The Mongolian languages are spoken in the Republic of Mongolia, in the Russian Federation (mainly in the Republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia), in China (Inner Mongolia, some parts of Manchuria, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai) and in Afghanistan.
The Mongolian languages form a top-level constituent of the Altaic language family. Other branches of the Altaic language family are the Turkic and the Tungus language families.
The subdivision of the Mongolian languages is still a subject of dispute. Modern approaches subclassify them into a central and a peripheral group. The central group consists of the varieties of Mongolian Proper and Buryat on the one side and of Kalmyk-Oirat and Darkhat on the other side. The peripheral group comprises the vernacular Mogholi at the western margin of the Mongolian-speaking area and the languages Dagur, Bonan, Dongxiang, Tu and East Yugur at the eastern margin. One characteristic difference between the two groups is the preservation of more phonological archaisms in the languages of the peripheral group.
The Mongols were united under Genghis Khan at the beginning of the 13th century. Under his leadership they formed a powerful army that advanced to the west towards Europe and to the east towards China. They created an empire that extended over major parts of China, Myanmar, Korea, Russia, Ukraine, Iran and Turkey. The Mongolian empire was the largest empire in world history. It disintegrated in the second half of the 14th century.
The historical development of the Mongolian languages can be classified into three stages: 1) Ancient Mongolian (12th century), 2) Middle Mongolian (from the 13th to the 16th century) and 3) New Mongolian (from the 17th century until today).
Ancient Mongolian is only attested by secondary sources. The first written testimonies of Mongolian emerged at the beginning of the Middle Mongolian period. The first exhaustive text dates back to the year 1225 and was already written with the Mongolian vertical script, which is based on the Uyghur alphabet. This script was in use for most Mongolian languages until the middle of the 20th century. The Oirat-Kalmyk language, however, used a different alphabet, that was also based on the Uyghur script.
The classical period of Mongolian literature started shortly after the Mongols converted to Buddhism in 1575. A huge amount of Buddhist texts was translated into Mongolian from Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. The classical period lasted until the early years of the 18th century. The Mongolian Yuan dynasty in China (1279-1368) established its own writing system, the Hp'ags-Pa alphabet. Under the hegemony of the Soviet Union the Cyrillic alphabet for Halh Mongolian was introduced in the Republic of Mongolia in 1944. In the early thirties of the 20th century, under the rule of the Soviet Union, Latin based alphabets were adopted for Buryat and Oirat-Kalmyk. These were replaced by scripts derived from the Cyrillic characters in the late thirties. As a consequence of the breakdown of the Soviet Union and growing Mongol nationalism the vertical alphabet was reintroduced in the Republic of Mongolia in 1993.
The classical form of literary Mongolian, which was fixed in the 17th century, has been the common written language for the major part of the Mongolian peoples until the 20th century. Classical Mongolian has always been an artificial language. It is still in use in Inner Mongolia in China. The Halh dialect of Mongolian Proper is the official language of the Republic of Mongolia. Kalmyk-Oirat is one of the official languages of the Republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation and Buryat is one of the official languages of the Republic of Buryatia in the Russian Federation.
The split-up of Mongolian into single languages happened very recently. It did not occur until the Middle Mongolian period. The peripheral and the central group of the Mongolian languages parted first, then differentiation inside the central group took place. The languages of the central group are very similar to eachother and it is still a subject of debate, whether the varieties of Mongolian Proper and Buryat form one single language rather than two separate languages.
Mongolian languages have a rich vocalism, but a relatively small amount of consonants.
A major feature of Mongolian morpho-phonology is vowel harmony. Vowel harmony can be described as a set of progressive assimilation rules that only affect vowels. There are two types of vowel harmony that occur in Mongolian: palatal and labial vowel harmony. Palatal vowel harmony indicates, that in a given word there can appear either only back vowels or only front vowels. Labial harmony means that a non-high vowel gets rounded by a rounded vowel of the directly preceding syllable.
Most Mongolian languages have a non-distinctive dynamic lexical accent, which is positioned on the first syllable or on the first long vowel of the word.
Mongolian languages have agglutinative morphology: Morphemes have clear-cut boundaries, grammatical morphemes mostly bear one single meaning, the word stem is not modified by internal inflection like 'umlaut' or 'ablaut'. Mongolian morphology is almost exclusively suffixing. Nouns and verbs are highly inflected. The noun has seven cases. The adjective is not inflected and does not agree with its head noun. Agreement between the head noun and its modifiers and specifiers exists to some degree in pre-classical Mongolian. In the classical language the first person plural pronoun distinguishes an inclusive and an exclusive form. This feature is also found in many Tungus languages. The morphology of the verb is very complex although there are no person endings. The verbal system is characterised by its large amount of imperative forms, indicative forms, participles and converbs. Converbs are special verb forms, which are neither conjugated nor nominal. In linguistic literature they are sometimes called 'gerunds' or 'verbal adverbs'. They act as adverbs, conjunctions and often they meet the functions of subordinate clauses. Most finite verbal forms diachronically derive from nominalizations and periphrastic constructions with auxiliary verbs.
Mongolian languages generally use postpositions. Adverbs, postpositions and conjunctions are almost exclusively of nominal, adjectival or verbal origin.
The unmarked order of constituents in simple transitive sentences is SOV. Modifiers like adjectives, adverbs and possessors generally precede their head. Alternative orders of constituents are possible under certain contextual conditions.