Professor György Kara, is a linguist and professor of Mongolian Studies in IU’s Central Eurasian Studies Department. A highly decorated scholar, he is also a contributor to the encyclopedia Britannica, member of The Order of the Polar Star of the Republic of Mongolia (1998), member of the Order of Labor Merit of the Republic of Mongolia (2005), holder of the Golden Medal of Indiana University for Altaistic Studies (2011), a Diploma of honor from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia (2015), and the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize (1999).
Can you tell me a bit about your path to IU Bloomington from Hungary? Why, ultimately did you decide to become a scholar of Mongolian Studies in the United States?
I was invited by IU’s Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now CEUS) in 1986 and 1988 to assist the Mongol program as a visiting professor. Then I began to teach Mongol courses in Bloomington. I was offered a full-time position, but I still had duties at my alma mater, ELTE University in Budapest, so I decided to divide my time between Bloomington and Budapest. I lived this nomadic way of life until 2005 when I settled permanently in Bloomington.
Although you are primarily a scholar of Mongolian studies, what interested you in Siberia, specifically? As a linguist, did the languages draw you in or was it something about the people- or are the two inseparable?
At ELTE I studied Chinese, Mongol, Tibetan and Altaic philology (including Old Turkic, Chuvash and Yakut) as well as Hungarian linguistics. I also learned Manchu, the Tungusic official language of the Manchu Qing Empire that ruled over China, Mongolia, Tibet and Eastern Turkistan for more than two centuries until 1911. Mongol philology became my central field of interest; it also meant the study of the language and culture of the Kalmyks, the “European” Mongols, and of the Buryats of Siberia, Mongolia and NE China. Interestingly, the Russian name Sibir’ is of Mongol origin: an older Mongol sibir (in today’s Buriat sheber) means dense forest. Also, taiga is a Mongol word.
At IU I extended my “territory” to the world of the Tungusic Evenki; their endangered language is still spoken in Siberia and NE China. More than three or four hundred words of Hungarian have Turkic (Chuvash, Tatar, Kirghiz, Tuva etc.), Mongol and Tungusic cognates (e.g., Hungarian betű ‘letter’ is from Old Turkic bitig, cognate of Mongol bichig, Buryat Mongol besheg, and Manchu bitkhe). This was enough motivation for someone whose first tongue is the Finno-Ugrian Hungarian language, but I was enchanted also by the various alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems of the field, some of those not fully deciphered, such as Kitan and Jurchen.
Your CEUS page specifically mentions that you have an interest in the Evenki structure. What sparked your interest in that?
Tungusic (including Evenki, Even, Manchu, Nanai etc.) is next door to Mongol, but the Evenki language and its many dialects spoken between the Arctic Ocean and the Northern end of the Mongol world has a very rich morphology, most verbal predicates are verbal nouns, most sentences are nominal. The lexicon has many Mongol and Sakha (Yakut) elements. The Mongolic Buryat also shows Evenki influence. The English word shaman comes, through Russian, from a Western Evenki dialect spoken at the great river Yendregee (in Russian: Yenissei).
In 2016, you published an article in Shaman titled, “Garbal: A Western Buryat Shaman song.” You also offered a course this spring semester called, “Buryat West and East.” Can you tell us a bit about your interest in the Buryat culture and language and their ties to Mongolia?
The Buryats (Buriaad) living west and east of Lake Baikal (for them, Baigal Dalai, where dalai is ‘ocean’) have a rich oral tradition (which, more than one hundred years ago was also studied, through interpreters, by the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin). In spite of the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the western Buryats preserved more of their ancestral shamanism than their Eastern brethren who practice Tibeto-Mongol Buddhism. Their numerous dialects show such great difference that some consider them separate languages, while some others claim that Buryat is a Mongol dialect. In the first half of the twentieth century, Buryat intelligentsia played a prominent role in the political and cultural life of Mongolia proper. Exploring some early Russian documents on Siberia, I found a lot about bratskie iasashnye liudishki ‘taxable Buryat manlings’. Many years ago I reinterpreted a bratskisches Lied ‘Buryat song’ recorded in 1743 by Gmelin, a German member of the Danish Behring’s expedition.
As a scholar who works in Siberia, do you see scholarly interest in the region growing, declining, or is it fairly stable?
It seems to be growing. An important French journal titled études is published by the University of Paris X in Nanterre, France; the Germans have the series Tunguso Mongolica; Japanese experts did and do important field work, and, of course, the old tradition of Tungusic and Siberian studies is much alive in Russia and continues in Poland, Finland, and Hungary. In Russia and China, there are now some well-trained native scholars as well. In Australia, Daniel Kane published important works on the Tungusic language of the late medieval Jin or Jurchen Empire. There is also an Evenki research group active in Chicago.
If I were a student interested studying the Mongols, the Evenki, or the Buryat peoples, for example, where should I start? What advice can you offer budding Siberian studies scholars?
Learn at least one relevant native language (Uralic, Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, or one of the Paleo-Siberian isolates) and begin to read reliable books including old and new travel accounts. This also requires, first of all, at least reading knowledge of Russian (most grammars, dictionaries, linguistic and anthropological works are in Russian, although some, like the Soviet-time monograph Peoples of Siberia, are accessible in English translation). Then start in with German, French, and so on. Chinese, Japanese and Korean may help as well.
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
Good luck, good health, and perseverance!