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Learn the Buriat Language & Culture

Overview of the Buriat Language

The Buriat language is primarily spoken in the Buryat Republic of Russia (also called Buryatia), located east of Lake Baikal in Siberia, along the border with Mongolia. Along with Russian, it serves as an official language of that republic. There are also smaller Buriat-speaking communities in northern Mongolia and northwestern China, with their own distinctive dialects. The name of the language, which can also be spelled Buryat, reflects its use by the Buryat people.

The region where Buriat is spoken has a long and distinctive history. It was originally home to Mongolian tribes, but came under the control of the Russian empire in 1689. It was a part of the Soviet Union from its founding until its fall in 1991, after which it became a republic of the Russian Federation. The history of the Buriat language is therefore deeply intertwined with that of Russian, although the two are not linguistically related. Buriat is actually a member of the Mongolian language family, most closely related to Kalmuck and certain dialects of Mongolian.

The Buriat Alphabet and Buriat Pronunciation

The earliest alphabet used to write the Buriat language was a form of the Old Mongolian script. In 1931, a version of the Latin alphabet was introduced, but did not become widely used. It was in turn replaced by a Cyrillic alphabet introduced by the Soviets in 1937.

Modern Buriat continues to use this Cyrillic alphabet, which is similar but not identical to that of Russian. Buriat text is written from left to right, the same as English, and letters have both capital and lowercase forms. Some letters also have very different forms when italicized or written by hand rather than typed in regular text.

English speakers learning to speak Buriat may find it comforting to know that some Buriat characters look and sound just like English letters. Others resemble English letters but have different sounds, or have familiar sounds but unfamiliar appearances. There are only a few characters that are completely unfamiliar in both shape and sound. Paying careful attention to these letters can help you learn Buriat pronunciation.

The Buriat alphabet consists of consonants and vowels. However, the ways in which these letters are used do not always follow the same patterns as in English. For example, consonants are almost never found in clusters, except in a few loan words. Vowels used together often become diphthongs. The Buriat language includes both long vowel sounds and short vowel sounds. Within a word, stress tends to fall on the first long vowel or diphthong, if one exists. If not, stress generally falls on the first syllable. The concept of vowel harmony, described in more detail in the grammar section, also plays an important role in pronunciation.

Buriat Vocabulary

Not surprisingly, giving its history and geographic location, the Buriat language in Russia has been heavily influenced by Russian. The language has taken in many loan words in recent times as a consequence of the fact that most Buriat speakers, particularly the younger generation, also speak Russia as a second language. Such borrowings can often be spotted as exceptions to the normal rules of pronunciation.

Similarly, the dialects of Buriat spoken in Mongolia and China have absorbed a different set of loan words from the languages that surround them. These borrowings mark one of the major differences between the dialects.

In all variation of the language, however, most vocabulary comes from native roots. For that reason, Buriat shares cognates with Mongolian and other related languages.

Buriat Grammar

Buriat grammar displays a number of distinctive and interesting features. For example, Buriat makes extensive use of vowel harmony: All Buriat vowels are classified as either front vowels or back vowels. If the first vowel in a word is a front vowel, any suffixes attached to that word must also use a front vowel. Likewise, if the first vowel is a back vowel, the rest of the vowels in the word will be too. Despite the exceptions that occur in foreign loan words, this pattern helps give the language its distinctive sound.

Another thing that those learning Buriat should be aware of is that Buriat nouns decline, meaning they change form to show their role in a sentence. There are eight distinct noun cases in Buriat: nominative, accusative, dative-locative, genitive, instrumental, comitative, ablative, and indefinite. Most inflections are accomplished by adding suffixes, which follow the rules of vowel harmony described above.

The word order for a typical Buriat sentence is Subject-Object-Verb. Buriat also uses postpositions, which come after the words they modify, rather than prepositions, which come before.

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