March 25, 2012


Instigated (or better inspired) by Dan’s feedback, I would like to expand the discussion of gi gu so as to include a discussion of names of all four (or seven) vowels. First, a few comments on gi gu, the sign for i-vowel. To begin with, as pointed out by Martin, the Ma i’i bka’ ’bum just refers to it as gug, which is, by the way also recorded in the Bod.rgya (s.v. gug). It is also called gug gu (ibid., s.v.), which may be the result of a phonetic extension of gug, and represents a pre-stage of gi gu. If we consider the description of i-vowel in sources such as Rong-zom-pa’s dKon cog ’grel (p. 137.5: a ni bkug pa ni i) and his sMra sgo ’grel pa (p. 427.12: a bkug pa ni i yin no); sMra sgo ’grel pa (pp. 427.24–428.1: i ni bkug pa dang sbyar ro), it becomes clear that gi gu and its variants must have meant “bent” or “curved,” as i-vowel is described as “bent/curved a” (a bkug pa). Under these presuppositions, the possibility that gi gu could have been derived from gri gug “a curved knife,” because of the graphic similarity, seems less likely. Nonetheless it is not impossible, particularly if we consider the tendency to leave out r-subscript while speaking, which can be found not just in today’s Central Tibetan dialect but also even in some archaic sources.

In addition it should be also mentioned that gug “curve” or “bend” is said to be a collective name for the signs of i and u. The term gug is opposed to kyed or bkyed (perhaps meaning) “erect/upright,” which is a collective name for the signs of e and o. See the Bod.rgya (s.v. gug kyed). 

Now we come to zhabs kyu, the Tibetan name for the sign for u-vowel. Its etymology should be something like “curve/bend [at the] foot.” As for ’greng bu, the Tibetan name for the sign for e-vowel, it must mean something like “a little stroke that is upright.” What about rna ru or na ro, the Tibetan name for the sign for o-vowel? It seems to mean “antelope’s horn.” See the Bod.rgya (s.v. rna ru). 

In general, dGe-chos has pointed out that although it is no longer evident in certain scripts such as Rañjanā script, we can see in most letters of what he calls Māgadhi script that the graphic signs or shapes of letters (yig gzugs) are suppose to imitate or mirror the forms or shapes of the tongue during the articulation of the sounds. As examples, he provides retroflex, dentals, and palatals (dGe.chos-1: 254). Of course, the sMra sgo and its commentary (most probably by Rong-zom-pa) have already described how the “seven verbal impulses” (ngag gi ’du byed bdun) or articulations of the seven vowels (i.e. aeiuo, and ) occur comparable to the “seven physical impulses” (ngag gi ’du byed bdun), such as yielding weapon (mtshon ’debs pa), dancing (gar), working (las byed), and so on. Thus (1) a is called “straight letter” (drang po’i yi ge), (2) e “erected letter” (sgreng ba’i yi ge), (3) i “bent/curved letter” (bkug pa’i yi ge), (4) u “lowered letter” (smad pa’i yi ge), (5) o  “raised/exalted letter” (bstod pa’i yi ge), (6)  “tight letter” (sgrims pa’i yi ge), and (7)  “loose letter” (klod pa’i yi ge). For details, see the sMra sgo’i ’grel pa (pp. 422–423). Sanskritists should be able to enlighten us on this (provided such an idea is found in Sanskrit sources).


  1. Thanks D, I hadn't thought of the second possibility, the reduplicative form, although thinking about it makes me confused (which proves nothing). I've run across what looks like a diminutive of 'dog' (khyi), which is kyi-gu or khyi-gu. In one example I found, I imagine it means 'phlegm' (the obstructions in the breathing passages that older people especially have to cough up). What do you think? Here's the example:

    rtog pas rtog pa spong ba khyi gus khyi gu 'byin pa lta bu. Zhi-byed Coll. II 474.5.

    Isn't it possible that a word like *khyig ('khyig-pa?) would be behind the form, rather than khyi for 'dog'?

    Isn't it true of many of these -gu words that the 'g' is influenced by a (no longer present) 'g' at the end of the first syllable? Can we form a rule? Or would that be too imperious of us?

    Oh, and another thing I must ask, is Rong-zom-pa suggesting that the shapes of the Tibetan vowel signs (and perhaps the Indic as well) reflect the shapes of something going on in the mouth when those sounds are articulated? What a fascinating idea, if so. It had never occurred to me before! (Which again, proves nothing.)


  2. Dear Dan,

    Again I think we should devote one entry for khyi gu. Indeed Rong-zom-pa’s description of the vowels seems to be based on Indian sources. Obviously he is not speaking of vowels in the Tibetan language alone. He seems to be speaking not only of the graphic depiction of the vowels but also of vowel sounds. Was that not dGe-chos, who explained that graphic representations of the letters also depict the production or articulation of the sounds?


  3. Dear D,
    I'd love to hear more about the shapes of the letters mirroring articulation. Like I said, what a fascinating idea... How far can one go with it? How far did Dge-chos go with it?

    What about skigs-bu / skyigs-bu meaning hiccough? Could that connect somehow with the khyi-gu question? (Thank you so much for your long discussion. I can't think of anything to add at the moment that arguably makes sense.) I sort of half expect to find a *skyi-gu form (but perhaps the final 's' in the first syllable gets in the way of this kind of formation?

  4. Dear D,

    Thanks for adding that further information from that Grammar Door (?) book. Fascinating! Are you going somewhere with Smrti's grammar? I should also try to read it.


  5. Dear D,

    No, I am not going anywhere with the sMra sgo and its commentary. As you know the authorship and authority of both of these works habe been disputed by later Tibetan grammarians. Si-tu was somewhat ambivalent. I do sometimes read the commentary. It has been proposed that the sMra sgo is a combination of two works, right? That is, the first part deals with Sanskrit and the second with Tibetan grammar. Erev tov!