The western provinces of Mongolia – Bayan-Ölgii, Khovd, Uvs – are inhabited by an extremely diverse range of ethnic groups made up of the Altai Uriankhai, Bayad, Dörvöd, Zakhchin, Khoton, Khoshuud, Myangad, Ööld, and Torguud. All these groups together make up the Oirat Mongolian people who, along with official Khalkha Mongolian, speak their native dialects of the Oirat language, also known as Altai Oirat.
After conquering and depopulating the Dzungar Khanate between 1755 and 1758, the Qin dynasty administration divided the surviving Oirats according to their own administrative groups. As a result, large numbers of Dörvöd, Bayad, and Khoton people were relocated to Kobdo (Khovd) district of Qin's Empire, established in 1762 on the vast lands east of the Altai Mountains. By the end of the 18th century the Kobdo district included 30 khoshuun (administrative unit) with population of Bayad, Dörvöd, Zakhchin, Khoton, Khoshuud, Khoyid, Myangad, Torguud, Uriankhai, Uuld (Elute) ethnic origin (Ochirov 2010: 14).
Although the aforementioned ethnic groups are considered to conclude the Oirat population, in the Mongolian Population and Housing Census of 2010, these groups are listed separately and the ethnonym Oirat does not appear. The populations of the groups are listed as follows in descending order:
Dörvöd – 72, 403
Bayad – 56, 573
Zakhchin – 32, 845
Altai Uriankhai – 26, 654
Ööld – 15, 520
Torguud – 14, 176
Khoton – 11, 304
Myangad – 6, 592
Each ethnic group speaks its own variety of the Oirat language. Due to the fact that the Oirat language is not used in main life-determining spheres of activity, the official Khalkha Mongolian, the language of the majority, supplants and greatly influences the local Oirat dialects. "Since today the language of the education and mass media is Khalkha, this influence became even stronger and according to the present situation mostly elderly people can talk fluently in Oirad only and the main domain of Oirad is the family life. The younger generation uses Khalkha as their primary language with some elements of an Oirad substrate, but they are hardly able to speak in Oirad" (Rakos 2015: 21).
In recent decades, the interest in culture and language preservation has grown significantly among the Oirats. The scientific organization "Tod nomiin gerel" (Light of the clear teaching) actively works to publish periodicals and monographs and arranges conferences in the fields of history, language and traditional culture of the Oirat Mongols.
The "Naaraan suutn" (Sit down here) programme in Oirat language, broadcasted by the Uvs provinceʹs MBC TV, contributes to the popularization and preservation of Oirat language, folklore and music.
Holding numerous music festivals like the "Oirad tümen" (Oirat people) helps to establish better, more sustained communication and cultural exchange between the Oirats living in different countries.
The Altai Oirat collection represents a selection of our recordings that are fully archived in the EthnoThesaurus of the University of Jena. It includes photo, video and audio material recorded during field research conducted among Oirat Mongolian people living in Western part of Mongolia in September 2016 by Thede Kahl, Ioana Aminian and Chingis Azydov.
The research was conducted in Bayan Ölgii, Khovd and Uvs provinces, mainly amongst Bayad, Dörvöd, Khoton people and includes several interviews with representatives of Zakhchin, Khalkha, Myangad, and Uriankhai ethnic groups.
The research focused on a group of native speakers of the Oirat language, many of whom are folk singers and musicians leading a nomadic way of life. The collected material mainly consists of Oirat folk songs of urtyn duun (long song) genre, tuuli (epic song) genre with tovshuur (two stringed instrument) and ikel (Oirat Mongolian fiddle) accompaniment, magtaal and yörööl - expressions of praisings, well-wishings and benedictions, folk dances accompanied by ikel. Other subjects recorded are Bayad wedding tradition and sketches from the life of nomadic herders. All interviewees have agreed to the publication of the excerpts presented here.
The archive includes six hundred thirty-two (632) video/audio files with a total duration of 39 hours as well as six thousand nine hundred seventy (6,970) photos. The publication of further material is a long-term process since each publication is accompanied by transcriptions, translations, annotations and the final confirmation of the consent of the performers.
VLACH and the researchers involved wish to express their deep gratitude to Myagmarsüren Dembee and Lhagva Tseren for their enormous help in the organisation of our field work in Western Mongolia and their assistance during the interviews. Our community consultant, Otgonbayar Chuluunbaatar, has contributed greatly to the transcription and translation of the acquired data.
Chingis Azydov, 2021
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