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I'm travelling in Mongolia at the moment and being a language buff I've been wondering whether if I were writing about my experiences here whether I ought to use the term yurt or ger when mentioning the traditional round felt tent houses used by nomads and elsewhere.

A yurt in Mongolia Mongolian гэр used as a restaurant/inn. Photo by hippietrail.

Even though the word "yurt" is not very common in English I would regard it as definitely a loanword and would expect others to think so soo. (I might well describe it in the first use anyway.)

But the "yurt" is not a Mongolian word but used in Central Asian countries. Here the same dwelling is called a "ger".

At least Wiktionary also considers "ger" to be a loanword into English. But it has a very low threshold of three uses in "durably archived" media in an English context to qualify. Or so I belive. I don't know what other dictionaries say or how people feel about it generally.

What say ye experts?

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    If you say "yurt", many readers will have a mental picture (which may or may not be accurate). If you say "ger", most readers IMHO will not have a picture at all. – Colin Fine Dec 3 '13 at 15:03
  • Ger, to me, is a shortening of a (Welsh) forename, so while yurt gives me an image of a tent/house, you might as well say fred as say ger. – Chris H Dec 3 '13 at 15:17
  • Yes this is what I was thinking, but what about if I assume my readers have Mongolia knowledge or interest? Or what about after first introducing the term? – hippietrail Dec 3 '13 at 15:19
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    There are no native-English speakers there with you? Then why would you ever have the problem of choosing? From your comment to Martha's answer, if you feel uncomfortable saying 'yurt' to English speakers in Mongolia, then go with 'ger'. If that is jarring enough, someone will say 'What? Oh, do you mean a 'yurt'?' – Mitch Dec 3 '13 at 18:53
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    If you are going to explain what they are when you first mention them anyway (and I agree you probably should), then it doesn't really matter which one you use. I would use ger, but then that word is equally familiar to me as yurt. I am actually a bit surprised that so many people here seem not to know ger or be unfamiliar with it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 3 '13 at 19:00
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Depends on how "politically correct" you want to be.

For better or for worse, the word that most English-speakers know is yurt, and that is the only word most dictionaries list (with the exception of Wiktionary, as you've found). Problem is, it comes from either Russian or Turkish (or maybe Turkish by way of Russian), so using it for a dwelling type that is neither Turkish nor Russian can be seen as disrespectful. (In other words, Here Be DragonsPolitics, tread with care.)

People who know anything at all about yurts do tend to be aware of the linguistics issue, and most have at least heard of the term ger, but yurt does still spring to mind sooner. For the rest of the population, ger is at best an abbreviation for gerund, and at worst a meaningless particle.

If you define ger on first use and then use it consistently afterwards, you should be fine. You can also decide that "yurt" is no longer Turkish or Russian, but English, and use it without apology (or definition; unlike ger, it shouldn't need it). I tend to be in the latter camp, but then I'm allergic to political correctness.

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    This is getting into irrelevant politics, so I'll post it in a comment: objecting to the word "yurt" on linguistic-origin grounds only holds water if the dwelling type is uniquely and exclusively Mongolian. Problem is, yurt-like dwellings have been around a lot longer than the concept of Mongolia or Mongolian. Everyone from the ancient Khazars to ancient Hungarians lived in structures that can be called yurts. So trying to force the English language to import a Mongolian word at this late juncture is pointless. – Marthaª Dec 3 '13 at 15:57
  • I'm also allergic to political correctness and I'm not sure if there is any when it comes to yurts and gers. I'll keep an ear out. But as I have now only had first hand experience with yurts that are gers and have never been close to a yurt that is a yurt I would feel quite odd calling them yurts in English while I'm here. But in writing where one tries to follow the "rules" I have less experience of how things should be done. – hippietrail Dec 3 '13 at 17:08
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You can use yurt or ger, if you establish what exactly you are talking about, first. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that every English speaker will automatically know what you are referring to.

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