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Mongols and Kazakhs

Mongolia's population is ethnically quite homogenous; about 90 percent of the populace speaks one of several dialects of the Mongol language. Mongol is an Altaic language, related to the Turkic languages, such as Uzbek, Turkish, and Kazakh, and more distantly to Korean and perhaps, in the opinion of some linguists, to Japanese. Except for the dialect of the Buryat Mongols, who predominantly inhabit the area around Lake Baykal in Siberia, and the dialects of scattered isoglosses in Mongolia, all dialects of Mongol spoken in Mongolia are readily understood by native speakers of the language. The Khalkha Mongols are the largest element of the population. According to the 1979 census, they made up 77.5 percent of the population. The term khalkha, which means "shield," has been used at least since the mid-sixteenth century to refer to the nomads of the traditional Mongol heartland of high steppes and mountains. They have been the most thoroughly pastoral of all the Mongol tribes or subethnic groups, the nomads' nomads, and the least affected by foreign influences. In the twentieth century, they occupied most of the central and the eastern areas of the country. Khalkha Mongol is the standard language; it is taught in the schools and is used for all official business. The written language is based on the Khalkha of the Ulaanbaatar region, and when Mongol script was replaced by a Cyrillic alphabet between 1941 and 1946, the Russian Cyrillic was modified to suit the phonetic structure of Khalkha.

Ethnic Composition, 1979 Census

Ethnic GroupEstimated Population (in 1000s)Percentage of Population
Source: Based on information from Mongolia, Central Statistical Board,
National Economy of the MPR in 1981, Ulaanbaatar, 1982, translated in JPRS-MON-86-001, January 27, 1986, 13.

Another 12 percent of the population in 1979 spoke a variety of western or northern Mongol dialects, such as Dorbet, Dzakchin, Buryat, or the southeastern Dariganga. Speakers of these dialects were concentrated in their ancestral territories in far western or northwestern Mongolia in Hovd, Uvs, and Hovsgol aymags, or along the Chinese frontier in the southeast. Ethnic distinctions among the various Mongol subgroups have been relatively minor; they have been expressed in oral traditions of historical conflicts among the groups, in such ethnic markers as women's headdresses or the shapes of boots, and in such minor variations in pastoral technique as placement of camels' nose pegs (see Mongolia in Transition, 1368-1911). Apart from immediate adaptation to different environments, Mongol culture has been relatively uniform over large areas, and dialect or tribal differences have not become significant political or social issues.

Mongolia's largest minority, accounting for 5.3 percent of the population in 1979, is the Kazakh people of the Altai. The Kazakhs, who also live in the Soviet Union's Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and in China's Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, are a pastoral, Turkic-speaking, and traditionally Muslim people who live in Bayan-Olgiy Aymag in extreme western Mongolia. Bayan-Olgiy is a largely Kazakh administrative unit, where the Kazakh language is used in the primary schools and in local administrative offices. There is a fairly high level of contact with the Soviet Union's Kazakh Republic, which provides textbooks for the schools. Kazakhs of the Altai traditionally have hunted from horseback with trained golden eagles on their wrists and greyhounds slung across the saddle - both to be launched at game - and pictures of eagle-bearing Kazakhs are common in Mongolian tourist literature. Mongol is taught as the second language and Russian as the third in Kazakh schools, and bilingual Kazakhs appear to participate in the Mongolian professional and bureaucratic elite on an equal footing with Mongols. Kazakhs also make up a disproportionate number of the relatively highly paid workers in the coal mines of north-central Mongolia; this situation may indicate either limited opportunities in the narrow valleys of Bayan-Olgiy Aymag or government efforts to favor a potentially restive minority, or both.

Last Update: 2010-12-07