By Paul Goble
In 1931, the Soviets imposed a Latin script on the Buryat language, and in 1939, a Cyrillic-based one. But today increasing numbers of Buryats are studying their ancient vertical script which links them with the larger Mongol world of which they are a part – they were called Buryat Mongols until 1958 — and with Tibetan Buddhism and especially with the Dalai Lama.
“In contemporary Buryatia,” one Buryat blogger says, “in the framework of religious rebirth and interest in its own past, there is a great interest in the study of the Old Mongol language. It is curious,” he says, that [that] language often is understood not as a separate language … but as a writing system for Buryat; that is, the border between the two language systems is not felt.”
The blogger adds: “This is a quite interesting socio-linguistic phenomenon,” one that has analogues with the situation in Greece. And today “courses for the study of ‘Old Mongol writing’ exist in large numbers, in datsans [Buddhist religious shrines] and in [nominally secular] language schools” (buryaad-oronda.livejournal.com/696.html).
Only three Mongol languages have official status: Khalka Mongol in Mongolia itself and Buryat and Kalmyk in their respective republics inside the Russian Federation. Other Mongol languages – and there are about a dozen—are spoken in Chinese Inner Mongolia, and there people still use the Vertical script, albeit unofficially.
Until the 1930s, the Buryat blogger writes, the Buryat language was “officially called Buryat Mongol and lost the second part of its name in the course of a pitiless [Soviet] struggle with all possible pan movements, in this case with pan-Mongolism.” The change in name and writing system cut the Buryats off from other Mongols.
The ancient Vertical script, he continues, had been converted over time “into a certain analogue of Latin for medieval Europe or let us say classical Arabic for Arabs and the Islamic world, Persian for several Iranian peoples, and Old Church Slavonic for Orthodox Slavs,” a common literary language from which speakers in different regions increasingly diverged.
The Vertical Mongol script because of its religious ties to Tibetan Buddhism was also used by other peoples who had their own languages but used the Mongol one for religious purposes. Among these peoples are present-day Altays and Tuvins, both of which are Turkic peoples.
The Buryat language, the Buryat blogger says, thus has a different status from many of the languages of peoples of the Russian Federation: It has its own ancient script, its own lexical riches, and it has the ability to find words in ancient Mongol rather than have to take them from Russian when something new appears, must as modern Greeks do with classical Greek.
The Soviets tried to break this tradition in order to “destroy the single cultural space of the Mongol peoples” must as they had done with the Tajiks and Persians. But they went even further in their linguistic engineering: the Soviets chose to build modern Buryat around the dialect most distance from Khalka Mongol.
It is true that a large share of Buryats speak that dialect or one close to it, but there exists “an alternative literary language,” one based on a southern dialect which is “linguistically much closer to Khalka Mongol.” That dialect is now being revived by the current Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, “for whom this dialect is native.”
Thus both the efforts of the leader of the Traditional Sangkha of Russia and of ordinary Buryats interested in their past are contributing to a growing sense of “the unity of a single cultural space for the Mongol peoples,” the foundation for the re-emergence of the pan-Mongol ideas Moscow has tried so hard to wipe out.