The phonology of Mongolian. By Jan-Olof Svantesson, Anna Tsendina, Anastasia Karlsson, and Vivan Franzén. (The phonology of the world’s languages.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. 334. ISBN 0199260176. $125 (Hb).
Reviewed by Jason Brown, University of British Columbia
This book, a comprehensive treatment of the phonology of Mongolian, is the culmination of many years of research on the topic by the authors. It provides an overview of the various aspects of the phonology of the language, and also gives both a synchronic and a diachronic treatment of Mongolian. Halh Mongolian (commonly known as Khalkha) is the primary language studied in the book; the authors, however, have given an extensive overview of the phonologies of all of the Mongolic languages, including their geographic locations, phonemic inventories, their major phonological processes (where divergent from Halh), and their historical development.
The initial chapters provide a description of the consonants and vowels of Mongolian, followed by an overview of the phonemic contrasts. Issues such as labialization, palatalization, and vowel reduction are discussed. Further chapters cover the major phonological aspects of Mongolian, including syllabification and epenthesis, prosody (including accent and prominence, intonation, and word stress), reduplication, and of course, the well-known case of vowel harmony. Also covered are the issues concerning syllable structure, the alternations between schwa and zero, and full and reduced vowels, as well as consonant cluster phonotactics and cooccurrence constraints. The discussion of vowel harmony includes an in-depth synchronic analysis, as well as a diachronic treatment, where the authors trace the variation in vowel harmony between the various Mongolic languages back to diachronic sound changes and the restructuring of vowel inventories. The same type of analysis is given for stop deaspiration, palatalization, and labialization. The book also provides a fairly detailed discussion of the various writing systems that have been used for Mongolian, including historical scripts, and those used today, most notably the Cyrillic and the modern Mongolian scripts.
There are many chapters dedicated to the historical aspects of Mongolian. The authors reconstruct the phonology of Proto-Mongolian, and illustrate the sound changes that have shaped the present-day phonologies of the various Mongolic languages. The treatment of Old Mongolian includes the various stages of that language and detailed phonological reconstructions. Each of the Mongolic languages, in turn, receives a synchronic phonological treatment. There is also an extended comparative vocabulary of the various languages, which allows the reader to identify phonological variations in cognate forms.
This book is comprehensive in its scope; not only is a synchronic treatment of Mongolian given, but also a diachronic treatment that includes the reconstruction of Old Mongolian and the pathways that each of the Mongolic languages followed in their sound changes and development. The book stands as a model; it is written in a fairly theory-neutral fashion, with more attention paid to the sound patterns than to theoretical approaches to those patterns. Such an in-depth analysis of a language, and family of languages, will be interesting to most phoneticians and phonologists who read it. It is accessible both to phonologists and to scholars of Mongolian.