Friday, January 22, 2010

Reading Tibetan? All Greek To Me!

I’ve been feeling like my own grandmother lately, attempting to read, recite and memorise prayers and Sutras. When I think of it, that’s how I’ve been spending most of my free time in the last six months. Holy Trinity, looks like Mountain Phoenix discovered Buddhism as her new hobby!

Actually, it’s crazy because I can’t even read properly. Honestly, it’s more a deciphering than reading. And once painstakingly deciphered, without a translation next to the Tibetan root text, the content wouldn’t even begin to make sense. That’s the way I “read”.

So when the functionally illiterate Mountain Phoenix had finally taught herself to recite the Heart Sutra, she so utterly mixed up the pauses between the words, it got the Lama roaring with laughter - because the text had taken on a completely different meaning.

Every kid knows the story in this context: Somebody receives a letter that was supposed to read: Nga natsha me, yak ngakar shisong ("I’m fine, the white-tailed Yak died”). But the recipient got the pauses wrong and read: Nga na, tsha me, yak nga kar shisong ("I’m ill, there’s no salt, and all five Yaks are dead”).

But how is it possible in the first place, to misread one and the same text to such a drastic extent, I ask myself? And I answer myself right away: Punctuation and spacing. Two simple things.

Thomi Sambotha and his crew did a great job when they created the Tibetan script in the 7th century and introduced lots of sophisticated new vocab translated from Indian texts. But how come they omitted punctuation and spacing? Maybe those are recent linguistic phenomena and weren't there in the Indian originals? I don’t know. But then I’d say it’s high time our modern Lotsawas do something about it.

Ifyouhadtoreadmybloglookinglikethishowwouldyoulikethathuh? Wouldn’tyouagreenglishisreally adifficultlanguage?Andwouldn’tyouagreethewrittenandspokenenglishlanguagedon’thavemuchincommonjustliketibetan?
Other countries tackled the simplification of the written language hundreds of years ago and their literacy rates today speak for themselves. Mind you, their job involved a lot more than just punctuation and spacing. The Chinese had to come up with a completely new set of simplified characters (thousands of them!) so people would have an easier time to learn them. And Luther virtually invented a new language when he wrote the bible in vernacular German, so ordinary people would be able to understand, not just a lucky few.

Well, if Luther could issue the holy bible in a whole new people’s version, then our Lotsawas certainly shouldn’t have a problem with mere punctuation and spacing added to the Buddhist texts, should they? After all, we’re not touching the message; we only make it better understandable by more people. What could possibly speak against that?

Of course, those who love to read textwiththewordsallstucktogetherinahugehodgepodge may continue to do so. I’m not proposing to replace these. All I’m saying is we should have a user-friendly, modern version with spacing and punctuation. Simplifying Tibetan is a sine qua non if we want literacy rates in the Tibetan rural areas and among young expats to go up.

Or do we really prefer to tell ourselves for our own amusement and for even more generations to come, the story of the guy who fell ill with no salt and all yaks dying on him, without ever drawing the right conclusions from this story?

Sooner or later we will have to address the demystification of the written Tibetan altogether. If we want to keep our culture alive and evolving, we must update and expand our view of Tibetan as an exclusive and holy vessel that transports the Buddhist doctrine. We must add a new layer. Modern Tibetan should serve to communicate content, with no religious nostalgia tied to it, full-stop!

The question really boils down to this: Do we want reading and writing skills to be a self-understood mass ability? Or do we want to keep it a decorative privilege of an elite? That’s been the state of Tibetan literacy since the alphabet was invented over a thousand years ago.

It goes without saying: The goal is to have every single citizen, young or old, lay or clergy, male or female, rural or urban, in Tibet or abroad, able to read and write with ease, as if they have never done anything else. To achieve this goal, we must support language reform which includes things like punctuation, spacing, but also simplified spelling.

We shouldn’t treat Tibetan like a holy cow. If Tibetan were a dead language like Latin or Sanskrit, OK, then it would have a special status, and we can’t go around proposing to change stuff. But we’re still here, speaking it, using it every day and we want it to help us express things that are relevant to our lives today. Therefore as a living language, Tibetan must evolve and adapt to the people’s needs.

If we don’t do it, people will revert to other more flexible languages and gradually do away with Tibetan. Or its only purpose will become liturgy. Look, all this is already happening, we are witnessing it. If we don’t react, Tibetan will definitely join the holy ranks of Latin and Sanskrit one day, with a big reputation - but dead.

Those who believe Tibetan is perfect as it is, and doesn’t need to change, are part of a backward-oriented, reactionary group that ends up preserving reading as the privilege of a few. The fact that we haven’t had a language reform worth the name in half a century since coming to the modern world, shows that there must be a lot of folks out there, who think this way. That’s scary, don’t you think so?

So we see, even in linguistics we touch upon our old problem: mixing the secular and the religious. And as usual, the religious overpowers the secular.

Actually, when I think of it, what keeps me from adding punctuation and spacing to Tibetan texts? I’m free to do as I please. It’s a small first step, but it’s a step. If language reform doesn’t come top-down, people can always give impulses bottom-up.

As the Americans say: “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”.

Bhod Gyallo! Victory to Tibet!
Mountain Phoenix

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