In the early thirteenth century Genghis Khan united a variety of Mongolia’s nomadic tribes. Because of the Mongolians’ exceptional skill as horsemen, Genghis Khan was able to conquer many of his neighbors. In 1204 he subdued the Uyghur people in what is now Xinjiang, a western province of China.
There he captured a scribe named Tata-tyngaak and commanded him to adapt the Uyghur alphabet to write Mongolian.
Note: Uyghur is a Turkic language, and its alphabet is based on the Arabic alphabet.
The Mongols were such fierce horsemen they were able to conquer their neighbors in all directions, such that by the time of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kubla Khan, the Mongolian Empire had spread west across the Eurasian steppe.
In 1271 Kubla Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China, which lasted almost another 100 years. Still today, the horse is important in Mongolia, and not only because they outnumber the people there by an order of four to one.
Horses and horse culture are woven into the Mongolian language. The typical way to say ‘Welcome’ in Mongolian is tavtai morilnɔ oo! Another, older way to say it is morilooroi, literally ‘come by horse please.’
Certainly no one says this any more, because a Mongolian is now likely to arrive at a friend’s house by car, bus, or other modern means. However, the word mor ‘horse’ is still found in the usual phrase tavtai morilnɔ oo! It is furthermore a gentle welcome, tavtai meaning ‘peaceful’ [arrival by horse].
The unremarkable word bracelet in Mongolian also reveals an equestrian connection. In English the word was borrowed from French, and in French the association is with bras ‘arm,’ the location on the body where the bracelet is placed. In Mongolian bogoivč ‘bracelet’ is also associated with a body location, namely bogoi ‘wrist.’ However, both of these words derive from the verb bogoidax ‘to lasso.’ A bracelet is thus the action of encircling the wrist with a rope.
The Mongolians are never far, linguistically speaking, from their horses.
Why are horses relevant here? Because in this chapter we endeavor to explain what we can of the specific ways languages catch up to conditions when we have historical records of them.
We know what we know of the history of Mongolian because there are 800 years of recorded history. The Mongolian script is, furthermore, written vertically top to bottom and has the rhythmic curves it does because Genghis Khan wanted to make sure his scribes could write it while riding their horses. Now, there’s a technological innovation to keep an empire up and running. Call it the first instance of texting while driving.
In this chapter we want to exploit the records produced by such technological innovations, including those of today’s digital archives, in order to look more closely at how languages change over time.
In earlier chapters of the book we outlined the principles and methods of historical reconstructions that give us a picture of languages before recorded history. Here we examine what we can of language and language change when we have written and/or digital records at our disposal.
From Chapter Eleven The Recorded Past: ‘Catching Up to Conditions’ Made Visible. Languages in the World. How History, Culture, and Politics Shape Language. (affiliate) Julie Tetel Andresen and Phillip Carter. November, 2015. Wiley-Blackwell.
Cover Photo Credit: Clay Gilliland. Authorized for reuse under this Creative Commons license
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen