How much wood can a wood chuck chuck? Mongolians ask a
Since marmot-hunting season is underway, today's Mongolian word of the week is тарвага (tarvaga) "marmot." If you know what a groundhog or woodchuck is, you're familiar with marmots - all of them belong to the genus Marmota. In fact, In Mongolian, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) is called хойд америкийн ойн тарвага "North American forest marmot." Two species of marmots have long been ubiquitous residents of the Mongolian steppe. One is Marmota baibacina, the gray (Altai) marmot. The other, more common one, is Marmota sibirica, also known as the Siberian, Mongolian or tarbagan marmot. (Obviously, the designation "tarbagan marmot" is from the Mongolian word for marmot.) Keep reading for more about marmot hunting, the plague, and Mongolia's equivalent of English's famous tongue-twister about a woodchuck.
|In Genghis Khan’s time it was tarbaɣ-a.|
|Plural: тарваганууд; Genitive: тарваганы.|
Marmot Hunting - Тарвага агнах
Every summer men with shotguns head out to the steppe to catch marmots when they're getting fat in preparation for their long winter nap. It's tricky to catch them as they're coming out of their holes, but the meat is a delicacy. Marmots are an endangered species and Mongolian law regulates marmot-hunting (тарвага агнах - tarvaga agnah), but illegal hunting persists.  Marmot-hunting takes place in the lonely steppe, so the chances are very small that officials ever catch the hunters, and tolerance for the activity is common because of its status as a part of traditional culture. As a matter of fact, hunting has increased.
To a large degree though this is driven not by culture, but money. After trappers discovered in the 20th century that marmot fur makes a good replacement for sable, the price of marmot fur soared.  Making money from marmots is irresistible to some poor people in the countryside.
For more information about marmot hunting and conservation, watch "The Mongolian Marmot," from Grizzly Creek Films. (Warning: don't watch it if you can't look at dead animals.)
Marmots are generally gutted, filled with hot rocks, and eaten as боодог (Mongolian Word of the Week #40). In the process, the marmot's hair is singed off with blowtorches. While I've never seen this done to a marmot, it is a common thing to do to other animals as well.
Eating marmots is hard to avoid in the countryside, and I think most volunteers have eaten one at one time or another. My time came almost two years into service, when my neighbors came back from the countryside one cool, rainy summer afternoon. I don't like hunting endangered animals, but it's hard to refuse when someone invites you over and shoves one in your face. The marmot's already dead. Refusing to eat it won't save its life, it will only make you look rude. So I ate it. And it just tasted like meat. I don't know why it's such a delicacy. Nevertheless, TIME has made eating marmot one of its "25 Authentic Asian Experiences." 
The Mongolian public school English textbooks I used contained several conservation-themed lessons, and at least one whole lesson was about marmots. When I taught that lesson, the students all acknowledged the laws limiting hunting, and that hunting threatened the marmots' existence. Nevertheless, all of them admitted that they'd eaten marmot, and many of them admitted that they'd like to eat it again.
If you need another reason not to hunt marmots, marmots are also carriers of Yersinia pestis, the plague bacteria best known for the Black Death that depopulated Europe in the fourteenth century. The marmot's cousin the prairie dog is also a plague reservoir in North America. Mongolian hunters have mostly learned how to avoid sick animals, but the Chinese are less skilled in that. That fact led to a plague outbreak in China in 1910. 
How much wood could...?
In English, one of the most famous tongue-twisters of all time is "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" Of course, woodchucks don't actually chuck wood, or anything else. "Woodchuck" is a mutation of a Native American Algonquian word otchek or otchig.  If you read Calvin and Hobbes, you might also be familiar with "How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol hordes got bored?" 
Anyway, Mongolian also has its own tongue-twisters, and even its own tongue-twister about members of the genus Marmota. A famous tongue-twister concerns тавин таван тарган тарвага (tavin tavan targan tarvaga), or "fifty-five fat marmots." One version goes:
Тал дээрх тавин таван тарган тарвагыгSo, transcribed into Latin letters for your own enjoyment, it goes:
тавин таван тарган тарвага гэхгүй юм бол
өөр ямар тал дээрх тавин таван тарган тарвагыг
тал дээрх тавин таван тарган тарвага гэх юм бэ?
Tal deerh tavin tavan targan tarvagygTranslated, it's roughly:
tavin tavan targan tarvaga gehgüi yum bol
öör yamar tal deerh tavin tavan targan tarvagyg
tal deerh tavin tavan targan tarvaga geh yum be?
If fifty-five fat marmots on the steppeActually, even the English version is confusing! How fast can you say it?
Are not called fifty-five fat marmots,
Then on what kind of steppe are fifty-five fat marmots
Called fifty-five fat marmots on the steppe? 
Big Marmots, Baby Marmots, and Mama Marmots
As with many other animals, Mongolians have separate names for different kinds of marmot depending on age and sex:
|Mongolian Words for Marmots |
|adult male marmot|
tarch / meemj
|adult female marmot|
|female marmot that has given birth|
- You can see the Siberian marmot's entry in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List" of Threatened Species at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/12832/0.
- Benedict, Carol Ann, Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-century
China, page 156. Or look here: https://books.google.com/books?id=gxa7jcVIR9MC&lpg=PA156&ots=9EPi4aYBjs&dq=marmot%20fur%20mongolia%20china&pg=PA156#v=onepage&q=marmot%20fur%20mongolia%20china&f=false.
She discusses the Manchurian plague of 1910, and mentions the
price of fur in passing.
- "Woodchuck." Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Watterson, Bill. You can see the comic here: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2013/04/12
- My translation.
- Most of these terms are defined on the website of the Mongolian Tourist Information Center - http://www.touristinfocenter.mn/cate10_more.aspx?ItemID=6.
(The text is in Mongolian, though.) Some of the terms are mentioned in the video too, but I think the subtitler mis-transcribed them.