I love learning about languages. Not necessarily knowing how to speak them, but how they relate to each other (just like my fondness for systematics in biology), what the characteristics are, what their history is, … The more special, the better. In Europe, you have the two big groups of Germanic and Latin languages, and if you speak one, you can kinda continue on to another from there. I can understand Swedish with some effort decently enough, while I don’t speak it at all. Same with Spanish. It’s a perk that comes with being Belgian, we have three official languages after all. We’re taught French from an early age, so most of my peers can speak it well. German is another story, since it’s a lot less prominent both in numbers of people speaking it as well as classes on it at school. And besides those two, English is the de facto language of the world. All in all, most Belgians can put four languages on their cv. And still not get a job.

I have tried to teach myself some other languages as well, Finnish and Gaelic. The two most difficult languages found in Europe, probably. Needless to say, I still can’t do it. The issue with Gaelic is that there are very few native speakers to begin with, and a good tutorial online is hard to find. And to get it to work on your own is impossible. Just deciphering how a word is actually pronounced from the way it’s written is hard enough, let alone a whole sentence. To illustrate, I’ll give you a clip with Saoirse Ronan on Stephen Colbert’s show. Because hey, it’s Saoirse Ronan and you can’t have enough of her in your life. The real ridiculous part starts at 2:50, if you’re impatient.

Finnish is hard, just because there’s no base to work on from any other language I know.

There are many other languages in the world, of course, but there are many more dialects, even in a small country like Belgium. My province (West-Vlaanderen) is known for its particular dialect (with even more regional differences IN that dialect) and are frequently the butt of a joke for it. Think of the Scottish dialect in the UK. Closely related, but rather distinguishable and sometimes incomprehensible to a non-native speaker. But with so many languages out there, there’s bound to be a few you’ve never heard of. Kalmyk Oirat must certainly be one of them, so let this be the first in a kind of article that will likely return in the future. The reason I found out about this particular one, is because I’m a huge nerd. But this is an informative article, so let’s get some history up in here before I reveal its connection with Star Wars.

Kalmyk Oirat is part of the Oirat language. Oirat itself is related to the Mongolic languages, and is seen as either a dialect of Mongolian, or as a distinct language in its own right. Oirat has a few dialects, Torgut being one of them. Torgut is spoken in Xinjiang, western Mongolia and eastern Kalmykia (just west of the Caspian Sea). In this last region, the Torgut dialect became the base for Kalmyk. The Kalmyk people are descendants from the Oirat people, the language just evolved as the Kalmyks went their own way.

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The Oirats are originally from western Mongolia, the Altai region if you’re really good at geography. Now, however, the Kalmyks are the most prominent group remaining, so Kalmyk is also the most prominent of the Oirat languages. Kalmykia has been independent until 1724 with the death of Ayuka Khan. Under Khan, the country flourished, enjoying free trade with Russia, China, Tibet and Muslims from the south.  It was also tasked with protecting Russia’s southern border. After the passing of Ayuka Khan, Kalmykia gradually kept losing its autonomy. dissatisfied with the oppression, Ubahsi Khan, Ayuka’s great-grandson tried to lead his people back to their ancestor’s land of northern Xinjiang. Of the 200,000 people who left, more than half never made it. They were either captured and made slaves, outright killed in ambushes or died from starvation.

The struggles of the Kalmyks did not end there. Kalmykia has always been Tibetan Buddhist and is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is still the main religion (Russian Orthodox coming in second). Under Stalin, many monasteries were closed and religious texts burned. Monks and herdsmen (who owned more than 500 sheep at least) were deported to Siberia. Shortly after this, 60,000 Kalmyks died in a great famine. During World War II, many more Kalmyk people died from disease and malnutrition after being deported for collaborating with the Nazis. This also dispersed the ethnic population, assimilating them in whatever other culture they wound up in, as well as giving the Kalmyk people the stigma of treason. This exile lasted until 1957 when they were allowed by Khrushchev to return home. But the damage was done. The glory days under Ayuka Khan were gone, and took many of the people with it. Kalmykia today isn’t just Kalmyks, but Russians and Ukrainians as well. Less and less Kalmyk to speak obviously means less and less Kalmyk Oirat spoken. Of the 183,000 Kalmyk left, only 80,500 are native speakers.

So what does this have to do with Star Wars? Star Wars has many alien languages which have to be made up by someone. An easy way to construct a language is to take an existing language and go from there. Ben Burtt, the sound designer, used Kalmyk as the base for the gibberish that Ewoks speak, liking the unusual sounds.

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A typical Kalmyk with a typical Kalmyk proverb

What a payoff, huh.

This blog was brought to you by: Hanggai – Xiger Xiger

 

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