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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai
I WANT TO LEARN TIBETAN
1. A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIBET
High in the “roof of the world,” sandwiched between the
soaring Himalayas in the south, the Kunlug Range in the north west, and the Tangla
and Hengduan mountains in the east, sits the land known as Tibet. This
cold, mysterious land is inhabited by a very warm and hospitable people who
believe they have descended from the union of a monkey and a mountain ogress.
The myth is that Avalokitesvara (The Compassionate) sent a
monkey to meditate and fulfill himself high in the land of snow. A
mountain ogress deceived the monkey by appearing as a beautiful woman.
The two were married and their offspring are the Tibetan people. The
Tibetans are actually descended from the Mongoloid family.
Tibetans migrated high into the Tibetan plateau, which has an
average elevation of about 15,000 feet. The people are largely farmers
and nomads, taking long yak caravans in the winter. Although many
important rivers begin in Tibet there is usually less than 10 inches of annual
rainfall in the high planes. This does not leave the inhabitants enough
water to grow all the food needed to live on. Therefore, yak caravans
travel to the north in the summer to get salt from the large salt beds and then
travel south in the winter to trade the salt for wheat, barley, and other
In 617 A.D. Songtsen Gampo was born. Thirteen years
later he would become the 33rd king of Tibet. His influence
was great and he assembled Tibet into a threatening military power. Now
this once forgotten and underestimated people was a serious threat to all their
neighbors, China, India, and Nepal. This kingdom stretched out into North
India, and Central China. In a gesture of friendship China and Nepal
both gave Songtsen Gampo princesses to marry. These two princesses were a
large source of introducing Buddhism into Tibet, a land that had long been
submerged in the Bon religion.
Bon was a shamanistic, animistic, religion whose followers
devoted most of their time trying to achieve a better afterlife for the dead.
There were many rituals done by the priests, which included burying
riches with the dead and holding ceremonies to ensure their safe arrival in the
afterlife. There is one account from a journalist for Readers Digest, who
snuck into one of these Bon rituals in the 1940’s. He described the
priests in a circle chanting. Their eyes appeared to be glazed over as
they were in a trance. They were summoning the king of hell to appear
before them and they would to battle with him. If they lost, they all
died and chaos would reign for the next year but if they won, the Tibetan
people would live in relative peace for that year. This was a very
oppressive folk religion that kept the people in fear; this is probably one of
the reasons most Tibetans left Bon for Buddhism.
It was in the seventh century that the two princesses came
to Tibet but it wasn’t until 750 AD that Buddhism was more formally introduced.
This happened when the successor of King Songtsen Gampo invited Padmasambhava,
an Indian monk, who founded a Buddhist monastery near Lhasa, to come to Tibet.
The new religion didn’t grow for about a century under the suppression of
Bon. It wasn’t until Atisa, another Indian monk, who arrived in 1042 and
unified the priesthood that Buddhism started to grow. This form of
Buddhism caught on so well it came to be called Tibetan Buddhism. To be
Tibetan is to be Buddhist. It is so much a part of a Tibetan's life that
to abandon his Buddhist faith he almost has to abandon his identity as a
Tibetan. Most Tibetans now seek to gain merit in order to escape the
seemingly endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This is a very
religious life with the hope of making it to Nirvana in some uncertain future. Before Tibet fully came under the Chinese rule in the 1960’s, around one fifth of all Tibetans lived in lamaseries.
Currently Tibet is called the Tibetan Autonomous Region and
is a part of the People’s Republic of China. There is some disagreement
about the population of Tibet but the Dalai Lama’s office says there are 6
million Tibetans in Tibet, while the Chinese government says there are 3.87
Million. There are almost more Tibetans living outside of Tibet than in Tibet,
since the Tibetan rebellion in 1959. This has lead to large refugee camps
in Nepal and India. The Dalai Lama also fled Tibet in 1959 and made a new
governing home in Dharamasala, India.
2. INTRODUCTION TO THE
The Tibetan language had been spoken for many centuries but
did not have a written script until the 7th century. King Songtsen
Gampo employed one of his ministers, Thon-mi Sambhota, to develop a written
form of Tibetan. This new script was derived from ancient Sanskrit.
Since then the language has changed greatly but the script remains the same,
therefore, leaving quite a difference between spoken and written Tibetan.
The Tibetan language is categorized under the Sino-Tibetan
language group. This group branches off into two different groups:
Tibeto-Burman and Sinitic. The Sinitic language group consists of
different Chinese languages. The Tibeto-Burman language group is made up
of many different languages and dialects. The main groupings are: Bodic,
Baric, Burmese-Lolo, Koren, and Nungish. The Bodic grouping is made up of
the following languages: Bodish, Eastern Himalayan, Kiranti, Newari, and Dhimal;
Tibetan is a part of the Bodish language subgroup. Tibeto-Burman
languages are spoken in India, Paistan, Nepal, Tibet, China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh,
Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Apart from the languages spoken in this
rather small language group, Tibetan is independent from any other major
languages in the region, Chinese and Indian languages (although Chinese is part
of the Sino-Tibetan language group it really has no relation to Tibetan).
There are over 4 million speakers of the Tibetan language in
Tibet and the surrounding areas. It is spoken to the west, in Ladakh, Lahul,
Baltistan, and Purig; to the south, in India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan; to the
east and north, in the Chinese provinces, Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu.
There are many dialects of the Tibetan language. The
main modern dialects are broken into three different subgroups. The basis
of this division is phonological structure and the way the structure relates to
the written language. The dialects that are in Group A are Lhasa, Shigatse,
Mngari, and Sharpa. Group B consists of Chamdo, Sdedge, and Mbathang.
Group C is Blabrang, Cone, and Apa. The dialects in this third group
remain the closest to the written language, while Lhasa and Shigaste are the most
innovative, differing greatly from the written language. Many of the
different Tibetan dialects differ greatly as they have developed in isolation
over centuries secluded in the Himalayas. Many Tibetans cannot even
understand each other’s dialect; as it’s almost like speaking another language
Tibetan is used in the media, although there is not much
variety. There is at least one Tibetan newspaper printed in the Tibetan
governing capital, Dharamsala, India. Although there are no television
programs in Tibetan, there are numerous radio stations broadcast in the
language. Only one of these is legal within the Chinese boarders, which
is broadcast by the Chinese government. There is another one broadcast by
the U.S. government but it is illegal to listen to it. There are a
handful of other stations broadcast in India and Nepal. There are also a
variety of web sites in Tibetan. Many of these deal with political
issues, while others deal with Tibetan culture and language.
In talking about language in schools, there is a great
difference between Tibetan schools within the Autonomous region of China and
schools in India or Nepal. The official language of Tibet is Mandarin
Chinese, so most schools are conducted in this language, while some elementary
schools are still taught in Tibetan. These children must have a grasp of
Mandarin if they wish to continue education past the elementary level.
All colleges are taught in Mandarin. Higher education in the Tibetan
language is available in India and Nepal. Tibetan lamas and monks are
also taught Tibetan as it is considered a sacred language and they must be
literate in order to understand sacred books. Over 60% of Tibetans are
literate. Business and government in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is
also conducted in Mandarin. There are some Tibetan government officials
but they must speak Mandarin.
3. MANY OBSTACLES TO LEARNING TIBETAN
I imagine there will be many obstacles to learning
Tibetan. It is different in many ways from English and will take much
perseverance in order to learn. First of all, the script is quite
different. Although it is an alpha-syllabic script, it is taken from
ancient Sanskrit and is therefore quite different from Roman script. The
script has also not changed since it was first developed in the 7th
century, while the language in some cases has changed dramatically.
Therefore, the spoken language does not often match the written language.
Although there are only thirty consonants and four vowels, there is a super and
sub-script system where letters can be written above or below another letter to
form an all-new letter. Including all of these the letter total is almost
90 possible letters. All of these I will have to memorize and learn to
write afresh, since they are so different from Roman script.
The grammar is also different from English, with a
subject-object-verb word order instead of the more familiar,
subject-verb-object. Therefore, when I would think, “I like curry,” in
Tibetan it would be, “I curry like.” There is also two different forms of
pronouns, one common and one honorific. That means learning twice as much as we
have in English and learning when to use it and to whom.
As we discussed earlier, there are many different dialects,
and while I could learn one I would be limited in my use to only one specific
group of Tibetans. Many of the dialects cannot even understand each
other. In a number of dialects the voicing of stop, affricative, and
fricative initials has disappeared completely, while in others the original
contrast of voiced and voiceless initials is reflected in tonal
distinctions. This brings me to another problem, learning tonal
distinctions in the language. While it is not absolutely essential to
speaking Tibetan, not understanding the use of tone in the language could lead
to some misunderstanding and I would just plain sound funny. So while
there are many obstacles to learning Tibetan, it will be well worth learning if
I want to speak to Tibetans in their mother tongue, and to learn their culture in some depth.
4. THE SCRIPT SYSTEM
The Tibetan script was derived in the 7th
century, from ancient Sanskrit. It has never changed since then. It
is an alpha-syllabic script, made up of monosyllabic parts. There are
three different styles of script, the most common uses all capitals and is
called, U-chen, meaning “big-head.” This form is used in most printed
texts and on pubic signs. There is also a flowing cursive script used in
inscriptions and in formal letter writing, called U-me. A third type called Kyu-yig,
means “quick letters” and is the most common hand written script used in
informal letter writing and daily business. In addition to these scripts
there are ornamental scripts, which are used for writing Sanskrit mantras and
can be seen on monastery walls. These are the only scripts still in use
today but in past times Tibetans placed a high value on calligraphy and at one
time there was almost a hundred different Tibetan scripts, each with their own
There is no standardized romanization of the Tibetan script;
therefore different books will use different phonetic Roman script. This
is largely due to the many different dialects of Tibetan that all use the same
script. While most romanization of the script might be similar it is not
There are 30 root consonants and 4 vowels in the Tibetan
script. Besides these 30 consonants there are 27 subscribed letters and
33 super scribed letters. Each consonant inherently contains the vowel
“ah”. This is changed by adding one of the other four vowels above or
below a consonant. The vowels “i”, “e”, and “o”, are added above the
consonant, while the vowel “u” is written below.
There are also only two punctuation marks in Tibetan.
A dot is used after each syllable and a line is used after each sentence.
The script is also written from left to right and top to bottom. In the
following charts I will use the U-chen or “big-head” script.
5. THE SOUNDS
The sounds of the Tibetan language are not as far from
English as the written script and most of the unique sounds can be learned
fairly easily. Tibetan has four vowels but several different ways of
pronouncing them in words, as does English. For example, while the “a” is
pronounced softly like the “a” in father, it is pronounced hard when it
comes before a “y” and would sound like the “ay” in play. There is
an example of one vowel with two different sounds and this happens with all the
vowels. So, we end up with four vowels but about ten different vowel
sounds. There are two vowel sounds that we do not exactly have in
English, which are represented by ‘ö’
and ‘ü’. ‘ö’ is pronounced similar to the ‘u’ in put,
and ‘ü’ is pronounced similar to the ‘oo’ in loot. These two
sounds are a little harder for English speakers to learn but with a little
practice should be no problem.
Most of the sounds made by consonants are similar to sounds
made in English, except for one. ‘Nga’ is pronounced by pressing the back
of the tongue to the roof of you mouth pronouncing a nasally ‘ng’ similar to
sing, followed by dropping your tongue and pronouncing an ‘ah’. are
also a couple consonant that are different from English pronunciation.
Aside from these pronunciation differences there are
differences in tone and aspiration. Aspiration is used a lot in Tibetan
and can make the difference between two totally different words. For
example salt is aspirated and pronounced ‘tsha’, while grass is unaspirated and
pronounced ‘tsa’. While the difference is subtle it makes all the
difference when you try and ask for some “grass” to put on your rice!
There are also many tonal differences but these are less important than
aspiration. The differences are subtle and the true meaning could be
figured out by the context of the word.
6. THE WORDS
In Tibetan the words are distinguished by syllables and dots
that are inserted between them, not by spaces like we use in English. The
language is made up of monosyllabic parts and when these parts are strung
together they make new words. Each letter is one syllable and are words
on their own. When you add other syllables to them they make different
I don’t think I will encounter too many problems in speaking
Tibetan words, but I anticipate having more problems reading and writing
because the script looks so foreign and it will be hard for me to decipher
between words in the sentence when there is no space between them. When
it comes to speaking I will probably have some problems memorizing both the
common and honorific forms and using them in the correct setting. But, in
the end the only word I really need to know is “lah-so”, which Tibetans use all
the time and has many meanings including, “okay”, “I see”, “please go on”, and
7. THE SENTENCES
The sentence structure in Tibetan is quite different from
English and could cause some problems in remembering word order. The
basic sentence order is subject-object-verb, which is different but not too
hard to adjust to. Then adjectives and prepositions are also added after
the noun instead of before them. There are also “verbs of existence” that
express identity, existence in a place, or possession. These can get
tricky, and do not express tense or number; that is done by other words in the
sentence. These “verbs of existence” also have a positive and negative
form. Questions will also be difficult as question words such as, what,
where, when, are added in the middle of the sentence, just before the
verb. If a question word is not used an interrogative participle must be
added onto the end of the sentence. Since there are no punctuation marks
besides a line and a dot, these words are the only way to tell a
question. It will also be more difficult to make questions. Verb
conjugations and pronouns that show tense will also be very different from
English and be difficult to get a hold of, but with perseverance and God’s
help, we will be able to learn Tibetan.
There is much importance ascribed to the naming process of a
Tibetan. It is often viewed as so important that a lama, a Tibetan
priest, will be asked to choose a name for the child. Sometimes that
priest will go to the Dalai Lama to choose a name, and the Dalai Lama has
prepared name cards that he will send back to the lama to give to the
family. The Dalai Lama will choose the first and second name, the first
name always being Tenzin as this is the Dalai Lama's name. Therefore there
are many Tibetans named Tenzin. There are also no male or female names,
they are all neutral. Gender is only told by the combination of the first
and second name. Tibetans also have a household name that is never really
used. A man joining a woman’s household will take on her household
name. The following names are given with their meanings, which is very
important in naming people but not so in naming places. Therefore, most
of the names of places don’t have meanings to go with them.
9. NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
As in every culture Tibetans use lots of nonverbal
communication. A well-known trademark of Tibetan culture is that they
greet each other by sticking out their tongue. This is still true in remote
villages and by older people, but this is not a common practice anymore and
should not be used regularly as you will just look like a stupid
foreigner. Several nonverbal motions are similar to our culture such as
shaking a finger to signify warning or scratching their heads to signify doubt
Some motions that are different from American culture
involve, gift giving, humility, and hellos and goodbyes. When receiving
gifts Tibetans never open a gift in front of the giver. Humility is also
one of the most important virtues in Tibetan culture and therefore they respect
gentle, un-aggressive behavior. You should also always offer the best
seats and places of honor to your guests and never to yourself. It is
also important not to take the last bit of food as this is seen as
selfish. When greeting each other on the street Tibetans will lower their
head a little to show humility and respect for a person. If they are
close to someone they will touch foreheads together and exchange words of care
fore each other’s health if they have been or are going to be apart for a long
time. This is most of what I found in books but most of these things need
to be observed and used one the field as books can often highlight mannerisms
that are not widely practiced or at least not any more. So instead of
acting foolish, it is good to remember these things and then observe the people
when you arrive to see how they interact with each other.
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