Notes on The Tibetan Language


by Elizabeth Scamahorn



“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood”.

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

The power of the written word is the true test of civilizations.  It is taught to willing, intelligent students by providing skills specific to encoding and decoding original script.  Students learn to recognize linguistic links such as language’s symbols (orthography), syllabication structure, consonants with or without an attached head, and dark or white.  The Tibetan language is composed of a conscious scientific system based on primordial sound, with an essential demanding need for written communication.

The Tibetan language originated in the seventh century as a result of the efforts of the First Emperor of Tibet, the celebrated Songsten Gampo of the Yarlung Dynasty.  He sent one of his ministers to India to gather information on Buddhism.  This minister (Thormi Sambhuta) devised a script for Tibetan based on the Devanagari model, a continuous script from which the Hindi language evolved.  The grammar he wrote for the Tibetan language was based on Sanskrit.

The purpose of this undertaking was to write Tibetan translations of Buddhist texts.  In the 9th century the first Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary was completed.  Since most Tibetan literature is concerned with Buddhism, these texts were preserved in monasteries using wood-block printing.  In Derge, East Tibet, rests a treasure house containing more than 217,000 blocks of Buddhist scriptures. The only copy in the world of 555 wood-block plates of the history of Indian Buddhism, works translated from Sanskrit, is also in Derge.  All of these are protected from fire and earthquake by the goddess Tara.  Wood-block printing still survives in a few monasteries.

Of interest also are literary works about the indigenous, pre-Buddhist Bon religion.  Buddhism in Tibet incorporated many local deities and ancient shamanic practices.  These were transformed into protectors of Dharma. “Terma,” or “re-discovered texts,” are Buddhist texts that have been hidden away until a “Terton,” or “treasure revealer,” finds and interprets them.  Tertons are usually a hereditary lineage, and are often gifted teachers.

“Language is a uniquely human ability which is shared by all cultures and expressed in a diversity of ways, including speech, writing, and gesture (sign language).  Linguistics aims to understand and explain the genesis, evolution, acquisition and knowledge of language”.  (from the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library, Language and Linguistics Collections at the University of Virginia).

The Tibetan orthography has not changed since its inception in the 9th century.  Preserved in the monasteries, it remained the privilege of academics.  A wealth of information is stored in the written Tibetan language.  If this language is not fostered the opportunity for contemplation of this knowledge will be lost forever.  It is impossible for general readers to decipher Tibetan words and texts literally as it is difficult to know the pronunciation of the words.  Personal names and place names can have any number of variations on spelling, with many letters silent.  Many Westerners learning Buddhist practices need correct guidance in pronunciation and meaning.  This needs to come from people for whom Tibetan is their native tongue, since the first 7 years of life determine diction, tones, and the general understanding of language.

A truly civilized nation or culture has a written, read, and spoken language.  There are two types of language communication, one which is spoken daily (pragmatics) and has different dialects and tones; and academic language, i.e. the language of reading and writing.  The written language of an intelligent, peaceful people is essential to intellectual development of humans and social interaction.

Prominent Tibetan blogger Woeser has said, “Whether you can speak Tibetan has already become a secondary issue, but whether you can speak Chinese has become crucial to your livelihood.  So the Tibetan written language has in reality reached a very serious point”.

There is currently an initiative to create word separation (white space) in the Tibetan language.  Seeing each word as a discrete unit makes silent reading possible.  In traditional Tibetan there is the need to read out loud to grasp the meaning.  White space allows a language to be understood visually as well as orally.

Speaking and listening are innate because we want to communicate.  Literacy is the ability to use language, to read, write, listen, and speak.  The sacred texts of Tibetan Buddhism contain a living academic language.  To breathe the breath of life into this legacy from the 7th century is to preserve a priceless treasure for all of humanity.

For your information and clarification: The Language and Linguistics Collections at the University of Virginia currently contains materials for Tibetan language instruction as well as materials on Tibetan scripts, fonts, and transliteration schemes.