So How’s Your Mongolian?

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I only ask because, would you know, some people can actually answer the question.

Yes, for most of us the closest we get to Mongolia is this but then there’s Seamus. Seamus and his wife Rachel are from Sydney, but they currently live in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. “What are they doing there?” I hear you ask? Well it’s a good question with a fascinating answer.

Seamus was part of my class at Moore Theological College. It became clear very early on that he was a bit of a genius, particularly in the field of linguistics. When most of us were finishing off the vocab part of our NT greek exam he was walking out having completed every section, and written his corrections to the questions. When we were mucking about in our spare time, Seamus was nailing Latin and Gaelic. For fun.

Now like me, you’ve probably met some very clever people but that’s not the same as meeting someone impressive. Seamus is impressive not because he’s clever but because he’s chosen to use the brains that God gave him to serve the God who gave him those brains. And in Seamus’ case he and Rachel have decided to get into theological education with Pioneers – specifically Mongolian. And to get the best results in learning the language you have to go native. So they did. Which means a few months ago they got on a plane and flew to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.

Impressed? I am. And because of teh intarwebs we’re able to keep up with what they’re doing. Seamus maintains 2 blogs. The first is about his language study/work. His latest post on learning Mongolian prompted me to write this post.

Just for your curiosities’ sake.

Mongolian has a reputation for being hard, but I don’t think it’s too hard. The first obstacle is the sound system. There are four o/y vowels that can sound quite similar to English speakers, and that takes a while to get used to. Also, learning the Cyrillic alphabet might hold you up. I’d learnt the Greek alphabet and so I was halfway there.

One of the main principles in pronouncing words seems to be that after the first syllable, reduce all short vowel syllables to nothing, just cut them out and string together the consonants. In practice this means a combination of consonant clusters and schewa vowels.

Mongolian has 8 cases, which if you, as I, studied an Indo-european language might sound troublesome. Actually, it’s not so bad, because there are not really different declensions, and they are all suffixes that do not normally change the root, so really it’s just tacking endings on to words. The only variation within a case ending is in the vowel, and it always simply matches the vowels of the word itself, so that is not too hard either.

The cases are:
Nominative (unmarked), Accusative (only marked for definite direct objects), Genitive, Dative/Locative (to/for/at), Instrumental (by), Comitative (with), Ablative (from), Directional (to[wards]). See, compare to Latin, and all they’ve done is clarify the 500 usages of the Ablative for you, so that is actually helpful!

On to verbs. There are a bunch of tenses, including 4 main past tenses. Oh no you say. Good news, say I, as there are no conjugations to worry about, and verbs are uninflected for person and number. So that’s just one set of endings, depending on the vowels (so 4 very similar sets of endings. Suddenly Mongolian is looking like an easy language. Plus, the tense you use often depends on whether the action was personally witnessed or not, so the choice of tense encodes some extra meaning. What a nifty language!

Basic Syntax is not overly complicated, just remember STOP: Subject, Time, Object, Predicate. Actually, anything adverbial can just get chucked in the T-slot. This is practically Latinate, good for all those classical scholars looking to take up Mongolian.

Okay, those are some things. If I think of more interesting factoids about Mongolian I will post them.

He and Rachel also maintain a more general blog about life in Mongolia.

Another week here and life trundles along. Language classes seem to be going well. On Wednesday night we had some drama, as the people above us had left taps on while the water was off, resulting in water running into our apartment once the water came back on. With some help we had building staff turn the water off for our stairwell of units, so that was a blessing.

Also on the water front, we haven’t had hot water for several days (related??), which means no hot showers, only lukewarm to cold ones. This hasn’t been fun.

Lastly, today we bought a Mongolian language Bible, which hopefully we will start using to learn even more Mongolia!

So how’s your Mongolian? Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Why not pop by their blog and encourage them? And if it’s your thing, pray for them that they would never lose sight of the Lord Jesus Christ who has called them to this incredible work and that they would continue to find joy in it. It’s an awesome thing that they’re doing, but I’m sure if you told Seamus that he’d just tell you that it was what he was made for. And he’d be right. Which is another reason to pray and give thanks to God.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Ken West


    Strangely, after reading your post, the words for two musicals are swimming in my head.

    The first is from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you had feelings for this [place]”. The original word is “beast”. (I’m not dissing Mongolia, btw, I’m just thinking about yaks.)

    The second is from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!: “[Ulan Bator]!” (words which have the same number of syllables as “Oklahoma”.)

    Now I see a vision of you as the first Anglican Bishop of Mongolia… riding a yak and singing “Ulan Bator! Where the wing comes right behind the rain!”


    Ken “the Wild” West

  2. Steve Martin

    Mongolia seems so far away. Almost like the other end of the world.

    I would love to go there someday.

    God bless you in your work there. Hand over Christ!

    1. David Ould

      thanks Steve. It’s not actually me in Mongolia – follow the links to leave some encouragement for Seamus!

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