Oirad kelen
Өөрд келн

ᠬᠡᠯᠡᠨ ᠦ

Mongγol kelen-ü Oyirad ayalγu
Моңһл келнә Өөрд айлһ
Native toMongolia, Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan[1]
RegionKhovd, Uvs,[2] Bayan-Ölgii,[3] Kalmykia, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai
Ethnicity655,372 Oirats
Native speakers
368,000, 58% of ethnic population (2007–2010)[4]
Standard forms
Clear script (China: unofficial), Cyrillic (Russia: official)
Official status
Official language in
Kalmykia, Russia (in the form of Kalmyk); Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, China; Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture and Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China
Language codes
ISO 639-2xal
ISO 639-3Either:
xal – Modern Oirat
xwo – Written Oirat
xwo Written Oirat
Linguaspherepart of 44-BAA-b
A map (in Russian) showing the distribution of Oirat outside Kalmykia. Varieties in dispute have not been included.[5]

Oirat (Clear script: ᡆᡕᡅᠷᠠᡑ
, Oirad kelen, IPA: [œːˈrdə cɛˈlən]; Kalmyk: Өөрд, Őrd; Khalkha Mongolian: Ойрад, Oirad, Mongolian pronunciation: [œˈrət]) is a Mongolic language spoken by the descendants of Oirat Mongols, now forming parts of Mongols in China, Kalmyks in Russia and Mongolians. Largely mutually intelligible to other core Central Mongolic languages, scholars differ as to whether they regard Oirat as a distinct language[6] or a major dialect of the Mongolian language.[7] Oirat-speaking areas are scattered across the far west of Mongolia,[8] the northwest of China[8] and Russia's Caspian coast, where its major variety is Kalmyk.[9] In China, it is spoken mainly in Xinjiang, but also among the Deed Mongol of Qinghai and Subei County in Gansu.[8]

In all three countries, Oirat has become variously endangered or even obsolescent as a direct result of government actions or as a consequence of social and economic policies. Its most widespread tribal dialect, which is spoken in all of these nations, is Torgut.[1][8] The term Oirat or more precisely, Written Oirat is sometimes also used to refer to the language of historical documents written in the Clear script.[10]


In Mongolia, there are seven historical Oirat dialects, each corresponding to a different tribe:[11]

  1. Dörbet is spoken in half of the districts (sums) of Uvs Province and in Dörgön sum, Khovd Province
  2. Bayat in the sums of Malchin, Khyargas, Tes and Züüngovi, Uvs
  3. Torgut in Bulgan sum, Khovd
  4. Altai Uriankhai in the sums of Duut and Mönkhkhairkhan, Khovd and in the sums of Altai, Buyant and Bulgan, Bayan-Ölgii Province
  5. Ööld in Erdenebüren, Khovd
  6. Zakhchin in the sums of Mankhan, Altai, Üyench, Zereg and Möst, Khovd
  7. Khoton in Tarialan, Uvs.

There are some varieties of Oirat that are difficult to classify. The Alasha dialect in Alxa League, Inner Mongolia, originally belonged to Oirat[12] and has been classified as such by some because of its phonology.[1] However, it has been classified by others as Mongolian proper because of its morphology.[13] The Darkhad dialect in Mongolia's Khövsgöl Province has variously been classified as Oirat, Mongolian proper, or (less often) Buryat.[14]

Endangered language

Oirat is endangered in all areas where it is spoken. In Russia, the killing of a large fraction of the Kalmyk population and the destruction of their society as consequences of the Kalmyk deportations of 1943, along with the subsequent imposition among them of Russian as the sole official language have rendered the language obsolescent: it is almost exclusively the elderly who have a fluent command of Kalmyk.[15] In China, while Oirat is still quite widely used in its traditional ranges and there are many monolingual speakers,[16] a combination of government policies and social realities has created an environment deleterious to the use of this language: the Chinese authorities' adoption of Southern Mongolian as the normative Mongolian language,[17] new educational policies which have led to the virtual elimination of Mongolian schools in Xinjiang (there were just two left as of 2009), policies aiming to curtail nomadism, and the limited occupational prospects in Chinese society for graduates of Mongolian schools.[18] As for Mongolia, the predominance of Khalkha Mongolian is bringing about the Khalkhaization of all other varieties of Mongolian.[19]

Script systems

An Oirat manuscript in "clear script" (todo bichig)[20]

Oirat has been written in two script systems: the Mongolian scripts and Cyrillic.

Historically, the Clear script, which originated from the Mongolian script, was used. It uses modified letters shapes e.g. to differentiate between different rounded vowels, and it uses a small stroke on the right to indicate vowel length. It was retained longest in China where it can still be found in an occasional journal article. However, in China, Buryat and Oirat are considered non-standard compared to Southern Mongolian and are therefore supposed to use the Mongolian script and Southern Mongolian grammar for writing. In practice the people use neither and resort to learning Mandarin Chinese and using hànzì to communicate with others in China.

In Kalmykia, a Cyrillic-based script system has been implemented. It does not represent epenthetic vowels, and thus doesn't show syllabification.

In Mongolia, Central Mongolian minority varieties have no status, so Oirats are supposed to use Mongolian Cyrillic which de facto only represents Khalkha Mongolian.



  1. ^ a b c Svantesson et al. 2005: 148
  2. ^ Svantesson et al. 2005: 141
  3. ^ Coloo 1988: 1
  4. ^ Modern Oirat at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
    Written Oirat at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  5. ^ cp. the distribution given by Svantesson et al. 2005: 141
  6. ^ Birtalan 2003. Note that she is not altogether clear about that matter as she writes: "For the present purpose, Spoken Oirat, from which Kalmuck is excluded, may therefore be treated as a more or less uniform language." (212). See also Sanžeev 1953
  7. ^ Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005
  8. ^ a b c d Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005: 396-398
  9. ^ Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005, Bläsing 2003: 229
  10. ^ Birtalan 2003: 210-211
  11. ^ Coloo 1988: 1-6
  12. ^ Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005: 265-266
  13. ^ Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005: 190-191
  14. ^ See literature given in Sanžaa and Tujaa 2001: 33-34
  15. ^ Bitkeeva 2007; for details see Bitkeeva 2006
  16. ^ Bitkeeva 2007
  17. ^ Sečenbaγatur et al. 2005: 179
  18. ^ Indjieva 2009: 59-65
  19. ^ Coloo 1988: III-IV
  20. ^ Chuluunbaatar 2008: 41


  • Birtalan, Ágnes (2003): Oirat. In: Janhunen (ed.) 2003: 210–228.
  • Bitkeeva, Aisa (2006): Kalmyckij yazyk v sovremennom mire. Moskva: NAUKA.
  • Bitkeeva, Aisa (2007): Ethnic Language Identity and the Present Day Oirad-Kalmyks. Altai Hakpo, 17: 139–154.
  • Bläsing, Uwe (2003): Kalmuck. In: Janhunen (ed.) 2003: 229–247.
  • Chuluunbaatar, Otgonbayar (2008): Einführung in die mongolischen Schriften. Hamburg: Buske.
  • Coloo, Ž. (1988): BNMAU dah’ mongol helnii nutgiin ajalguuny tol’ bichig: oird ayalguu. Ulaanbaatar: ŠUA.
  • Indjieva, Elena (2009): Oirat Tobi: Intonational structure of the Oirat language. University of Hawaii. Dissertation.
  • Janhunen, Juha (ed.) (2003): The Mongolic languages. London: Routledge.
  • Katoh T., Mano S., Munkhbat B., Tounai K., Oyungerel G., Chae G. T., Han H., Jia G. J., Tokunaga K., Munkhtuvshin N., Tamiya G., Inoko H.: Genetic features of Khoton Mongolians revealed by SNP analysis of the X chromosome. Molecular Life Science, School of Medicine, Tokai University, Bohseidai, Isehara, Kanagawa, 259–1193, Japan. [Gene. 12 Sep. 2005].
  • Sanžeev, G. D. (1953): Sravnitel’naja grammatika mongol’skih jazykov. Moskva: Akademija nauk SSSR.
  • Sečenbaγatur, Qasgerel, Tuyaγ-a, B. ǰirannige, U Ying ǰe (2005): Mongγul kelen-ü nutuγ-un ayalγun-u sinǰilel-ün uduridqal. Kökeqota: Öbür mongγul-un arad-un keblel-ün qoriy-a.
  • Svantesson, Jan-Olof, Anna Tsendina, Anastasia Karlsson, Vivan Franzén (2005): The Phonology of Mongolian. New York: Oxford University Press.