Language of the Month: Kalmyk (Хальмг келн/Xal'mg keln)
When we think of the peoples of Europe, what kind of images come to your mind in regards to their religion, language, and appearance? Most people would imagine Caucasoid peoples practicing Christianity and speaking Indo-European languages like Belarusian, Frisian, Romansh, and Cornish. A few may think of the Muslim Bosnians and Albanians, the Pagan Maris, the Hungarians, Crimeans, Circassians, and Basques who speak languages that are completely different from that of most Europeans, the Maltese with their Semitic language and heritage, or perhaps the Kazakhs, Nogais, and Nenets who live on the fringes of Europe and have Mongoloid appearances (and are often seen as not European at all in the case of the Kazakhs). Very few of us, however, would think of Europe's only Buddhist nation. That nation, located on the coast of the Caspian Sea, is Kalmykia (Хальмг Таңһч in Kalmyk).
The Kalmyks are notable for being the only Buddhist and only Mongolic nation in Europe and also for being one of the few Mongoloid ethnicities (and perhaps the most populous) in Europe. Kalmykia is a constituent part of the Russian Federation and has the status of being a "Republic" which allows a stronger local government, another official language alongside Russian, and increased autonomy; an example being how Kalmykia is allowed its own parliament: the People's Khural of Kalmykia (Хальмг Таңһчин Улсин Хурал in Kalmyk). The Kalmyks currently comprise 57% of Kalmykia's population and the region is called the "Chess Capital of the World" due to the ambitions of its former president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and also has numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Their language is part of the Mongolic language family, which also includes Mongolian, Buryat, Oirat, and Khamnigan. Estimates on the number of speakers vary because Kalmyk is considered by many to be a variant of Oirat (this is in many ways true as Kalmyks and Oirats are essentially the same nation and Kalmyk is formally called Kalmyk-Oirat) and as a result, Oirat speakers in China and Mongolia are sometimes counted as Kalmyk speakers and vice versa which results in estimates on the number of speakers ranging from 80,500 to 500,000. The language is considered endangered as many Kalmyks can only speak Russian, only a few children become fluent speakers, and very few settlements in Kalmykia use Kalmyk as their main language.
The Kalmyks were originally a part of the Oirats (western Mongols) that established and ruled the Dzungarian Khanate in Dzungaria (modern day Xinjiang) and western Mongolia. In 1618, a group of Oirats decided to leave Dzungaria and arrived in the lower Volga region in around 1630. Although the area was claimed by Imperial Russia, the Russian government did not administer it so the Oirats were able to establish their own independent Khanate and decided to call themselves Kalmyk. The exact origin of this name is unknown. The most popular theories are that it comes from the Mongolic stem kali- (to fly away) and the suffix –mag, which would imply the Kalmyks were "people who flew away from their country" (as they were emigrants from Dzungaria, this makes sense in context); the other widely cited theory is that the ethnonym comes from what a Turkic ethnic group referred to them as and means "remnant" or "those who remained". The Kalmyk Khanate became an important ally of the Russian Empire as the Kalmyks protected Russia's southern borders by fighting Muslim and Turkic states like the Ottoman Empire and also participated in Russia's major wars such as the Great Northern War (where they played a major role in the decisive Battle of Poltava) and the Napoleonic Wars (where they acted as guerilla fighters hindering the French Army during their 1812 invasion of Russia and later entered Paris along with the other victor armies). In 1669, Kalmykia came under the rule of their most powerful leader, Ayuka Khan. Under his rule, the Khanate reached the zenith of its economic, political, and military power as Ayuka was able to strengthen and maintain connections to Dzungaria, subjugated the Nogais and Mangyshlak Turkmens, and gained the praise of Tsar Peter I on several occasions. However, towards the end of his life, the Khanate started to experience problems such as disputes over succession for the position of Khan and increased scrutiny from Russia. Kalmykia's golden age ended with the death of Ayuka Khan in 1724 and this was exploited by the Russian government via Russian encroachment into Kalmyk internal affairs, the settling of Russian and German colonists on Kalmyk land, and pressuring Kalmyks to convert to Orthodox Christianity. This culminated in Ubashi Khan, the last Khan of Kalmykia, taking 200,000 Kalmyks and leaving the area in 1771 for Dzungaria; only 96,000 made it there alive and they were immediately enslaved upon arrival by the Manchu Empire (whom was responsible for committing genocide on the Oirats remaining in Dzungaria in the late 1750s). Not all of the Kalmyks, however, were able to leave and this led to the subsequent abolishment of the Kalmyk Khanate by Catherine the Great and the area being annexed by Russia and being put under the administration of the governor of Astrakhan. The Kalmyks that remained continued to roam the steppe as nomads and still served in the Imperial Russian armed forces. They gradually started to settle in houses and temples instead of their Yurts and this led to the creation of Elista (Элст in Kalmyk), the current capital of Kalmykia, in 1865.
When the Russian Revolution and the consequent Russian Civil War erupted in 1917, the entire Russian Empire was thrown into chaos. Although Kalmyks were somewhat divided over supporting either the Red or White armies due to resentment towards the Tsar and because Vladimir Lenin (who was a quarter Kalmyk) had appealed to the Kalmyks for help and promised them autonomy, the vast majority chose to support the White side due to the Bolsheviks being fervently anti-religious, desecrating Buddhist monuments, favoring Russian peasantry over Kalmyk nomads, and opposing traditional ways of life. After most of the former Russian Empire was reorganized as the Soviet Union, the Kalmyks were given their own autonomous region in 1920 (the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast, later upgraded to the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1935) and allowed to practice Buddhism freely as the USSR sought to bring Mongolia and Tibet within its sphere of influence and being benevolent to the Kalmyks was essential for this. However, the Kalmyks suffered immensely during this period in other ways as their Buddhist monasteries were closed down and often destroyed, compulsory public education led to the Russification of Kalmyk youth, and the Kalmyks were forced to comply with the collectivization of livestock and agriculture (leading to a famine where tens of thousands died). This led to a revolt in 1930 where the Kalmyks tried to reestablish their sovereignty. Unfortunately, the Kalmyks were crushed within a few months by the Soviet Red Army. The repressive policies used by the Soviets were the main reason about 5000 Kalmyks supported Nazi Germany when the German Army reached Kalmykia in 1942 by forming the Kalmykian Voluntary Cavalry Corps (Хальмг Мөрн Церг). Nevertheless, the majority of Kalmyks supported the USSR and thousands of Kalmyks soldiers became decorated war heroes. These include 21 soldiers who achieved the USSR's most prestigious reward: Hero of the Soviet Union. Despite this, Joseph Stalin accused the entire nation of treason and decided to punish them all in an event codenamed Operation Ulusy.
Operation Ulusy commenced on December 28 1943. On this day, members of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) stormed Kalmykia and broke into the homes of every Kalmyk and stuffed them into cargo wagons and deported them to Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Kalmyks were given little time to prepare, and this, combined with unsanitary conditions as well as overcrowding on the trains led to 97,000 Kalmyks (about half the population) dying. Furthermore, the people were stigmatized as they were branded as traitors by the Soviet government and this went as far as the government spreading rumors of Kalmyks being cannibals in the areas they were deported to, which resulted in discrimination against them. Due to the stigmatization of Kalmyks as well as their scattering across Siberia and Eastern Russia, many Kalmyks were discouraged from using their language or teaching it to their subsequent children and this is the main reason Kalmyk is currently endangered (Kalmyk children born after deportation were almost never taught Kalmyk and became monolingual Russian speakers for the most part though some mastered the local language of their area). Some Kalmyks managed to flee to Western Europe when the German army retreated and later fled to the United States after World War II and established a community in Howell, New Jersey (they were allowed to immigrate because they were considered members of the "White" race despite being Mongoloids as Kalmykia was part of Europe). While Kalmyks were allowed to return to Kalmykia and reestablish it in 1957 by a decree issued by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (who had denounced Stalin), their culture and especially their language had suffered great damage and the Kalmyk language never recovered its position as the dominant language of Kalmykia as the area was filled with Russian settlers who became a significant minority in Kalmykia that insisted on the use of Russian. Soviet policies encouraging Russification and assimilation exacerbated the situation. Kalmykia's territory was also smaller than it was before the war as some territory was not returned from Dagestan and Astrakhan Oblast and the population of the Kalmyks did not recover to their pre-deportation levels until 1970. Consequently, this event is seen as an act of genocide in Kalmykia and by many others in the former USSR.
Nowadays, Kalmykia is a member of the Russian Federation as the Republic of Kalmykia and has been part of Russia since 1992. It is one of Russia's poorest republics and has a high fertility rate compared to the rest of the federation. Although Kalmyk is the official language alongside Russian, it is rarely spoken by the younger generation and the local government is doing much to change this via the education system. Other measures taken to revive the language include legislation mandating that the Kalmyk language be encouraged as much as possible and the declaration of a "Year of Kalmyk Language" in 2008 to encourage young people to use the language more (families who actively used Kalmyk domestically were also offered rewards). Kalmykia initially sought independence after the fall of the USSR but couldn't support itself economically which led to it joining Russia. Despite this, former Kalmyk president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov once threatened to secede from Russia in 1998 when the federal government in Moscow displeased him.
One of the peculiarities of the Kalmyk language is that it's possessed three different writing systems throughout its history. Traditionally, the language (when it was just Oirat) was written using the old Uyghur script after it was adapted for the Mongolian alphabet. In the 17th Century, a Kalmyk Buddhist monk named Zaya Pandita developed a new script called "Todo Bichig" (Clear Script) by modifying the Mongolian alphabet to make it more suitable for Kalmyk-Oirat and translated works into the language using it. Todo Bichig remained the dominant script amongst the Kalmyks until 1924, when they were forced to switch to the Cyrillic script (the form used is identical to the Russian alphabet except with the addition of six more letters: "Әә/Ää", "Һһ/Hh", "Җҗ/Jj", "Ңң/Ññ", "Өө/Öö", and "Үү/Üü"). In 1931, the script was once again changed, this time to the Latin alphabet as part of the Soviet Latinization policy applied to most minority languages and this was again changed in 1937 when the Cyrillic alphabet was reintroduced and has been used ever since. Acquiring a Kalmyk keyboard to type these letters can be difficult so using an online keyboard or finding a font to download (difficult for non-Russian speakers) is recommended (although the keyboard is easy to find and download for a Smartphone). From a grammatical and lexical viewpoint, Kalmyk is mutually intelligible with Oirat varieties spoken in Xinjiang and Mongolia (the main difference being that the latter still use Todo Bichig) and has many similarities with Buryat and Mongolian (this is especially prevalent in the numbers). The former has a similar word for "hello" (Мендэ in Buryat, Мендвт in Kalmyk) and shares Russian loanwords while the latter has many similar sounding words and phrases to the point that some Mongolians try to convince foreigners to learn their language before studying Kalmyk. An example is in the sentences "Арh уга." (Kalmyk) and "Арга үгүй." (Mongolian) which both mean "No way!" (though the connotation is more akin to that of Japanese "とんでもない！"). Moreover, the syntax, like the other Mongolic languages, has vague resemblances to the structures of Japanese and Russian. Resemblance to Japanese grammar can be seen in the sentence "Би чини эцкчн." (I am your father.) where Би corresponds to "I", чини corresponds to "your" and эцкчн corresponds to "father". The word чини is formed by taking чи (you) and adding a possessive suffix (-ни) that acts like the Japanese suffix の. Another example can be seen in how nouns can be used to denote one object or multiple. The word багш (teacher), can be used to just denote one teacher or several and the same can be done with Japanese 先生. Another resemblance to Japanese can be seen in the usage of euphemisms in everyday speech. An example of this is the phrase Мөрән үзх? which is a polite way of saying "to go to the toilet" but literally means "to check how the horses are outside" ("мөрн" means horse, "үзх" means to have a look) and originated from Kalmyk dinner etiquette where one was not supposed to announce his/her intent to use the toilet and had to say this excuse before leaving the Yurt. This phrase is remarkably similar to the Japanese phrase お手洗いに行くwhich literally means to "go wash hands" but is a polite way of saying "to go to the toilet". Similarities to Russian grammar can be seen in how there's no equivalent to the English third person singular present of be (is). In the sentences "Тер эмчв?" (Kalmyk) and "Он врач?" (Russian), which both mean "Is he a doctor?", we can see that there only two words, one meaning "He" (Тер and Он) and the other meaning "doctor" (эмчв and врач).
Resources for learning Kalmyk (or other variants of Oirat) are incredibly difficult to come across and this is especially true when searching for resources in English. Although it's easy to find sites that give out basic greetings or a few basic phrases (such as the unfinished Kalmyk phrasebook on Wikivoyage), actual learning materials are very rare except in Russian and possibly Mongolian (if one is fluent in Russian, high quality Kalmyk-Russian dictionaries like Multitran will become accessible; the well made explanation on Kalmyk grammar on Kalmyk Wikipedia will also become usable). Speaking to actual Kalmyks online to practice is difficult (finding Kalmyks in real life is nigh impossible outside certain areas of Russia, Western Mongolia, and Xinjiang) but will also be an option to Russian speakers (as the vast majority of them speak only Russian and Kalmyk). Consequently, the only way to learn the language effectively through English would be to befriend an Anglophone Kalmyk (whom are incredibly difficult to find) and have him/her teach the language. There are however, other methods that could work such as learning the grammar of the language (grammar books are comparatively easy to find and for Japanese speakers, there is a reliable guide available online by Tohoku University's Hitoshi Kuribayashi) and then absorbing the vocabulary through reading sentences (random Kalmyk sentences can be found on the sentence collecting site Tatoeba).
As Europe's only Buddhist and Mongolic nation, one would think that the Kalmyks would be better known. Unfortunately, the Kalmyks have seemingly been doomed to fade away in obscurity. Nevertheless, there is still hope for the survival of this unusual and fascinating language as well as the national culture it's associated with. As languages around the world continue to vanish, we can only hope that Kalmyk does not join them, and that this bizarre yet fascinating language be able to thrive once again like it did during the times of the Khanate.
English Kalmyk/Хальмг келн
Welcome Ирхитн эрҗәнәвидн
Thank you Ханҗанав
Please Буйн болтха
You're welcome Учр уга/Буйн болтха
Excuse me Бичә му сантн
Where is the toilet? Мөрән үздг һазр альд бәәнә?
Goodbye/See ya! Байртаhар харhтл/Сән бәәтн
How are you? Ямаран бәәнт?
Fine, thank you. And you? Гем уга, ханҗанав. Чи?
Good morning Сән хонвт
Good afternoon Сән бәәцхәнт
Good night Сән хонтн
I don't understand/Help! Би медҗ ядх/Нөкд болтн!
Where are you from? Альдасвт?
I come from_ Би _ ас/әс (e.g. I'm from Moscow/Elista - Би Москвас/ Элстәс)
I'm sorry Би гемән сурҗанав/Бичә му сантн
What are you saying? Юн гивтә?
How do you say _ in Kalmyk? Хальмг келәр _ яһҗ нерәдгнә?
What is your name? Тана нерн кемб?
My name is _ Мини нерн _
(Usually only the given name)
I am of the (Japanese) _ clan Би _-ин (Японин) көвүн
(Surname is used here with the suffix –ин added)
Nice to meet you Таньлцлдан байрлҗанав
Can you speak Kalmyk? Чи Хальмгаhар келдүч?
English англь келәр
Japanese япон келәр
Russian орс келәр
Hungarian мадьяр келәр
I don't speak Kalmyk (well) Би Хальмгаhар келдшго (Хальмг келн баһар меддүв)
I'm learning Kalmyk Би Хальмг келәр даснав
I want to study Kalmyk Би Хальмг келәр дасх седнәв
Do you understand? Та медҗ бәәнт?
Do you have_? Чамд _ бәәнү?
Happy Birthday! Төрсн өдртн байрта болтха!
Happy New Year! Шин җил өлзәтә болтха!
Person/Man/Woman Күн/Запу күн/Күүкд күн
Friend/Friends/Enemy/Enemies Нәәҗ /Нәәҗнр/Дәәсн/Дәәснр
North/South/East/West Ар үзг/Өмн үзг/Зүн үзг/Барун үзг
I love you/I hate you Би чамд дуртав/Би чамд дурго болв
0 хоосн 1 негн 2 хойр 3 hурвн 4 дөрвн 5 тавн 6 зурhан 7 долан 8 нәәмн 9 йисн
10 арвн 11 арвн негн 12 арвн хойр 13 арвн hурвн 14 арвн дөрвн 15 арвн тавн
16 арвн зурhан 17 арвн долан 18 арвн нәәмн 19 арвн йисн 20 хөрн 21 хөрн негн
22 хөрн хойр 30 hучн 40 дөчн 50 тәвн 60 җирн 70 далн 80 найин 90 йирн 100 зун
Kalmyk alphabet Хальмг үзгүд (letters), алфавит
39 letters: 33 Russian + 6 Kalmyk
Аа Әә Бб Вв Гг Һһ Дд Ее Ёё Жж Җҗ Зз Ии Йй Кк Лл Мм Нн Ңң Оо Өө Пп Рр Сс Тт Уу Үү Фф Хх Цц Чч Шш Щ Ээ Юю Яя
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