proper response is

Сайхан зусч байна. (Saihan zusch baina.) - I am summering well.

The зусч part here comes from the verb зусах (zusah) "to spend or pass the summer," and зусах is made from зун, with the N disappearing in front of the verb-making suffix -с (-s).

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Transliterating Mongolian

History books, travel guides, and text messages all spell words differently

In English, Mongolian words may be spelled differently from source to source. This has to do with with transliteration. Standard Khalkha Mongolian is written in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, but English is written in the Roman alphabet, and most English speakers don't know Cyrillic. Transliteration is the process of taking something written in one alphabet and rewriting it in another alphabet. Transliterating into the Roman alphabet is also called Romanization.

Transliteration is usually done according to a system, and in many countries there is one official transliteration system. For example, Pinyin is mandated by the Chinese government for spelling standard Mandarin. In the absence of that, usually a group of professors will hold a conference and make their own system. Sometimes both happen, and you get competing systems. Chinese used to have the Wade-Giles Romanization system, although Pinyin has kind of killed it at this point.

Mongolian doesn't actually have either; there is no "official" way of writing Mongolian words in English. But in my experience there are three major non-official "trends" in the way I see Mongolian words spelled, which I will call "Academic," "Travel Guide," and "Text Message."

To get an idea of the way they look, here is a verse of the Mongolian national anthem written in several different ways:

Cyrillic Өндөр төрийн минь сүлд ивээж
Өргөн түмний минь заяа түшиж
Үндэс язгуур, хэл соёлоо
Үрийн үрдээ өвлөн бадраая
"Academic" Öndör törijn min' süld iveež
Örgön tümnij min' zajaa tüšiž
Ündes jazguur, hel sojoloo
Ürijn ürdee övlön badraaja
"Travelguide" Ondor turin min suld ivej
Orgon tumni min zaya tushij
Undes yazgur, khel soyolo
Urin urde ovlon badraya
"Text message" Undr tur.n mn svld iwej
Urgn tvmni mn zya tvshj
Vnds yzgur xel soylo
Vr.n vrde uwln badray

Quite different, right? But why? Because languages and alphabets are different, compromises have to be made between things like accuracy and convenience. You may have guessed already how some of these systems made the choice.


"Academic" refers to the typical way of writing words in serious books about Mongolia, which contain footnotes and are written by people who know about Mongolia, for people who know about Mongolia. They generally follow conventions for how Russian words get transliterated. Wiktionary uses a version of this.

"Academic" transliterations are based on the transliteration system used for Russian names, with the exception of ö and ü for ө and ү. (Ө and ү were added to Cyrillic to spell vowels that are found in Mongolian, but not Russian.)  They try to consistently match one English letter to each letter in the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet. This isn’t easy, since the Mongolian alphabet has more letters than the English one, so diacritics (“letters with hats”) are used, like the two dots above ö and ü. They also take care to show long vowels by writing the the vowel twice.


"Travelguide" refers to the casual way words get written in travel guide books, news articles, and other stuff which is aimed at a general audience, and doesn’t usually include footnotes. It's less accurate than the first type, but more convenient, because the English letters used are usually pronounced kind of similar to the Cyrillic letters.

"Travelguide" spelling usually spells words with letters that have a similar sound in English to the Mongolian word. For example they write the letter 'y' in words that have a 'y' sound. In many formal works, this sound is spelled with a 'j.' Seeing this, Americans might mispronounce the word.

"Travelguide" transliteration makes concessions to the average English-speaking dude, who is too lazy to deal with things that don’t look English, like long vowels or “letters with hats.” It doesn't do this consistently though, even in the same book, so sometimes you see double vowels, sometimes you don't. So some accuracy is sacrificed for the convenience of people with only 2 weeks to take their vacation.


Both of the above types are for the benefit of English readers. But Mongolians have developed their own way of writing to each other in Roman letters, because most cellphones don't have Mongolian keypads. I call this "text-message" style. You also see this in Facebook posts. Lots of Mongolian students spell their names this way too, which confuses foreigners because often it looks different from the way the foreigners think the name should be spelled.

"Text message" transliteration is a different animal altogether, which values extreme conciseness. Mongolian text messages, like American ones, abbreviate ruthlessly. Mongolian text-messages go further than the guidebook version by eliminating most short vowels completely. Often only the first vowel in a word will be spelled. The vowels may be written out for emphasis (like when they don’t think the American will understand what they’re writing).

Luckily, it's often easy to guess what's missing, because restrictions on Mongolian syllable structure usually tell you where short vowels will be, and vowel harmony tells you what vowel will be there. It works so well, in fact, that in Mongolian’s sister language Kalmyk, even standard spelling works this way.

A lot of people will write text messages in their own idiosyncratic ways. For example, Cyrillic letter х is written as x, h, or kh by different people. However, some odd spellings are nearly universal, such as using English letter v to spell Cyrillic letter ү.


This is not an exhaustive comparison, of course, because none of these systems are official. I’ve seen some books that use their own systems. Speakers of Korean, Japanese, and European languages also the Latin alphabet differently to write Mongolian. Nor will I get into the way that traditional Mongolian script is transliterated, which is very different, because it reflects the Mongolian language of 800 years ago. But hopefully I’ve covered it enough that you won’t be lost as to why some names are spelled different ways.

It's also common to mix systems. Lots of books take a middle road between the extremes of "academic" and "travelguide" spelling. This is the way I write words on this blog. I care about accuracy, so I take care to write long vowels with two vowels, and distinguish ouö and ü. However, I prefer letters that suggest the closest English sound, so I write manai instead of manaj for манай. But just in case, I always include the Cyrillic spelling anyway, so anyone who wants to be really sure what the word is can check!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Children's Day / Хүүхдийн Баяр

Children's Day makes a fitting end to the school year

June 1 is recognized worldwide as "International Day for Protection of Children" and consequently is the most popular day in many countries for celebrating children. In Mongolia it is called "Children's Day," or Хүүхдийн баяр (Hüühdiin bayar). As you may recall, баяр refers to a celebration or holiday. Officially, the day is known as Эх үрсийн баяр (Eh ürsiin bayar), which means "Mother and Children's Celebration" in rather formal Mongolian.

The biggest party, of course, is in Ulaanbaatar. Thousands of parents and children from around the country gather for a ceremony in Sühbaatar Square, and other activities. However, smaller parties happen in сум's and аймаг's. Naturally, they are usually hosted at schools.

The Mongolian school year conveniently runs from September through May, so Children's Day makes a fitting unofficial end for the school year. In honor of Children's Day 2015, please enjoy some pictures from Children's Day 2014.

Children line up by the school to watch the ceremony

A little Mongolian boy checks his trading cards

Children's Day parties at schools provide a chance for students to show off their talents. Unlike most student competitions, which are dominated by high school students, on Children's Day the participants are mostly kindergarten or elementary school children.

Girls get ready to dance

Typical displays of skill include dancing and singing performances. Talented young artists get their drawings displayed on school walls. One year when I visited UB on that day, even the State Department Store (Mongolia's biggest mall) displayed children's drawings in the store window.

Singing is popular at many holidays, including Children's Day

On Children's Day, small children can sing too.

Opportunities for play include games like darts and шагай, and drawing on the ground with chalk.

Playing with sheep anklebones
Playing with sheep anklebones
Older children playing darts
Children drawing with chalk
Of course, winners get certificates.
At the end, everyone gets their picture taken.

Say Hi.
More photos
Take some photos from the other direction
Adults also find time to celebrate themselves too. Here teachers pose for a photo op in front of the school.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mongolian Monuments - II

More Mongolian monuments, this time outside of Ulaanbaatar.

Camel in Terelj
Shaman on the western highway out of Ulaanbaatar

Цонжин Болдог - Tsonjin Boldog

OK, in the last piece about monuments, I said that Sühbaatar's statue was the most famous, but this one below may be more famous now - at least among foreigners, who've seen it in the news somewhere. (Sühbaatar's statue, being almost 70 years old and from a time when Mongolia was largely closed to the Occident, is unknown to most foreigners, even if it has emotional resonance for Mongolians.) Tsonjin Boldog is a vast and interesting historical 'village' of sorts, but the centerpiece, of course, is the massive, massive statue of Chingis Khaan on a horse.

The giant statue of Chingis Khaan at Tsonjin Bodlog
Smaller equestrian statue guarding the way to Chingis
The statue is so massive, in fact, that you can climb the stairs inside it and walk out onto the horse's head.

Chingis Khaan's face, seen from the top of his horse's head
Chingis Khaan's whip
Covered in glistening metal and sharp angles, and wearing a frown, this Chingis statue projects a hard, rough image. It's appropriate given his reputation as a warrior, but also quite different from the effect of the mellow, aged-bronze Chingis who watches the government building like a wise ancestor. Tsonjin Boldog's statue is bigger and better-known, but the one in Parliament is a better statue, in my opinion at least.

Эрдэнэт - Erdenet

Erdenet is the second-largest city in Mongolia.

The Russian-Mongolian Friendship Monument. (Найрамдал is 'friendship' in Mongolian. Дружба must be 'friendship' in Russian.)
Large Buddha statue outside town.
Bulldozer in Erdenet
Turtle? Maybe? I really don't know.
Anandyn Amar (Анандын Амар), 1886-1941. Early leader of the Mongolian People's Republic who was purged by Choibalsan.
Anandyn Amar
Odd-looking tower. I couldn't find out what it represents.

Хархорин - Kharhorin

Kharhorin: better-known in the outside world as Karakorum, once the capital of the Mongol Empire.

In front of City Hall

Stylized 'lion' guarding the bridge over a stream. This is on the way to City Hall and the post office.
More lions at Erdene Züü (Эрдэнэ Зүү) Monastery.

Цэцэрлэг - Tsetserleg

Viktor Stanislavovich Kiyakovsky (Виктор Станиславович Кияковский), 1899-1932. The other side reads: Монголын ард түмний эрх чөлөө, тусгаар тогтнолын төлөө амь насаа зориулсан зөвлөлтийн эрэлхэг чекистэд, "To the gallant Soviet secret service member who dedicated his life to the freedom and independence of the Mongolian people." Google turned up only a single English search result for him [1].
Монгол улсын өрлөг жанжин Г. ДЭМИД - Mongolian Marhsal G. Demid

Statue of a wrestler in Tsetserleg

Tower by the government building in Tsetserleg

The Buddha on Bulgan Mountain in Tsetserleg

Children playing by the feet of the Buddha
Sheep on a cliff outside Tsetserleg

Хашаат - Khashaat

Four Friendly Animals, near Khashaat sum
Giant star in the middle of Khashaat sum. Erected in 1971, it celebrates 50 years of  the Mongolian People's party.
Socialist star in Khashaat sum
Socialist star in Khashaat sum

And finally, my favorite little statue, the one that I saw almost every day for three years.

Book in front of the school in Khashaat sum


  1. The result is for the book White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, by Jamie Bisher.