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Number of Speakers: 450,000 (318,000 in Russia; 65,000 in China; 65,000 in Mongolia)

Key Dialects: Thirteen dialects of Buriat are recognized (Gordon 2005). In Russia, the nine principal dialects are Alar, Barguzin, Bokhan, Ekhirit-Bulgat, Khori, Nizneudinsk, Oka, Tunka, and Unga. The dialects of Buriat spoken in northwestern China are Bargu-Buriat and Aga. In northeastern Mongolia, the dialects Aga, Sartul, and Tsongol are spoken. Khori is the main dialect of both literary and colloquial Buriat.

Geographical Center: East of Lake Baikal, Eastern Siberia, in the republic of Buryatia.

Buriat (also spelled as Buryat) is spoken primarily in the region surrounding Lake Baikal in the republic of Buryatia, Russia. It is also spoken in northwestern China and northeastern Mongolia. Buriat is a Mongolian language, the only representative of this family in Siberia. Although it is influenced by Russian in many ways, it is most closely related to Khalkha Mongolian, spoken in Outer Mongolia, the Mongolian dialects spoken in Inner Mongolia and China, and Kalmuck, which is spoken in the Lower Volga region. The standard language is based on the speech of the Khori Buriats, the most numerous and culturally prominent group who inhabit the Transbaikalia region east of Lake Baikal, in the eastern half of the Buryatia republic.

Buriat is an Altaic language. It belongs to the Oirat-Khalkha group of the Eastern Mongolian subfamily. Other Mongolian languages include Mongolian and Kalmyk-Oirat.

The thirteen dialects exhibit almost uniform syntactic and morphological properties; however, they vary from each other with respect to their vocabularies and phonological properties. The Bargu-Buriat dialect of northwestern China and the Sartul and Tsongol dialects, which are spoken in the Selenga valley near the border of Mongolia, are more strongly differentiated than the remaining ten dialects. The later dialects (Sartul and Tsongol) are spoken by descendants of the Mongols who emigrated from Outer Mongolia in the 17th century. As such, their dialects exhibit many similarities with Khalkha Mongolian. The Bargu-Buriat dialect is strongly influenced by the surrounding Mongolian dialects spoken in northwestern China. The variety of Buriat spoken in the region west of Lake Baikal is more influenced by Russian than the dialects spoken east of the lake. The literary dialect (Khori) differs considerably from those dialects spoken in Mongolia and China. Although speakers of dialects spoken in Mongolia and China experience some difficulty understanding Russian Buriat, speakers in Russia enjoy a high degree of mutual intelligibility.

Until 1931, the vertical Mongolian writing system was used. From 1931-1937, a Latin alphabet was employed. This orthography was replaced by a modified version of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, which is the standard writing system of contemporary Buriat.

Buriat shares a number of linguistic properties in common with Mongolian and has been influenced by Russian to some degree. At the same time; however, the language manifests a number of properties that are distinct.

Buriat, like most Altaic languages, is an SOV language with a rich inflectional system. All affixation (including reduplication) is suffixal; prefixes are unattested. The Buriat case system is also substantial. Eight cases are attested; nominative, accusative, dative-locative, genitive, instrumental, comitative, ablative, and the so-called “indefinite” case, a variant of accusative case that is formally similar to nominative, but used for indefinite objects. The language makes use of postpositions exclusively. Buriat employs subject-verb agreement in the form of verbal affixes that are derived from nominative pronouns. This property distinguishes Buriat from many of the Mongolian languages it is genetically related to. According to Comrie (1981), Buriat subject-verb agreement is a recent innovation in Mongolian.

The phonology of Buriat is characterized by a vowel inventory consisting of seven primary vowels, one of which (the high mid-central rounded vowel) exists solely in lengthened form. All other vowels may occur lengthened or in diphthongs. Vowels are lengthened for emphasis. The Buriat consonant inventory is comprised of twenty-two phonemes, none of which may occur as geminates or double consonants, unlike the case of Buriat vowels. Loan words are typically borrowed without adaptation and come primarily from Russian. Thus, the phoneme inventory of the language contains some elements not synchronically present in the native language. Similarly, certain phonological processes are distinctively Buriat, while others reflect properties of the borrowed language. Buriat is a stress language. Stress is non-phonemic and falls either on the first long vowel or diphthong, or if there are no long vowels or diphthongs, on the first syllable. Stressed syllables in Russian loan words are always long. Consonants occurring in Buriat syllables, whether pre-vocalic or post-vocalic, are optional. Other than [ng] sequences, consonant clusters are not permitted in native words. However, consonant clusters are attested in Russian loan words. Vowel-vowel sequences are also avoided in the language; either an epenthetic [g] breaks up the sequence or the two vowels fuse or coalesce into a single vowel.

One final salient phonological property of Buriat concerns vowel harmony. As is typical of Mongolian languages, all vowels in a given native word agree with respect to the feature [backness]. That is, all vowels will either surface as front or back vowels, with no mixed combination thereof. Vowel harmony is conditioned by the vowel of the first syllable, counting from the left edge of the word. Thus, suffixes and subsequent syllables will harmonize with the vowel of the first syllable of a word. As expected, vowel harmony does not occur in Russian loan words.

Russian Buriat city dwellers are predominantly bilingual. According to Gordon (2005), 72% of all Russian Buriats speak Russian as their second language. The younger generation in cities comprises much of this demographic. Buriats on both sides of Lake Baikal are fully literate; however, Buriat is not a literary language in Mongolia or China. Buriats in both countries use Khalkha Mongolian as the literary language. Efforts to spread literacy have been successful and as a result there is a steadily growing population of productive authors publishing in Buriat at the present. According to Bosson (1962), there are three nationwide and various local newspapers published in Russian Buriat. In addition, there are roughly 400 libraries throughout the Buriat republic as well as a national theater and opera.

The area inhabited by the Buriats is believed to be the original homeland of the Mongols and the birthplace of Genghis Khan. During the 17th century, the Buriat people came under the power of the Russian government. In 1689, when Russia and China reached a border agreement, the region inhabited by the Buriats became part of the Russian empire. Following the 1917 October Revolution, parts of the Buriat territory were incorporated into the Far Eastern Republic. In May 1923, the Buriat-Mongolian Autonomous SSR was established. The name of the republic, people, and language was officially changed from Buriat-Mongolian to Buriat in 1958.

Until 1931, the old Mongolian literary language (known as “Written Mongolian”) was used as the primary exponent of Buriat. This differed from spoken Buriat in considerable respects. In 1931, when the Latin alphabet was introduced, a new literary language based on the Sartul and Tsongol dialects was also introduced. This was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1937, a modified Cyrillic alphabet replaced the Latin orthography and the Khori dialect rose to the ranks of the standard dialect both for spoken and written Buriat.

Bosson, James E. 1962. Buriat Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications.

Comrie, Bernard. 1981. Language Universals and Linguistic Typology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Poppe, Nicholas N. 1960. Buriat Grammar. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications.

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