Trying to understand a Mongolian phonology rule

When I first set out to learn Mongolian, I expected the sound system and alphabets to be more straightforward than some other languages like say, Tibetan. With this, came this expectation of sort of a one-to-one relationship between letter and sound. However, in reality, I realised some letters were not quite pronounced the way I thought they would be, and sometimes, they may not even be articulated at all. So, I thought that in this post, I would document a little dive into this specific phonological rule that some would say, is among the most important rules when learning Mongolian.

So, what is this rule I am talking about here? Consider words and phrases like Сайн байна уу? (Hello / How are you), and Баярлалаа (Thank you). Starting off, I would have expected all the letters to be pronounced, like “sain-baina-uu” and “bayarlalaa” respectively. However, in reality, the pronunciations are closer to “sain-bain-u” and “bayrlaa” respectively, rendering the а in байна silent, and the second а in Баярлалаа silent.

In Khalkha Mongolian, it turns out that there is a pronunciation rule regarding unstressed short vowels, where such vowels are minimally pronounced, or dropped altogether, resulting in some apparent consonant clusters in places I would not have expected. It also turns out that many short vowels at the end of the word are dropped. Thus, words like шөнө (night) and гадна (outside) are pronounced something like “shön” and “gadn” respectively.

Sometimes, if consonant clusters are not quite articulable easily, something known as an epenthetic vowel would be inserted to prevent these consonant clusters from occurring. This vowel that is inserted corresponds to the vowel harmony triggered by the vowels in front. This produces the slightly more minimalised pronunciation of the vowel in question. Examples include арав (ten), pronounced as “ar(a)w” with the reduced second “a”, and утас (phone), pronounced “ut(a)s” with the reduced “a”.

This even extends to words with more syllables, resulting in pronunciations not quite the way you would expect, with more silent unstressed short vowels for instance.

So a big question looming on my mind was, which vowels are stressed then? Linguists often disagree about where stress is placed in a word, but speakers of Mongolian, and Mongolian-speaking linguists argue that stress is on the first syllable. There are exceptions, however, like the presence of long vowels, diphthongs, or loanwords. In which cases, the stress could fall on the syllable with those kinds of sounds, or correspond to the stress patterns in the language of origin of the loanword. And so for loanwords, the unstressed short vowel deletion does not quite apply.

One guide I found regarding this rule has summarised and articulated the concept quite well, so for my readers learning Mongolian, consider reading or watching the video embedded in this link!

This has undoubtedly cleared some air surrounding how Mongolian sounds, and clarified some of my preconceptions about the language. After hearing native speakers (with Mongolian subtitles), I began to pick out these patterns in speech as well, uncovering yet more of these quirky silent letters in Mongolian Cyrillic, which I could cover in a separate post. This has been an informative dive into yet another rule in the Mongolian language, and I hope to write about more of these as I make progress in grasping the language.

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