March 29, 2012


Tibetan letter འ་ is erroneously called even today and by some of the most respected Western scholars that I know འ་ཆུང་ (“the little འ་”), that is, regardless of its size and location. The tacit assumption is that the letter འ་ is a smaller or dimmed version of ཨ་, which is, I must admit, a very attractive idea.  Indeed in archaic forms of writings, it has been used as a symbol for an “inherent” ཨ་, which was later one done away with. Nowadays we understand ཀ་ to be the syllable/phoneme ka and not just a vowel-less consonant k, but probably Thon-mi meant ཀ་ to be a vowel-less consonant k whereas ཀའ་ to be ka (i.e. k+a).  With the elision of འ་ in course of time, however, ཀ་ came to understood as ka and a vowel-less k had to be marked with a virāma (i.e. an oblique stroke beneath a consonant, which looks like the Tibetan sign for the r-subscript, e.g. ཀྲ་). 

The letter འ་ is used in four ways in Tibetan, namely, as (1) a core-script (ming gzhi) as in འོད་, (2) prescript as in འདོད་, (3) postscript as in མདའ་, and (4) a marker of vowel-elongation as in ཀཱ་. In the first three cases, འ་ is simply called འ་ and not འ་ཆུང་. It is only in the fourth case that it is called འ་ཆུང་and the only possible reason seems to be its reduced size. Understandably it is also called ཨ་ཆུང་. This is precisely the understanding and usage of the term འ་ཆུང་ among Tibetan scholars and has been explained as such in the Tshig mdzod chen mo (s.v.) but for some curious reasons, modern scholars still seem to go on calling every འ་ as འ་ཆུང་, that is, oblivious of the Tibetan understanding. As Tibetan philologists would call, it seems we are dealing here with “an error that has become epidemic/widespread” (nor ba rgyun ’byams).


For a discussion of the use of letter འ་—called there འ་ཆུང་—(from a linguistic point of view), see W. South Coblin, “On Certain Functions of ’A-chung in Early Tibetan Transcriptional Texts.” Linguistics of Tibeto-Burman Area 25 (2), 2002, pp. 169–184. I would like to thank Dan for drawing attention to this article. See his comments below.


  1. Dear D,

    Culturally endemic errors become truths (or, I would say, that is one way human cultural truths are made).

    I have a theory that the 'a-chung tradition among Tibetologists could have gotten started because of Evans-Wentz, who thought the 'short a' was just a large Tibetan letter 'a' cut in two. (Well, at least this would be another example of new truths "emerging" when two cultures meet and don't quite comprehend each other... (or in this case 3 cultures)... As far as Sanskrit is concerned, the 'short A' (a-thung, or a-shad) is just the vertical stroke used to make the letter 'A' long... But just have a look at "Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines" p. 191, note no. 2, where E-W cut the Tibetan letter "A" in two! Well, it does look more like a number "3" than an 'a-letter, now that I look back at it. So, I'm not so sure...)

    I wonder why Tibetans wouldn't be more consistent and refer to the subscripted 'a as just 'a-btags? But perhaps my asking the question is already indicative of something?

    What you say about the letter 'a perhaps originally standing for an inherent "a"-vowel has me thinking. And thinking some more...

    I want to look up Uray Geza's article on the letter "wa" and see if he somehow agrees with Gendun Choemphel on these tsa-lag letters. you mentioned recently. Another interesting point for reflection. In cursive abbreviation practices, when the root letter (of the 2nd syllable) might be elided, the only thing that remains of the tsa/tsha/dza series of letters is that little flag of the tsa-lag... But in these cases the tsa-lag itself always remains in my experience. Does that tell us anything?

    Sorry to cause you so much trouble with my questionings and my confusions.


    1. Dear D,

      Tracing the genealogy of errors (if these can be called errors at all) seems to be as interesting as “Wissenschaft” itself. I have at the moment no comments on the rest of your thoughtful and rewarding comments. A possible explanation why འ་ཆུང་ was not called འ་བཏགས་ or འ་འདོགས་ seems to be that འདོགས་ཅན་ and མགོ་ཅན་ seem to have been intended as ligature-combinations necessary for the Tibetan language itself but those character-combinations such as ལོག་་ཡིག་ལྔ་ and འཐུག་པོ་ལྔ་ were used for transcribing foreign words. Our འ་ཆུང་, I would assume, too, becomes, necessary only when transcribing Sanskrit or Indic texts. Besides, I have no idea when the expression འ་ཆུང་ was coined. Perhaps not yet during the Imperial period.

      I must sleep now. Good night!


  2. And Beyer (p.43) even calls the regular a 'a chen.' Any grounds for that?

  3. Dear Pavel,

    It is obviously a consequent application of the idea of རྟེན་འབྲེལ། If there is འ་ཆུང་ or ཨ་ཆུང་ there must be, of course, འ་ཆེན་ or ཨ་ཆེན།



  4. I noticed Coblin states things quite carefully in his article about the 'a-chung, which you may see for free here:

    You may see on the 1st page, "the letter 'a, now often called the 'a-chung."

    I wonder, like he does, why it would have acquired a nasalizing function, as in the name of our heroic Indologist/linguist Dge-'dun chos-'phel, which supplies two nice examples, actually, being pronounced more or less like Gendun Chömpé[l].

  5. Historically, both འ and ཨ could be used as a subscript to denote the guṇa effect in Sanskrit (ā, au, ī, etc.), and this is why ཨ་ཆུང་ and འ་ཆུང་ means pretty much the same thing. But one wonders how indigenous grammarians would differentiate between འ and ཨ? I guess this is where 'a-chen and 'a-chung kicks in.