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Review of  Mongolic Phonology and the Qinghai-Gansu Languages

Reviewer: Benjamin Brosig
Book Title: Mongolic Phonology and the Qinghai-Gansu Languages
Book Author: Hans Nugteren
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Mongolian
Issue Number: 23.2868

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AUTHOR: Hans Nugteren
TITLE: Mongolic Phonology and the Qinghai-Gansu Languages
SERIES TITLE: LOT dissertation series
PUBLISHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke – LOT
YEAR: 2011

Benjamin Brosig, Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University

Beginning in the early 1980s, research into what has recently been termed the
Shirongolic branch of Mongolic substantially increased. With grammars of Kangjia
(Siqinchaoketu 1999) and Mangghuer (Slater 2003), reasonably detailed
information on the phonologies and morphologies of all known Shirongolic
languages has become available. This is complemented by dictionaries of most of
these languages and even some dialects. On the other hand, most taxonomies and
comparative treatments of Mongolic are based on materials produced earlier.
Putting the known data into a larger context has been an important desideratum,
and this is what “Mongolic phonology and the Qinghai-Gansu languages” (MPQGL)
sets out to do for phonology.

The book is divided into four parts: the introduction (pp. 19-56) discusses the
source material, presents the phone inventories of the languages under
discussion and gives a taxonomic classification of South Mongolic (discussed
below) where Baoan, Santa and Kangjia are assumed as a Baoanic group next to
Monguoric consisting of Mongghul and Mangghuer. All these languages together
contrast as the Shirongolic group with Shira Yugur. Next to phonetic criteria,
lexical and morphological criteria are employed as well.

In the second chapter (pp. 57-84), the phonology of Proto-Mongolic is
reconstructed. After short clarifications about the nature of vowel harmony, the
fortis/lenis opposition in consonants and accent placement, more particular
issues are addressed. These include the reconstruction of *ï, *o/*ö in non-first
syllables and possible vowel sequences across and within syllables on the vowel
side. As is not reconstructed at all, this includes e.g. *iü in seriün
‘cool’ instead of *serixün/*serihün/*serigün where such a diphthong wouldn’t
occur. On the consonant side, the placement of consonants within the syllable
and their co-occurence restrictions are discussed next to the reconstruction of
phonemes such as *š, *y and Pre-Proto-Mongolic *p.

The third (pp. 85-196) and fourth chapters (pp. 197-260) trace the development
of reconstructed vowels (simple vowels, double vowels, complex vowels and
lengthening) and consonants, respectively, in the modern languages. Finally, a
Comparative Supplement (pp. 263-546) presents etymologies for 1350 words that
survive in a number of modern Mongolic languages.

Getting started with MPQGL is a rather difficult task. For example, looking at
how Proto-Mongolic *a developed in Shirongolic (94-102), we learn that *a is
generally preserved unchanged in accented final syllables, while it often
dropped in other syllables, unless the overall syllable structure was not
conducive to elision or they were not close to any consonant prone to palatalise
or labialise its environment. Final *a was also changed when it became non-final
through the reflex of a formerly epenthetic *[u], e.g. gar- ‘exit’ [vs.
gar(u)-gsan exit-PRF.PTCP] > Dongxiang qïri-. Moreover, some dialects of Baoan
have recently started to replace a with ə even in final syllables (*sara > sarə
‘month’). Middle Mongol harmonic rounding of o - a to o - o took place, but a is
retained after *oi in Dongxiang. Rounding is common close to labials and through
the absorption of *b, while regressive assimilation occasionally occurs in Baoan
if the following vowel was contracted (χutuŋ kuŋ ‘woman’ < *katun küün
[‘queen’]). In a number of words (e.g. Eastern Yugur čüsa < *ǰasa- ‘make’), it
is difficult to connect rounding to any cause. In contrast to Mongolian and
Dagur, umlaut is very rare (e.g. Kangjia ǰeǰi- < ǰaǰil- ‘chew’), but a glide
gets inserted in Dahejia Baoan after palatal consonants and Mongghul, in the
latter even changing the quality of a to ä. Palatalization occurred under the
influence of *y [j], *ǰ and *č. In cases like Ñantoq Baoan yimaŋ < *ïmaan
‘goat’, it is impossible to say whether palatal breaking took place due to the
possibility of an intermediate form *yamaŋ. Loss of *a such as Shira Yugur
ndaǧar < andagar ‘oath’ often results in consonant clusters, but most
Qinghai-Gansu languages preserve *a here even though such clusters would be
permissible. Elision of *a via devoicing may create fricatives, e.g. h in Shira
Yugur (hsar < *asar ‘village’) and s, ś and ş in Mongghul, a process that may
even lead to the loss of initial consonants. In contrast to previously discussed
phenomena, Mittelsilbenschwund of *a is rather consistent and might be assumed
for Proto-Shirongolic.

The nature of the data seems to be such that few absolute sound laws can be
postulated even for any single South Mongolic language. However, to get an idea
of what developments took place in any given language, a presentation ordered by
languages might have been easier to follow. As it is, MPQGL is more suitable for
reference or as a lexicon than for being read from beginning to end, as no
general ideas emerge.

As one might expect, the apparently chaotic data makes it difficult to present a
taxonomy of QG languages. Moreover, while all QG languages are in contact with
each other and have strong areal features of the overall Gansu-Qinghai area,
there are also a number of smaller Sprachbünde involved, the most obvious being
the one formed by Turkic Shira Yugur and Mongolic Shira Yugur. Most of the
changes discussed show broader areal distributions. For example, among the
phonological “Features uniting all of QG Mongolic” (35-38) the only convincing
innovation (shared only by Turkic, which is not areally dominant) is the
assimilation of *k to g when followed by g or ǰ. While a split of the palatal
affricates separates Shirongolic from Shira Yugur, there are indications that
this change was quite recent (218) and thus took place separately in each
language after the split of Shirongolic had already taken place. Baoanic differs
from Monguoric in preserving the difference between /ki/ and /kï/ (as /ki/ vs.
/qi/), but this is only the retention of a difference lost elsewhere and can
thus hardly be used to postulate Baoanic in the first place. Overall, the
phonological evidence is suggestive but not conclusive. Presumably for that
reason, Nugteren tries to support his classification with lexical evidence.

MPQGL does its part to contribute to the terminological confusion concerning the
oldest and reconstructed stages of Mongolic. While the misleading traditional
term Middle Mongol(ian) is retained for the oldest attested stage of Mongolic,
“Common Mongolic” is defined as “the reconstructed language from which all
medieval and modern Mongolic languages are supposed to have evolved. It is
obtained by comparing the modern languages and the Middle Mongol sources in
various scripts”, whereas “[m]ore speculative reconstructions, generally
involving developments that must have taken place in the prehistoric period, are
labeled Proto Mongolic” (57). As Janhunen (forthcoming) uses “Common Mongolic”
as a label for Buriat, Khamnigan, Mongolian, Ordos and Oirat as a group, the
absence of any established and valid terminology will be felt even more direly.
Given the current stage of research, most taxonomic labels must be preliminary,
but a more descriptive stance might help. Even while “Common Mongolic” would be
the language spoken in the late part of the 12th century and thereby just a few
decades earlier than the first surviving texts (from the 1220s), this stage
might better be labeled “Proto-Mongolic” and the preceding stage
“Pre-Proto-Mongolic”. And the immediate subdivision of modern Mongolic might run
“South Mongolic” (Shirongolic plus Shira Yugur), Dagur, Moghol (both
one-language branches) and e.g. “Central Mongolic”.

But what do we learn about late 12th century Proto-Mongolic? The evidence from
Baoan, Kangjia and Dongxiang mentioned above supports the distinction
occasionally made in early Mongolian writing between and , thus lending
support to the reconstruction of an eight-vowel system for Proto-Mongolic.
Nugteren does not reconstruct any sound for the intervocalic letter in
Mongolian script, which (largely) lacks reflexes in modern Mongolian. He thus
seems to leave aside a number of problematic cases such as *adugu > Mongolian
aduu ‘horses’, *adugu-s (pl) > adguus ‘beasts’. On the basis of Shirongolic
evidence, *h might be reconstructed for a few additional words with voiced
medial consonant, e.g. *hamu(ra)- ‘rest’ in spite of ancient Sino-Mongolian amu-
and Dagur amər- due to h/χ in all Shirongolic forms (254, 348-9). Other details
of Nugteren’s reconstruction also tend to be very solid, reliable and in line
with previous research. Occasional intrusive sounds are identified as such and
excluded, pointing out where QG forms do not tell us much about Proto-Mongolic,
and competing reconstructions are indicated as such in the complement, usually
directly in the headwords, e.g. *čolban/*čolman ‘Venus’, or in the text
according to which the second variant of Ordos čolmon/čulmun might also point to
*u for the second syllable (307). (This implicitly presupposes that the reader
knows that northern Ordos has progressive assimilation in such contexts, while
southern Ordos has regressive assimilation.)

At different points in the book, the question of accent is touched upon. While
Nugteren does not reconstruct any accent for Middle Mongol, he consistently
assumes Mongolian, Buriat and Oirat to have word-initial accent, even though
newer studies (Walker 1997 for Khalkha Mongolian and Buriat, Harnud 2003 for
Chakhar Mongolian and probably also applicable to Khalkha, Indjieva 2009 for
Xinjiang Oirat) show that matters are not that simple for any of these languages.

Spelling mistakes are rare, as are obvious factual mistakes or contradictions.
The only puzzling statement I came across was the claim that “[t]he fact that
this M[iddle ]Mo[ngol] -h- never corresponds to W[ritten ]M[ongol] -g/γ- shows
that it is not inspired by WM spelling.” (78), which doesn’t apply to the
examples that precede or follow the sentence which include WM ‘above’.
As Nugteren (p.c., my translation) points out, the idea is rather that “in cases
where WM reliably goes back to *g [as reconstructed from modern languages],
we never observe [MMo] -h-”. Consequently, he tentatively reconstructs
Pre-Proto-Mongolic *depere (314) (MMo , ) irrespective of WM

Summing up, MPQGL provides a reliable and long-awaited overview of Mongolic
phonology that takes the South Mongolic data into account. It can serve as a
reference and basis for further research both for Mongolists and general
linguists. For the latter, occasional lines of argument that do require very
specific background knowlegde may cause slight problems. The more than thousand
well-supported reconstructions will come in handy for etymological purposes. It
is not, however, easily usable as an introduction to QG phonology.

Harnud, Huhe. 2003. A Basic Study of Mongolian Prosody. Helsinki: University of

Indjieva, Elena. 2009. Oirat Tobi: Intonational structure of the Oirat language.
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawaii.

Janhunen, Juha. Forthcoming. Mongolian grammar. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Siqinchaoketu. 1999. Kangjiayu yanjiu. Shanghai: Shanghai Yuandong Chubanshe.

Slater, Keith. 2003. A grammar of Mangghuer. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Walker, Rachel. 1997. Mongolian stress, licensing, and factorial typology.
Rutgers Optimality Archive, ROA-172.

Benjamin Brosig is a doctoral candidate in general linguistics at Stockholm University with a master’s degree in Mongolian studies and general linguistics. His research interests range from aspectuality, evidentiality and other morpho-syntactic categories over historical linguistics, dialect grammar and field linguistics to politeness, focusing on Mongolic, especially the Central Mongolic branch. Next to a dissertation on aspect and evidentiality in Middle Mongol, Khalkha Mongolian and Khorchin Mongolian, current research activities concern negation in Mongolic, the semantic field of temperature in Khalkha, and a documentation of Durvud Oirat (led by Yu. Tsendee).

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