What Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Sounded Like – and how we know

Genghis Khan was an unusual conqueror. Yes,
he subdued vast lands from atop a horse, but he didn’t brag loudly across the ages. He
kept secrets. A secret history. A secret burial. No images from his life. Conquered peoples
weren’t even allowed to learn his language. With all this secrecy, could we ever know
what his language sounded like? My first encounter with Mongolian. Imagine
me working at a coffee shop. For years I spent my mornings steaming customized espresso elixirs
for customers to carry out with style. But after my shift, I’d relax… by heading three
blocks to the library and picking grammars off the stacks. On this day I noticed a new
book. I opened it and met a language that built
words mechanically, that had vowel harmony, long vowels and an “L” it warned me was tricky
to pronounce. Fun! Until one example broke my flow: something something something…
Chinggis Khaan. Suddenly this wasn’t just grammar. It felt like history. Mongolian.
Ah, the Mongols! Was this the remnant voice of the Great Khan himself? I didn’t realize it at the time, but this
curiosity would lead me down an epic road: books, maps, epigraphy late into the night,
following nomadic hoofprints to chase a language. And if you want in on that journey, we travel
to Mongolia today. Fly into Ulaanbaatar, the Red Hero city, and
you’ll see one name at the airport, on bottles, a hotel, a bank, and the character atop the
world’s largest man-on-horse statue southeast of town: not Genghis Khan but Чингис
хаан. Yes, in Cyrillic. No, this isn’t Russian.
It’s Mongolian. Just like in that grammar. Endings with vowel harmony, postpositions
not prepositions, long vowels like /xaːŋ/, and Ls and Ls of /ɮ/. Cross the border into China and you’re in
Inner Mongolia. As you look around at shops and signs, it can be hard to imagine that
a roving shrine to Genghis Khan once toured this region for the devout after his death.
But focus above the Chinese and you’ll spot some Mongolian. In an older alphabet, with
toothy consonant-vowel letters connected along a cursive spine. It’s unique in the way it’s
written from top to bottom in rows from left to right. For beginners, it’s a challenging script.
I mean, this thing kind of breaks webpages. But to ease the pain, children here learn
it as syllables. When they recite words with these syllables, something strange happens.
Extra unspoken syllables emerge. The word /xiɮ/: xe-le. Hohhot, the Blue City of Inner
Mongolia, is xö-xe-xo-ta. And the four syllables of Ulaanbaatar are written with six! Where
do these extra syllables come from? From back in time. 1204, before he is Khan, the up-and-coming
Temüjin conquers a tribe to the south, the Naiman. Among his new subjects is a scholar,
Tatatungga, who writes in the Uyghur script, which his people inherited, ultimately from
Aramaic. (There’s a whole backstory, but if it reminds you of rotated Arabic, there is
a reason.) Temüjin may be illiterate, but he immediately recognizes the use for his
dawning empire. And so trusted Mongol nobles learn to write. Later that same century, a great stone goes
up with an inscription telling us that a skilled archer Yesüngge shot a target from 335 alds
away, more half a kilometer. The first words in the text reveal who was there to witness
it: Chinggis Khaan and his Mongol dignitaries. This is preclassical Written Mongol. It often
resembles modern Mongolian: a “ger” is still a “ger”. But it preserves sounds that have
since changed, like edür has since harmonized to ödör. Those long vowels were actually
two vowels split by /x/: /kʰaxan/ instead of /xaːŋ/. Which by the way is why “Khan”
also gets spelled with two a’s and a g between. This official written language takes us back
to the right time, but another line of evidence suggests it might be suspiciously archaic.
How dignitaries wrote but not how the Khagan spoke. A crucial piece of the Mongolian story was
nearly forgotten: a history book disguised as a language instruction text was rediscovered
by Russian Orthodox monk Palladius in China in the mid 1800s. This book was written entirely in Hàn Chinese
characters, but despite appearances, it doesn’t make sense if it’s read in Chinese. Listen
to the very first words: ching-gi-s qa-han. We meet again. What emerges is a long name-filled text telling
the inside story of the man himself: his origins from Tengri, his anda (his blood brother),
his conquests with his general, struggle for succession, even a cameo by that same longshot
archer. Oh, and time and again you’ll read how when Chinggis Khaan made a decree, he
made a decree, saying dotdotdot. It all struck scholars and nomads alike as
authentic, perhaps composed upon his very death, when nobles gathered to remember his
story, their story, and wrote down what came to be known as nighucha tobchiyan, the Secret History. It’s from the right time, but something felt
off. Edür had already changed to üdür. They were already dropping their middle /x/’s.
And yet t hey kept around an initial /x/: xuja’ur. In all, the Secret History looked different,
mostly younger. Maybe Written Mongol was too old for the language of the Khaghan. Maybe
this was his Middle Mongol. So why not just roll back today’s pronunciation
and undo sound changes to revert to our best Middle Mongol accent? …is the question you ask yourself as we
travel the open road through the Ordos in Inner Mongolia, to the site of the Mausoleum
of Chinggis Khaan. “Ordos” became our “horde” but it means “palaces”. His tomb remains a mystery,
yet after his death, tent palaces wandered this land as a shrine to what one scholar
terms “Genghisid theology” in Tengriism. A people called the Darkhad vowed to guard it
forever, and their Mongolian is different. They’re not alone. There are languages in
Russia that inherit over 90% of their words from Middle Mongol, while one in China keeps
less than half. I promised a lot of wandering, but the point is there’s not one Mongolian.
It’s a Mongolic family. Even my grammar, naïvely titled “Mongolian”, was teaching just one
variety: Khalkha. Linguists sifted through Mongolic cognates
to piece together a common ancestor. Proto-Mongolic had a /l/ not /ɮ/. It had no f’s. The /xaːŋ/
had /k/ not /x/ and final /n/ hadn’t merged with /ŋ/, so they were saying /kaxan/. /x/s
were dropping but lingered at the start of words: ulaan was *xula(x)an. Sometimes evidence conflicts. Was their garb a “depel” or a “dexel”? Or it reveals quirks. Mongols used echo nouns for “and things like that”: “mori mari” for “horses and more…ses”. It looked so much like Middle Mongol, like another
line of evidence pointing back to the exact same time. Only 800 years ago; that’s a very young family compared to others we’ve met. It’s hard to reach beyond that. So here he
sits. Before him, we detect Turkic loans, like his very title. Maybe dialects or even
a link to this mysterious script. After him, many Mongolic descendants. And between, a
“linguistic bottleneck” caused by a man who united a people and drew a line in the Gobi
sand from which emerged a language family. Through old texts and modern voices we still
hear echoes of when he made a decree, he made a decree, but without saying the sound /f/.
So add his linguistic legacy to the many accomplishments of a man who to us is Genghis Khan, who in
Mongolia is remembered as Chinggis Khaan, but who in his own tongue may have been Cinggis Kaxan. Stick around and subscribe for language.

100 thoughts on “What Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Sounded Like – and how we know

  1. I got a comment that lots of the Mongols had assimilated with the Russians. Well, first of all,  we need to specify the question – the Mongols or the whole mishmash of the Mongolic and Turk tribes making up the invasion force? I think it was the whole caboodle, not just the Mongols who also had to mix up with Chinese, Persian and North Indian blood. Secondly, did the Russians as such exist back then? They were various eastern Slavic tribes who were ancestors of what passes for the Russians now. The people of the Principality of Muscovy were called Muscovites back then, not Russians. The people of Novgorod back then were called Novgorodians, not Russians, those of the principality of Suzdal were Suzdalians and do on. As often happens in history, people tend to insert modern notions in old times. Like the notion the Middle Ages came up only in the 19th century. Before that, the notion of the Middle Ages hadn`t existed in people`s minds.

  2. Reminds me of Klingon. I wonder if the inspiration for Klingon was Mongolian?

  3. People call them the most violent barbarians, but they were the least of all, Europeans destroyed completely the identity of their conquered, forced them to speak their language. Mongols just wanted tribute & order, this sounds far more civilized.

    And some other Europeans like gringos didn't thought cultural imposition was enough they had to start an extermination process.

  4. 2:23 WTF the character 兰 in 兰州拉面 Lanzhou Noodles are written wrong

  5. Mongolians were only one of many tribes in the steppes, that's why the language is all mixed up.

  6. 2000 yrs ago, turks and mongols spoke the same language, over time it changed. Like old english and current english or english spoken in africa vs english spoken in carribeans.

  7. Middle age mongolian is different from current mongolian. Manchu influence is probably in it as well.

  8. I am mongolian. Your pronunciation is superb! I am so amazed, I really appreciate this video

  9. Genghis Khan spoke a Celtic language similar to the TOCHARIAN mummies found in Tarim Basin of western China which was occupied by Celtic red blonde haired people for thousands of years before Asiatic people arrived there . True Chinese description s of him were as tall heavily bearded redheaded with blue/grey eyes … historical falsification paints him as Asiatic! Check Robert Sepehr /Atlantean Gardens websites for proof of this .

  10. "Ordus meens palaces"? No,Ordu meens Cavalery Army and meens Order like give Order,take an Order.

  11. Cengiz Han spoke Mongolian but his army spoke,written in Old Turkish.
    And your Mongolian was good,you must be Turk ore Hungarian from USA.

  12. Mongols today: My ancestors plundered and raped across half the earth for centuries. FEELS PROUD Can I feel the same about my ancestors as a white man? Please oh pretty please?

  13. I would say that Mongolian and Proto-Slavic mixed in at some point. Probably when the Huns routed the Scythians in the area that is modern day Yugoslavia.

  14. So impressing. I am a Chinese Manchu. Manchu is the nation which created the last dynasty of China. Manchu and Mongolian are very similar ethnic. Both of us are the nation of the horseman. Even the character of Manchu language was imitated with Mongol. Also, grammar is identical. Unfortunately, we lost our national language, unlike the Mongol. I am a Mandarin native speaker, and I also can speak Shanghainese very well, but I can't speak even a little Manchu language. Our ancestors who from the north of Asia conquered the mainland of China with our military power. But we were conquered by Chinese culture. We abandoned our language, lifestyle, customs, and religion. We followed the Chinese culture, learned Chinese characters and Confucianist. We have changed our name as a typical Chinese name. And finally, we become Chinese. Once my friend asked me whether to learn Manchu language or not. I told him, if I have the same spirit, I prefer to learn another useful language, Spanish or Japanese, not a language which is almost dying.

  15. It's strange that the British don't pronounce Genghis as they should pronounce it if they write his name almost correctly.

  16. My iq just dropped this is some deep philosophy I think it made take me years to process what I just watched

  17. The old Mongolian pronounciation sounds like what Ghengis Kahn should sound like.

  18. Dude just thank you for sharing your knowledge, I find linguistics very very interesting, but I don't think I would be able to know half these amazing things

    You take your passion and share with us, and throught this , you touch our lifes in more aspects that you realise

  19. ❤️❤️❤️❤️I LOVE THIS CHANNEL!!!❤️❤️❤️❤️ (I'm a new sub😉) what joy! To find a font of intelligent videos and conversations!! I love this!!! Post videos more often 😉 like maybe about proto-Finnish, Uralic languages, or perhaps thoughts on Sumerian pronunciation???👍

  20. "horde" and "hoard" are variations of the word "herd." A horde of people is a herd of people. A hoard of gold is a herd of gold.

  21. sorry, we view this and we already know how REAL MONGOLS pronounce it. also, check it out if you didnt know em, I'm making this comment out of pure love of their music.

  22. You know that when ancient Chinese people call a Mongolian king, we call him Ke-Han, that is obviously came from Kahan, so I can asure that you are very right on that.

  23. Omg! Im Mongolian i loved what u did! Its amazing! Especially ur pronunciations!!!! Blow my mind!!!!

  24. Dude was a veritable proto-Tolkien with his language tweaking skills.

  25. I have a whole series about genghis khans life. Its in Mongolian tho. Do u want it

  26. ya'll dont know what the f#ck youre talking about, your just saying sh#t and rambling

  27. Even in Urdu(and Hindi/Sanskrit) genghis Khan has long been known as Changeez khan so it’s probably more of an asiatic versus European linguistic thing.

  28. İf Chengiz khan and others historic figures are related to mongolia's history why turkey claims them as theirs and teach this in schools? Even some persian figures too. Why do goverment makes these historic figures seem turkish when they arent turkish?? İ thought these people were turkish.

  29. We were learning about this, And I heard Eminem Mentioned him, Then I saw this! Is he trying to say something?

  30. I'm sorry for the Mongolians here, but i really want a House of the Rising Sun with Mongolian throat singing cover

  31. What am I waiting for? I’m too lazy to look for the part when he imitates him….help meeeeee

  32. Waste of fucking time. Understanding languages is great I'm all for that, but I don't need a mono about coffee shop

  33. I'm mongolian mate xD omg your reading mongolian reading is freaking funny i laughed so hard and ya nailed it mate

  34. Its funny that conquered people were able to hold their own and all mongols have been assimilated with local turkic tribes and there was no linguistic influence

  35. May be we share the same race I.e Mongolian Family
    Coz we look alike ,our food habit, we have a name Mongko, we hunt for heads(back then ) and even the language we sound some what common
    Check out Nagas Of north east India

  36. Khaan needs to have a multi season drama on HBO. The new GoT. It’s got everything, drama, adventure, politics, romance, rescues, war, friendships, enemies, betrayals! He was a very complicated man. You wouldn’t even have to make anything up!

    It’s be a hard pitch in America, cause there’d be no white people :/ (Or very few.) It’d be a great opportunity for Asian actors though. A wide variety of Asian ethnicities too.

  37. What does it mean "by heading three blocks to library" (particularly in regard to "three blocks" after "by heading").
    PS. I know that such construct "by heading somewhere" means that a person is doing something while he/she just goes somewhere (to some said place). I beg pardon for own english skills in advance.

  38. in some arabic hisorical books the word "khaqan خاقان" was used to refer to mangolian knigs as it used also the word "khan خان" which the turikish kings used also either in ottoman empire or safavid empire and so on!

  39. Swedes were discovered to founded Russia and the first tribes before Russia was Russia and before Swedes founded the land were stated to be physically closer to the Germanic as well, more closer to the physically stronger Germanic members such as Austrians, Germans, Dutch, Danes, etc, Finnish were partially closer to the Swedes but were mix of Mongol heritage and nowadays they are not as mixed, only a minority percentage are and they only have 2% or 4% Mongol in them

  40. Listened to the Hu and suddenly I find this. This is not a coincidence, this planned, and convenient..

  41. Chingis khan commanded to kill many people.-1
    2–Kasachstan people told me that today Mongolians are not Mongolians of 1200th.different other tribes moved into Mongolia.
    Mongolians in 1920 were surprised to hear that they had Chingis khan. they didnt know .

  42. Uuurh, uuurh, dribble, drool, Genghis Khan clever, me no poop pants today! Now, that's Mongolian!

  43. Well most Chinese people have his blood because the Mongolians came and raped a lot of Chinese women. So many that almost no women were unpenetrated.
    True story told by a Chinese person.
    Hes a Dickhead.

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