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Some reflections on the mysterious nature of Tibetan language.

If we learn properly, we can understand any language in a short period of time. This is possible if from the outset we learn proper pronunciation of words while listening to how native speakers speak their language, and then start reading and writing. Following this process, we will be able to speak a language naturally as the native speakers do without much thought and effort. Thereafter, one needs to learn the grammar and syntax of that language in a systematic manner from a teacher (klog slob dpon). Even if we know the syntactics of Tibetan language, it is not necessary that we would know the pronunciation unique to all the Tibetan dialects. Therefore, if we are able to discover the mystery prevailing in different dialects of the Tibetan language, everyone who knows written Tibetan can speak all different Tibetan dialects just as the native people speak their own dialect. I think this is a kind of mystery in Tibetan language. Once this mystery is uncovered through proper study of these dialects, one shall be able to see the change pattern in the pronunciation, and then one can very easily understand the differences in speaking and writing. Although Tibetan writing is same, Tibetans speak different dialects. While this may cause communication problem in understanding what has been said, if we know the mystery in pronunciation and hearing in various Tibetan dialects, this array of dialectics could be a boon for one could speak different dialects without any problem. Just recently I had a hunch about the mystery of the Tibetan language despite my many years of teaching and writing Tibetan. Given this opportunity to participate in this conference I have composed this piece of writing based on my hunch.

What is the mystery in the different dialects of the Tibetan language? Allow me to highlight it first with some examples and then I will explain them subsequently. For example,

1. ba is read as ma.

2. A syllable without suffix (mtha'med) is read as if it has the ma suffix.

3. ga is read as na.

4. na is read as ma.

5. sa is read as na.

6. A syllable without suffix is read as if it has na suffix.

7. 'a is read as na.

8. zha is read as ya.

9. pha is read as ha.

10. da is read as na.

11. a ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as e ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]' greng bu).

12. bya ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as ya.

13. The subjoined ra sta does not change the reading of basic character.

14. o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as oi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

15. u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as ui ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

16. The prefix of a 2nd syllable in a disyllabic word is read as the suffix of the 1st syllable

17. ra superscribed of 2nd syllable in a disyllabic word is read as the suffix of the 1st syllable

18. ra subjoined syllables are read as ya subjoined syllables.

19. ka, kha and ga subjoined syllables are read as ca, cha and ja.

20. The basic character of a 2nd syllable in a disyllabic word is read as the suffix of 1st syllable

21. ha is read as kha.

22. Vowel u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as vowel i ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

23. Vowel o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as vowel i ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

24. Vowel a ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as vowel o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

25. Western na and ra are read as la by Tibetans

1. ba is read as ma.

The statement "ba is read as ma" does not mean that ba is always read as ma. For example, when ba is used as a prefix or a basic character it is never read as ma. In general ba is not read as ma even when it is used as suffix. However, in some special cases when ba is used as suffix, it is read as ma. No Tibetans find flaw in this reading. This is what I call mystery in reading Tibetan language. Let me give some more examples: we say skyabs 'gro as skyams 'gro; skyabs mgon as skyams mgon; skyabs 'jug as skyams 'jug; zhib 'jug as zhim 'jug; rab 'byams as ram 'byams; zhabs 'dren as zhams 'dren; zhabs 'bring as zhams 'bring; zhabs 'degs as zhams 'degs; slob 'jug as slom 'jug; grub 'bras as grum 'bras; and so on. However, we say skyabs su 'gro, not kyams su 'gro. Similarly, we say skyab bcol gzhung, not skyams bcol gzhung; zhib phra, not zhim phra; zhabs brtan, not zhams brtan; slob ston, not slom ston; grub thob, not grum thob. Therefore, in all these words--skyabs, zhib, rab, zhabs, slob and grub, suffix ba is not always, but occasionally read as ma. Isn't it a mystery to read ba character as ma? It is easy to speak and learn a language when we are familiar with such phonological intricacies ofthe language. What is this secret? In the above examples, a disyllabic word, where the former syllable has the suffix ba and the latter syllable has prefix 'a, the sound of ba turns into ma. However, this explanation is not applicable to words such as skyabs mgon, as its latter syllable has the ma prefix. Thus the mystery is not uncovered completely.

2. A syllable without suffix (mtha' med) is read as if it has ma suffix. It is surprising that a word without suffix is spoken as if it has suffix ma. It is very difficult to find the reason despite much thinking about it. Even if we assume it has the suffix 'a, ma and 'a have different point of articulation (skye gnas). For example, dgra 'dul is spoken as dgram 'dul; sha 'bras as sham 'bras; rgyu 'bras as rgyum 'bras; na bza' as nam bza' and snga phyi as sngam phyi. In contrast, when we say dgra 'dul gnyen skyong, we never say dgram 'dul gnyen skyong. Similarly sha rus, rgyu 'gro, na tsha and snga ma are not spoken or read as sham rus; rgyum 'bras; nam tsha and sngam ma respectively. So what else is this if not a mystery of the language? If we claim that we call/ read dgra dul as dgram 'dul because dgra' syllable has the 'a suffix, then why cannot we call/read dgra 'dul gnyen skyong as dgram 'dul gnyen skyong because dgra 'dul is spelled the same in both cases? Close observation suggests that this mystery is not solved yet. We may say that such phonemes are special cases because we do not seem to have a definitive explanation.

3. ga is read as na.

When I say that ga is read as na, neither do I mean when ga is used as prefix and basic character nor do I mean that ga is read as na in general. However, in special cases, the suffix ga is read as na. For example, rig 'dzin is spoken as rin 'dzin. While the personal name rig 'dzin is always read as rin zin despite having suffix ga, rig 'dzin 'dus sde is never read as rin 'dzin 'dus sde. As mystery would have it such phonemes are part of natural Tibetan pronunciation although literally such phonological differences are not feasible.

4. na is read as ma

Here too I do not mean na is read as ma when na and ma are basic characters and suffixes. However, in special cases, the suffix na is read as ma. For example, rten 'brel is being pronounced as rtem 'brel. In contrast, rten 'brel yan lag bcu gnyis is never said or read as rtem 'brel yan lag bcu gnyis. I call such phonological differences a mystery of Tibetan language.

5. sa is read as na.

When I say sa is read as na, I do not mean that the basic character sa and the suffix sa are read as na. However, in special cases, for instance, we say chon byor for chos 'byor, chon 'dzoms for chos 'dzoms, chon 'phel for chos 'phel, shen mkhan for shes mkhan and gzhin 'go for gzhis 'go. For this reason, when we write the Tibetan name Chos 'dzoms in English phonetics, we write it as Chonzom, where we can see that the suffix sa is replaced by suffix na. We put English "n" to Chonzom to represent a Tibetan "na", but it is clear that there is no na in the Tibetan spelling. However, we never read words like chos spyod, chos pa, shes rab, gzhis chags etc. as chon spyod, chon pa, shen rab and gzhin chags. In short, in a disyllabic word such as chos 'byor with sa suffix and 'a prefix or shes mkhan with ma prefix, then the suffix sa could be replaced by na. If such a pattern exists then I may have unlocked some mystery in Tibetan language.

6. A syllable without suffix is read as if it has na suffix.

I am not making a general claim here that every syllable without suffix should be read as if there is suffix na. My contention is that in certain special cases, suffix-less syllables are read as if there is suffix na. Take mi 'gyur as an example. Though there is no suffix (na) to mi, Tibetans read and say the word as if there is suffix na to mi as min 'gyur. Similarly, we say chu min 'dug for chu mi 'dug. However, according to the Tibetan grammar, the antonym of 'dug is mi 'dug, not min 'dug. While I do not claim to have unlocked the mystery here nonetheless I find such phonological exceptions in spoken Tibetan interesting.

7. 'a is read as na

Similarly, I do not mean that in all cases 'a is read as na when 'a is a prefix or basic character. Even when 'a is a suffix, it is not read as na in general. However, under special cases some words which have the suffix 'a are pronounced as na. For example: dga' ldan is pronounced as dgan ldan and bka' 'gyur is read as bkan 'gyur. For this reason, when we write bka' 'gyur and dga'ldan in English phonetically, we write them as Kanjur and Ganden. This kind of phonetic rendering of Tibetan words in English is due to Westerners' hearing of this word from a Tibetan. They hear a na suffix sound after bka'and dga' although these two syllables are without such suffixes.

8. zha is read as ya.

Similarly, although every zha character is not read as ya, in special cases zha is read as ya. For example, a zhan g is spoken as a yang and la zhas is spoken as la yas.

9. pha is read as ha.

While pha in every case does not change its sound into ha, in certain special cases pha is read as ha. For examples, we say ha rol for pha rol; ma hen for ma 'phen, har phyin for phar pyhin, har 'gro for phar 'gro and so forth.

10. da is read as na.

While I do not mean da is read as na when it is used as prefix or basic character, in special cases when da is used as a suffix, it is read or pronounced as na. For example: sKyin 'dzoms for skyid 'dzoms. It is clear from this example that for the purpose of pronunciation, the suffix da in skyid 'dzoms is replaced by suffix na, thus it has been written as skyin 'dzoms.

11. a ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as e ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'greng bu)

In general, a ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])is not read or pronounced as e ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'greng bu). However, when a syllable has any of these four suffixes--da, na, la and sa--it is read or pronounced as e ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'greng bu). For example: dad ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), ngan ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])> bal ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and las ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, with the rest of the suffixes, we do not see any change in the pronunciation of vowel. It is difficult to say how, when and why such changes in pronunciation have come into being.

12. bya ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as ya.

I have said that bya is read as ya but not always. In special cases bya is read or pronounced as ya; for example: rgya bya is pronounced as rgya ya, ma byed as ma yed, and rma bya as rma ya. Through close observation it is found that for most of the words the main sound comes from the basic character when prefix, consonant, suffix, superscripts--ra mgo, la mgo, sa mgo--are subjoined with characters--ya sta, ra sta, la sta and wa zur or wa btags--in every monosyllabic word. However, in some cases, instead of the basic character, the subjoined characters provide the main sound as in the case of bya. Hence the basic character is ba but the subjoined character is ya.

13 . The subjoined ra sta does not change the reading of a basic character. In general, today, when ka has subjoined ra sta, the sound of ka is changed into ta. For example, bkra shis is read as Tashi. However, in some situations, ra sta does not change the sound of the basic character. For examples, people from Central Tibet say dug sbang for dug sbrang, phyogs spang for phyogs sprang, bang rtsal for brang rtsal, bang khog for brang khog and spe 'u for spre 'u. The following examples sbra chen, sbra phub, and sbra nag zhol are spoken as sba chen, sbaphub, and sba nag zhol. Because of such pronunciation, a popular saying among Tibetans is "People from Central Tibet have no ra sta."

14. o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

In general, o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) does not have an oi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) pronunciation. However, if a syllable has any of the four suffixes--da, na, la and sa, the basic vowel na ro is being pronounced as if na ro or o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) becomes oi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For example, bod, bon, bol and bos are read as boe ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), boen ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), boel ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and boes ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

15. u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as ui ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

In general, u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is not read as ui ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, when a syllable has any of the four suffixes--da, na, la and sa--the basic character with a u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) vowel is read as ui ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For example, khud, khun, khul, and khus are read as khuid ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), khuin ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), khuil ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and khuis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This is unique to Tibetan pronunciation and it has no relevance to Sanskrit.

16. The prefix of a 2nd syllable in a disyllabic word is read as the suffix of 1st syllable.

In a disyllabic word where the first syllable is without suffix, and the second syllable has prefix either ma or ba, the first syllable is pronounced as if its suffix is the next syllable's prefix. For example, bde mchog, bla mchod, bzhi mchod, lo mchod, rgya mtsho, ya mtshan, ra mda', sgra mdo, a mdo, chu mdo, kha mchu, chu mdog, lo mjug, zla mjug, mgo mjug, ja mdog, sha mdog, kra bzsang, blo bzang, bcu bzhi, bco brgyad, bzhi bcu, dgu bcu, lnga bcu, sa bcad, and go brda are pronounced as bdem chog, blam chod, bzhim chod, lom chod, rgyam tsho, yam tshan, ram da', sgram do, am do, chum do, kham chu, chum dog, lom jug, zlam jug, mgom jug, jam dog, sham dog, krab zang, blob zang, bcub zhi, bcob rgyad, bzhib cu, dgub cu, lngab cu, sab cad, and gob rda respectively.

17. ra superscribed over the 2nd syllable in a disyllabic word is pronounced as the suffix of the 1st syllable

In a disyllabic word where the first syllable is without suffix, and the second syllable has ra superscribed, then the first syllable is read or spoken as if the second syllable's ra superscribed is its suffix. For example, ma rtsa is pronounced as mar tsa, mi rgod as mir god, snga rgol as sngar gol, phyi rgol as phyir gol, bcu rgu as bcur gu, tho rgod as thor god, nga rgyal as ngar gyal, rdo rje as rdor je, lo rgyus as lor gyus, 'o rtsam as 'or tsam, chu rtsed as chur tsed, bya rgod as byar god, blo rgod as blor god, bu rdzi as bur dzi, ba rzi as bar dzi, lo rgan as lor gan, mi rgan as mir gan, pho rgod as phor god, kha rje as khar je, rgya rgan as rgyar gan, dge rgan as dger gan, bla rgan as blar gan, dmu rgod as dmur god, pha rgan as phar gan, ha rgod as har god and khyi rgan as khyir gan.

18. The ra subjoined syllables are read as ya subjoined syllables. In Kham and Amdo dialect, often ra subjoined syllables are read or pronounced as ya subjoined syllables. For instance, ral gyi for ral gri, da 'gyo for da 'gro, sha khyi for sha khri and bya khyi for bya khri.

19. ka, kha and ga subjoined syllables are read as ca, cha and ja. In Amdo dialect khyi (dog) is pronounced as chi. There is a story in connection with such a pronunciation. A person from Amdo visited Lhasa for the first time and asked for water, saying chi instead of chu. The Lhasan could not get what he was asking for. The reason behind it is that khya has been pronounced as cha, and vowel i has been pronounced as vowel u. In Amdo dialect, both chu (water) and khyi (dog) are pronounced as chi. Another example is go 'jo for go 'gyo. Professor Thubten Chogdrup has stated in his grammar that cha, khya and phya are similar in pronunciation; ca, lca, kya, rkya, pya and spya are similar in pronunciation; and ja, gya and bya are similar in pronunciation.

20. The basic character of a 2nd syllable in a disyllabic word is read as the suffix of the 1st syllable

In disyllabic words, the basic consonant of the next syllable is read as the suffix of the former syllable. For example, bla brang is read as blab rang and a bra as ab ra.

21. ha is read as kha.

Tibetans pronounce ha as kha when it is Mongolian title. For example, we say and even write khalka rje btsun dam pa for halha rje btsun dam pa.

22. The vowel u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as vowel i ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])

To my understanding, people from Tsang and Amdo, they pronounce the vowel u ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as vowel i ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For instance, in the dialect of Tsang for bu sa they say bi sa and in the dialect of Amdo, for chu, they say chi. Moreover in many old writings, we find 'bru gung for 'bri gung.

23. Vowel o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as vowel i ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) In the dialect of Labrang Tashi Khyil the vowel o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is pronounced as i ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For instance, they say dngis po for dngos po and sha 'tshis mi 'dug for sha 'tshos mi 'dug.

24. The vowel a ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is read as vowel o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) In Kham Trehor dialect, the vowel a ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is pronounced as vowel o ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For example, they say rkong pa for rkang pa, sgong tog for sgang tog, songs rgyas for sangs rgyas.

25. Western na and ra are read as la by Tibetans. In general the reading of na and ra are not interchangeable with la. However, due to dialectical differences in reading, sometimes Western na and ra are pronounced as la in Tibetan reading. This is a natural hearing and pronunciation for Tibetans. And that is why Tibetans say lumber for number, latasha for natasha and lubber for rubber. We do not know the reason why; thus, I have labelled it as mystery in this paper. Interestingly, prior to 1959, the usage of terms like yod, 'dug, red and yin had not been discussed in any Tibetan grammar book but learned through the process of familiarization with actual conversational practice. However, later when the Tibetan language is taught to westerners, the usage of these words has been explained separately. The great linguist Nicholas Tournadre has explained this state of affairs as typical of Tibetan language and its unique features. What is also natural to the spoken language is that the same word is pronounced differently by speakers of different dialects. Many years before, I stated that it was wrong to pronounce chi for chu, songs rgyas for sangs rgyas, mo rang for kho rang. Now I realize after considerable thinking that such practices are not wrong. These practices simply represent the dialectics of different regions. It is wrong to say that words such as sangs rgyas should be spelled differently.

These days the Chinese language is used extensively in Tibet, more than Tibetan. At meetings and during conversations Tibetans from different parts of Tibet speak one another in Chinese, because they do not have a common Tibetan dialect. Much has been talked about the need for a Lingua Franca. Many useful and important writings on the issue have been published in books and journals. I also wrote a lengthy article on this issue.

Some writers have argued that Lhasan dialect should be the Tibetan Lingua Franca but others have argued the same for the Amdo dialect. Whatever this could be, it would be good to have a common Tibetan dialect. Alternatively, if we can unlock the mystery of Tibetan language something previously attempted to discuss in this paper, one should hope that Tibetans could effectively communicate with one another across different dialects. The different dialects of the regions of Tibet are not like the different regional languages of India such as Hindi, Gujarati, Kanada and Punjabi. Tibetan dialects are akin to spoken English in different accents, such as those of America, Great Britain, Australia, India and elsewhere. Basically, the Tibetan language is the same across Tibet but is spoken differently to some extent as in Amke, Khamke and Uke.

In today's world, it is important for people of different languages to entertain effective intercultural communication. In the case of learning Tibetan language and dialects, if we could unlock the mystery of our language then we could be able to understand one another well despite our dialectical diversity. What I have shared in this paper may not be new to the readers; however, we need to pay closer attention to such unique features of our language. Of course, there is more to learn about Kham dialect than, for instance, simply adding na ro to sangs rgyas as in songs rgyas. With these words, I conclude my short paper with the hope that I have contributed a little to a better understanding of the Tibetan language.

* The original of this article is in Tibetan. It has been translated by Yeshi Dhondup of LTWA and edited by my friend Dr. Tenzin Dorje

Sangye Tandar Naga

Dharamsala
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Title Annotation:Ethno-Anthropology and Linguistics
Author:Naga, Sangye Tandar
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:4006
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