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Kereidjin D. Bürgüd Remarks on the Chinese Character Spelling Rules Used in “The Secret History of the Mongols”

On April 25th, 2014 Professor Kereidjin D. Bürgüd  gave a lecture on her research on the Chinese transcription of “The Secret History of the Mongols”.  The original Uighur Mongol script version of “The Secret History” has never been found, but through careful reconstruction  of 14th century phonology Professor Bürgüd hopes to better understand Middle Mongolian.  The Chinese transcription history of “The Secret History” can be described in two groups: elaborate transcription and rough transcription.  Elaborate transcription used a complex spelling system to denote Mongolian pronunciation.  It utilized multiple character forms, which can be classified by two aspects: shape & novelty and usage.  Translators used several different characters to transcribe the same Mongolian phoneme.  

For example, Professor Bürgüd has identified three groups of characters within ‘shape & novelty’: simple (focuses on chinese character with equivalent pronunciation to a mongolian phoneme), small (used to show Mongol consonant, diacritical marker), and newly created (2 characters are combined, one for pronunciation phoneme, one for meaning).  Within ‘usage’, characters could be grouped as common characters, meaning characters, grammar marker characters, and specific/original characters.  The grammar character cases in particular are interesting because specific characters are used to indicate accusative, dative, verb suffixes, and gender.  

These different transcription styles all seem to emphasize that the purpose of such styles is to assist Chinese speakers in learning to speak Mongolian.  She then concludes,  “there are very elaborate and consistent spelling rules used in the transcription of ‘The Secret History’ into Chinese characters. Clarifying the spelling rules that dictate this transcription is necessary for a correct understanding of the characters themselves, and furthermore it can be used as a basis for a reconstruction of Middle Mongolian.”


You can listen to a recording of the lecture here

Co-hosted by: Mongolia Society, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, and Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center