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Articles about Tibetan language and literature

The first part of this article is about the Tibetan language.    

An old photo of a bookcase in a Tibetan library. The books [Tib. pecha] with loose, rectangular pages stored between wooden plates are wrapped in cloth and stored in the cubby holes, small end to the fore with a cloth label hanging from the visible end.

Greetings !

Tashi Delek has become the common, everyday, Tibetan greeting, but it was not always so.  Tashi means auspicious and delek (also transliterated, deleg or deleh) means fine or well.  It is properly used at the end of a message or meeting.  The phrase means something like, "May everything be well" or "auspicious greetings."  It is also used as a synonym for the word "greetings," so people are heard to say, "Many tashi deleks."

Tibetan-speakers of Ladakh, which is today included in the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir, say Joolay which means, "Victory to the gods!"  Since there is evidence to suggest that Tibetans moved to their high plateau from somewhere to the West, it may be that Joolay is the older greeting.

Sticking out the tongue was once a common form of formal Tibetan greeting which has not yet completely disappeared:

"In 1727, when Tibet was invaded by Dzungars, the practice of Bon was again prohibited. Many Bon Lamas were executed at this time, and the Nyingmapas were persecuted as well. When meeting, the Dzungars would force the Tibetans to show their tongues. They thought that if the tongue was a light color, it proved that the person was neither a Bonpo nor a Nyingmapa.  It was believed that the tongues of these peoples had turned black or brown due to numerous recitations of mantras."  ~  Not available.

Pronouncing Tibetan

There is plenty of archaelogical evidence that shows that Tibet had writing before the arrival of Buddhism.   However, Thönmi Sambhota, a minister of Tibetan king, Songtsan Gampo (617-650,) returned from India with a proto-Sharada script used in Kashmir that was taught to him by the Brahmin Lichin Kara.  This script, somewhat similar to Devnagri (Skt. god-writing) that is used for Sanskrit  and Hindi, made it possible for Tibetan linguistics to conform to the classical language as found in Buddhist literature.

The method for recording language is different, however, from that used in the Indian languages.  Letters that go to comprise the word seem linked by the familiar line joining them at the top, but syllables can also be formed of stacks of consonants written as a kind of chain one over the other.

Furthermore, Tibetan orthography (or, spelling system) is composed almost exclusively of consonants, but in many words, several letters may not even be pronounced.  In fact, as we go from western regions near Ladakh eastwards into China, it is possible to hear in the regional pronunciations the process by which the sounds change, and are sometimes eliminated entirely.   Some scholars hold that this characteristic of spelling is merely a method to indicate the distinction among several homophones -- words that sound the same but have different meanings.   This is also frequently true of English, isn't it? Why bother with all these:  to, two, too, 2 ? Not to mention, tutu . . .  .

Tibetan calligraphers have developed several different styles of script and many variations, and enjoy them as a form of poetic-cum-graphic expression in the manner of Chinese, Persian and other calligraphists.

Representation of Tibetan using "our" letters

The first English-Tibetan dictionary was published in 1834 by a young Transylvanian
explorer, the Hungarian Sandor Korosi Csoma.  The most famous, and still very useful  Tibetan-English one, is that by Chandra Das.

The Wylie transliteration system that uses our Roman alphabet reproduces all of the letters used to spell a word, but it is not useful as a guide to pronunciation unless the reader is familiar with the "rules" for vocalizing certain arrangements of letters. 

Readers of books on the subject of Tibetan religion and culture will soon discover that there are several different spellings for a word or a name in English.  The spellings in other languages will likely be different as they are geared to French, or other, language-speakers since the goal of any transliteration is to produce a sound that comes close to the original.  The problem is further complicated by the regional dialects of Tibetan.  For example, Lhasa city dialect is distinctive.  Ladakhi in the west, or the east Tibetan or Khampa dialect can sound almost like a totally other language. 

There are somewhat subtle tonal inflections of certain consonants, and the importance the tones play depends upon the dialect, too.

Two sounds are new for speakers of English; they are the eu (say oo while forming an ee with your mouth, as in the French word je ) This is often indicated by means of the two dots or dieresis over a vowel --ü or ö [only properly called an umlaut in German.] In some usages, there is an accent grave ( \) over eu, instead.

The other is a nasal sound that can be indicated by ng.  When it is at the end of a word, we should not actually hear the g -- it is pronounced rather like the end of the word sang.  This is an adenoidal sound that is commonly heard in Asian languages, as when the Vietnamese name Nguyen is pronounced correctly.  However this depends upon the dialect, when ng comes at the beginning of a word, we often ignore the n (more or less.)   For example, the transliterated word for "yogi" is ngakpa pronounced gagpa.

Also, there is a tendency to preserve the "R" in a transliterated text even when it is not pronounced:  The proper name Trinley or Thinlay is pronounced Tinley; Urgyen is pronounced Eugyen / Ogyen / Odjen.

A number of spellings have become recognizable even though they do not represent the sound of the Tibetan word.  One of them is Chod, the usual English transliteration for the tantric Buddhist "cutting" offering.  There may better a English rendition but people might not recognize it. 

Tibetan Scriptures 

Tibetan plays an important role in the preservation of the Dharma.

King Trisong Detsen was responsible for undertaking the production of a Sanskrit-Tibetan-Chinese lexicon, the Mahavyupatti.  It was intended to standardize the translation of Buddhist texts into Tibetan. 

Since Tibet, unlike China, had no truly philosophical tradition, equivalent terms were coined and assigned to Sanskrit expressions with little danger of being misunderstood in the light of some other context.  Thus the Tibetan translations, though literal and "somewhat dense and unnatural" are considered very reliable in representing the Sanskrit originals. They have proven to be an invaluable source for the reconstruction of lost Sanskrit texts.

About traditional Tibetan epic literature

  • Traditions of Padmasambhava such as
    • 8 forms of Guru Rinpoche
    • 8 places of his practice


  • About Gesar of Ling, epic and opera.  
    • There are other epics, such as The Adventures of Lopon-Gara (and Gyaza, the Chinese princess.)


  • Overview of Writing About Tibet by Topden Tsering
    • Not Tibetan: About the author of The Third Eye:   This scholarly article demonstrates beyond doubt the true identity of the person claiming to be a Tibetan lama called T. Lobsang Rampa.  The quasi-Orientalist fantasy novels written by a British tradesman did, nevertheless, inspire many people to seek out and learn from genuine Tibetan teachers.  Bodhisattvas may indeed "move in mysterious ways," but that is not to say that the novels are considered gterma ["uncovered" or divinely inspired texts.]


  • Storytime may interest you, too.

  • Menu of Tibet & the regions tied to it.

  • Links to Publications.     


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