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

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 


The Tibetan Plateau Blog said...

WritingEnglishwithoutspacesbetweenwordswasareallygoodwaytobringhomeapointaboutdifficultyofreadingTibetan. Iamwithyouonthatone. haha. Sorry for the trouble reading this. I am just trying it out. Check out Tendor's blog, Yarlung Raging. He writes Tibetan with spaces between words.


Lama Pema Wangdak said...

And no more Greek anymore! The Tibetan will look, read and sound like Tibetan after all.

I read your note. You are right every word of it. Here is a good (may be the "best" since the Thönmi) news. The help is on the way. The work was done 10 years ago. I have been working on it to refine since so there is no glitch or defect there in the new operating writing system called "The Pema Ts'al System". This will be my this year's Losar gift to you and all the rests of 6 million (we have been saying this for the last 50 years, other countries like Sweden has grown to 3 extra million in similar time frame, they have now more or less nine million total. May be freedom does matter when it comes to the growth of the civilization!).

The Pema Ts'al Tibetan Language Research proposes an innovative system that addresses the hurdle there is in the writing and especially in the reading system.

We call this an innovative or the inventive, part because it solves the problem with ingenuity: a) how to bring improvement in the reading or the very writing system without changing it (sounds like a puzzle), b) how we go about doing this. The system not only improves the reading to point of perfection (barring meaning, etc.) it also keeps the existing system as if untouched.

No more head scratching, no more meaningless hurdle of trying to figure out where the word begins or end in the daisy chain of syllables, no more threat to the conservative Tibetan who are overwhelmed by the threat of the change in traditional system. Everyone will be happy, beginning with Loppon Thönmi, the conservatives and liberals, teachers, students, young and the old alike. There are works to be done here before it becomes media feed and before the Losar deadline.

If you want to contact me:

Lama Pema Wangdak said...

Your right, every word of it. There was and there still is a serious problem in deciphering (a kind of or sort of hurdle that serve no purpose) the words among the daisy chain of syllables. It is a problem no Tibetan ever thought it as a problem and that every Tibetan took it with a religious fervor since the 10th Century (There were some changes we see between the 7th and 10th).

Consider this 13 hundred year problem is solved once and for all. Pema Ts'al Tibetan Language System has an innovative system that visually, I mean literally, defines the word and the syllable as an separate entity based on the existing system as if nothing in the way of form and the format of writing has been changed. You will be flabbergasted to see Tibetan invention is still at work, even 13 hundred years after Thonmi. Want to know more email:

Anonymous said...

This version of your interpretation of Tibetan writing system is bit exaggerated.

Ifyouhadtoreadmybloglookinglikethishowwouldyoulikethathuh? Wouldn’tyouagreenglishisreally adifficultlanguage?Andwouldn’tyouagreethewrittenandspokenenglishlanguagedon’thavemuchincommonjustliketibetan?

Here is how it can look more like: Woul.dn’’’

Why because it is not exactly as bad as you portraited. It is bad enough. But I hate to make it worse than it is. Just a little consolation for those who are aspiring Tibetan speakers or the language students.

Mountain Phoenix said...

Dear Kusho Pema Wangdak-la

That's great news! Is there more information available on Pema Ts'al? Who is sponsoring the project? How how are you planning to introduce it to the Tibetans? And what does the name of the new writing system stand for? Is it available as software? I'd love to try it out. I volunteer to be a guinea pig, if you need people to test.

Tashi Deleg!
Mountain Phoenix

Mountain Phoenix said...

Hi Anonymous

Got caught exaggerating, you are absolutely right! The way you write with the dot between the syllables makes it look easier than the way I put it. Technically, I agree with your interpretation. But unlike English, the written Tibetan uses differing vocab from the spoken. So whether there is a dot between the syllables or not really doesn't much difference in terms of getting the content, if you know what I mean, at least to a debutant like me.

Mountain Phoenix

Anonymous said...

From Lama Pema Wangdak:

This is an independent research project under the auspicious of Pema Ts'al Schools education system. There is no funder, but is supported by individuals in a good old bartering system. That is why it took ten years to come this far. I am excited with the offer of your help as a guinea pig and I think you can do many others. My telephone number is 917-378-6025 and the email is We can set up time to meet on the phone at least for the first time.

Tashi Deleg!
Mountain Phoenix

Nyinjey said...

There's a slight misunderstanding here. Tibetan script does have punctuations.

Based on my experience its not has difficult as classical Greek.

I do agree that young Tibetans struggle reading Tibetan.

The root problem perhaps lies in the fact that we are in exile: for survival's sake, we had focus more on English rather than Tibetan from our childhood.

Lhagpa said...

How would you suggest we use spacing with the following phrase:
a) Bodrang Tsan
b) Bod Rang Tsan
c) Bod Rangtsan
d) Easier said than done.

Anonymous said...

Lhagpa La: I am lost. You mean when writing "Bodrangtsen" in Tibetan script or in English script?

Anonymous said...

All of it.

Anonymous said...

Spacing in Tibetan Language

" language puts a dot at sy.lla.ble in the writ.ten words. For that reason put.ting a dot in e.ver.y sy.lla.ble in a or in the ex.cer.cise book is a ve.ry good i.dea when lear.ning to read Eng.lish. How.ever to ex.pect the stan.dard Eng.lish to change its wri.ting sys.tem with a dot at eve.ry sylla.ble and in word is a very un.Eng.lish thing to do. It will be a tall or.der to the world of Eng.lish spea.kers to change its way of wri.ting sys.tem to suit the need of the stu.dents who uses Eng.lish as a se.cond"

To suggest a change in Tibetan writing system altogether by putting a space as a word separator to facilitate the Tibetan language students in Tibetan is a very un-Tibetan thing and it too is tall order to fill. While the need to find a solution that helps to separate the words in Tibetan is very real, adapting to any solution (such as space) precludes the sensitivity, morale and the integrity of the structure of the language. One of the key issue comes to mind is the effect in the uniformity of the written system: It will destroy the standard look of the written system. This is how it is going to happen. There is no way the spacing can be introduced over night and work the way as it sounds. Meanwhile we will be dealing with two systems, with or without the system. In the process we will loose the integrity and uniformity of the look. Tibetan will be divided between the two generation or the two groups, those that practices no spacing and those that practices. I for one do not subscribe to the spacing as a word marker. All for what? There is little to gain and whole lot loose.

Anonymous said...

The word recognition problem has been there always in the Tibetan language. It was the case with me when I was beginning to learn Tibetan as a young girl in the early 1960s. However in the recent years the problem seemed to have grown bigger than before, almost out of control to the point that its absence may literally kill Tibetan language altogether. We know that it is not because Tibetan language has became more complicated and thus gotten more problematic.

This fear for the survival of the Tibetan language without the spacing for the words is legitimate and well be prophetic, but is not reasonable. Because if that were the case Tibetan language should be dead long time ago. The fear for the loss of the interest by the younger generation because of the lack of word recognition in the Tibetan language is too is legitimate, but that too it unreasonable. Because such fear is limited to the Tibetans who live in non-Tibetan speaking countries and use Tibetan as a second language or to those who are in the process of opting to choose Tibetan as a second language. For them Tibetan language is as good as dead language and their fear is meaningless one.

I case you want to know what is meant by second language and who are those that uses Tibetan as a second language? If you find yourselves using predominantly one particular language, written or spoken, over the other language/s is your first language. All other languages will be your second languages. This means that almost all Tibetan who live different part of the world, except Tibet, India and Nepal, will not be able regard Tibetan as their first language.

For the Tibetans who see the importance of Tibetan language and regards it as an essential tool for their personal and cultural survival they are going to tough it out in learning to write, read and thus speak Tibetan with or without the spacing as the word recognition as their forefathers did successfully.

I do agree that the lack of word recognition undermines the morale of the students and imposes a totally unnecessary and meaningless hurdle, but do disagree lack of word recognition "suffocates" the learning process. To find the way how to solve the problem can be a great blessing and a major contribution to the Tibetan writing system. Yet I do not think spacing is the right option for a Tibetan word indicator, for one thing there are lots of technical or the grammatical issues that the workability of the spacing in Tibetan unaccounted for. Know that Tibetan word structure is not as straight forward as one presumes it to be just as in English and other languages.

Do you think we can find just the write solution other than the "spacing"? Whoever finds the solution will he/she be genius?

Anonymous said...

I'm writing here because I thought that perhaps you're not looking at comments on your blog posts from 2008. I left a comment on your article on Shugden in an effort to explain the main reasons why HHDL took a stand on Shugden practice in 1996. I've tried to explain some of the back story to this issue in the context of Tibetan history and society which many in the Western Shugden group may not be familiar with. Perhaps you haven't checked that article on your blog recently, but I think your sincere effort to address the issue through the lens of our developing democracy is being somewhat hijacked by some of the comments....there is even a link added to the article to make the case that a Tibetan is coming down on the side of the Shugden society. Not sure if this is what you intended.

Greg said...

I once took part in a Chinese PHD student's experiment. They put spaces between the Chinese words to facilitate both understanding and speed when reading. As you probably know some Chinese words have 1 character, some have 2 and some have 3 or more, so it is sometimes difficult as a learner to know where 1 word ends and another starts. At the time I had been in China for a couple of years learning Chinese and instantly found it was easier and faster to read with spaces. This was what her thesis proved (She recorded our eye movements as we read, then tested us on content.) Surprisingly though it also found a very slight speed increase for native speakers too.
I mainly write this to bring up the point that spacing also facilitates faster reading and not only comprehension/understanding.
Years later I created a simple program in Java that can put the spaces into a text, you may not need to change the minds of the general population, just someone willing to create an app - then anyone who wants a text that way can have it.