Word Play

In spite of using Cyrillic alphabet for writing, the sound of spoken Mongolian feels like you are being sandblasted.  The most common sounds in Mongolian are “khrts”, “chrkhlr” and “tlkh” and every sentence sounds like it ends with a triple exclamation mark.   When two Mongols greet each other unexpectedly behind your back, the body’s natural reaction is to startle and duck.

The Lonely Planet writers  –  with their love for a juicy metaphor –  compare the spoken Mongolian to the “sound of two cats fighting, one finally throwing up on another”.  And they are right.   Here are some options in Mongolian for “making love” (pronounced with extended vowels, heavy aspiration and forceful emphasis):






Just as French is commonly described as the language of love, Mongolian sounds like the perfect language to coordinate the wipe-out of them weaker nations off the face of the planet.  Try this phrase: “Bee chumd khayartai”.   Now say it louder.  And more forceful.  And now more sternly.  Now you are getting closer.  Sounds like “execute every one of them”, doesn’t it?

Actually, it’s Mongolian for “I love you”.

But it was the shortest word in Mongolian language that really baffled me.  When I first got to Ulan Bator, every day somebody would yell “Hui!” at me and wave their hand.  The thing is – “hui” in my native Russian means “dick”.  Considering Russia had been imposing Soviet culture here for decades (Russian had been mandatory in schools until recently), I was sure that was the Russian cuss word they were throwing at me.  Naturally, my mood was gloomy that whole week.

“What do you mean, dick?” – I pondered, checking myself out in the mirror.  I tried to change into a long modest skirt, and from the skirt back into the pants; I tried to smile at people, or avoid looking them in the eye – no matter what I did, at least once a day a “Hui!” came towards me, often with a wave.

Finally, on day seven I got smart enough to ask somebody.  Turned out, “hui” did not mean a “dick” from borrowed Russian, but a “hey, you!” in authentic Mongolian.   Apparently, all those Mongols were just being friendly to me, a complete stranger, and I suddenly thought – oh, what a beautiful language this is.

"Do not litter" sign

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