April 18, 2012

Tibetan Orthography

Apparently the Tibetan word dag yig is meant to express orthography rather than lexicography. We might get an impression, which is in many respects a true impression, that Tibetan orthography came to be standardized only gradually. While reading old materials we often come across unusual orthographies and that compel us to wonder whether we are dealing simply wrongly spelled words that cause our irritation with the assumed carelessness, sloppiness, and even ignorance of the past scribes, or, whether these spellings are alternative and correct. Actually it would be worthwhile to document all possible orthographies of a single word (if possible according to a relative chronology of the sources in which they occur) with the hope that this will help us to understand the process of inception, development, and standardization of Tibetan orthography. It seems reasonable to assume that there could not have been a fixed orthography ab initio, that is, when Tibetans started to put down oral text into written texts. This would be become comprehensible if we observe the process of fixing orthography of modern or colloquial Tibetan. Tibetan themselves have never felt the need to commit spoken language to writing and it is only after their encounter with non-Tibetans that the grammar of spoken Tibetan came to be committed to writing. A single word would be spelled in many ways and there is no standard orthography yet. At least three factors make the standardization of the orthography of modern or spoken Tibetan difficult. First, the desire to be convey pronunciation as accurately as possible would outdo the need to spell correctly, and hence authors would resort to phonetic rendering rather than to correct spelling. Second, because some words have only been spoken and never seen written, most authors have no clue about the orthography even when they are traceable. Third, while trying to standardize orthography, authors might have their own idea of what the etymology of a word should be and the word may thus obtain a wrong etymology and orthography.

Modern Tibetan scholars have made a number of generally valid observations regarding old and new Tibetan orthographies. For instance, it has already been pointed out that the first three letters in any given section (sde) in Tibetan alphabet, e.g. ka, kha, and ga, in the ka-section (ka sde) have often been considered exchangeable.

Should there be one day a huge historical-etymological Tibetan-Tibetan dictionary, I hope that it will also include all possible orthographies.       

1. dpon g.yog > dphon yog (gNa'.rtsom, p. 288)
2. phrin yig > srin yig (gNa'.rtsom, p. 289)

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