Saturday, August 10, 2013

One Word or Two? The Spelling of Mongolia’s Capital Can Ruffle Feathers

According to the New York Times, the capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator. But to Mongolians, it’s Ulaanbaatar. The difference is not academic: Many Mongolians consider the spelling favored by the Times (and other news organizations) to be anachronistic, a vestige of a time when Mongolia was utterly subservient to the Soviet Union. 

Under Genghis Khan in the 12th century, Mongolia ruled wide swaths of Europe and Asia. But after that, the sparsely-populated Asian nation, landlocked between Russia and China, was itself subjugated, first by the Chinese, then by the Soviets. 

Mongolia declared its independence from China in 1921, but for the next 70 years it was a Soviet satellite, controlled so completely by Moscow that, by 1950, it had abandoned its traditional alphabet, a swirly vertical script reminiscent of Arabic, for the Cyrillic alphabet used by Russia. That’s when confusion over the spelling of Mongolia’s capital began, for the Mongolian language fits imperfectly into Cyrillic.  

Mongolia’s capital was named “Red Hero” by the country’s Communist government in 1924. In the Mongolian script, the name is rendered as a single word, so, according to one theory, when the Mongolians adopted Cyrillic, they spelled it Улаанбаатар, which in the Roman alphabet is Ulaanbaatar.

But in Russian (as in English) “Red Hero” is spelled as two words, and the Soviets spelled the capital Улан Батор (Ulan Bator), using a slightly different transliteration. Since the Soviets were infinitely more influential than the Mongolians, theirs was the spelling that stuck in the West.

After Mongolia’s Communist government was overthrown in 1991, the Mongolians’ preferred spelling slowly began to be adopted by the outside world. The Economist, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal all use it now. But to the Times, the capital of Mongolia is still Ulan Bator (though the paper has occasionally slipped up and let an “Ulaanbaatar” appear in print).

Until recently it was a moot point: The Mongolian capital wasn’t exactly a frequent dateline. But now the country’s economy is one of the world’s fastest growing, owing to abundant natural resources—coal, copper, gold—which its neighbors and former colonizers covet.

To many Mongolians, the spelling of their capital is a matter of national pride. “It’s a pet peeve of the whole country,” Munkhdul Badral told me over a Diet Coke in a coffee shop inside one of the city’s gleaming new skyscrapers. “There’s only one way to spell the name of the capital [in English], and it’s U-L-A-A-N-B-A-A-T-A-R.” Otherwise, he said, it’s akin to calling Beijing “Peking.”

Munkhdul, who goes by the nickname Mogi, edits an English-language newsletter about Mongolian business and politics. Earlier this year he started an online petition at to get the Times and other Western news outlets to begin spelling the capital’s name the same way Mongolians spell it. So far he has collected more than 700 signatures.

For some Mongolians, the Russian spelling touches a raw nerve, conjuring memories of purges ordered by Stalin that virtually eradicated Mongolia’s Buddhist clergy in the 1930s. But Mogi said there’s nothing political about his campaign. “It’s about respect,” he said. Besides, he added, the facts are on his side. “Anybody who spells it with two words,” he said, “is just wrong.”

Mogi has scored at least one victory since starting his petition: Bloomberg News, which recently opened a bureau in the Mongolian capital, has switched from “Ulan Bator” to “Ulaanbaatar.” It’s time for the New York Times to follow suit. As Mogi told me, “Every country has a right to decide what its capital should be called.”