§1. Tibetan Alphabetology: What is “Tibetan alphabetology”? An online version of Meriam-Webster provides the meaning of “alphabetology” as “the study of alphabetic systems of writing.” Based on this, “Tibetan alphabetology” maybe defined here as “the study or theory of Tibetan alphabetic system of writing.” I intend to distinguish “Tibetan Alphabetology” (bod kyi yi ge’i rig pa or bod yig rig pa) from “Tibetan Scriptology” (bod kyi yig gzugs rig pa) although conceptually and historically the two may be closely related. The focus in the former is Tibetan alphabetical system whereas the focus in the latter is Tibetan scripts as presented and represented graphically (be it “manu-graphically,” calligraphically, xylographically, or, lithographically). In other words, one could perhaps say that the distinction between “Tibetan alphabetology” and “Tibetan scriptology” is that the former focusses on the “phonemes” (yi ge’i sgra) in the Tibetan writing system whereas the latter on the “graphemes” (yi ge’i gzugs); the former on the “sound” or the “audible” and the latter on the “signs” or the “visible” aspects of the Tibetan writing system. Although on a slightly different level, one may also bear in mind the distinction between “language and script” (skad dang yi ge) as obvious in the bKa’ thang sde lnga (p. 422). Both Tibetan alphabetology and Tibetan scriptology are integral components of the “Tibetan language” (bod kyi skad). The two would thus pertain to the two foremost activities of education and communication, namely, those of writing and reading (’bri klog gnyis), as the bKa’ thang sde lnga (p. 471) states: “Writing (i.e. encoding) and reading (i.e. decoding) are the bedrocks of education/edification” (’bri klog gnyis ni yon tan gzhi ma yin ||). Similar statement can be found in Mi-pham’s bZo rig nyer mkho.
§2. My main source is Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung’s Thon mi’i zhal lung. He bases himself on the rGyal rabs gsal ba’i me long (or rGyal rabs gsal me) mostly ascribd to Bla-ma-dam-pa bSod-nams-rgyal-mtshan but by some (e.g. The Great Fifth and Klong-rdol-bla-ma) to gZhu-khang-ba Legs-pa’i-shes-rab (Thon mi’i zhal lung, p. 29). The author of the rGyal rabs gsal me based himself on a work attributed to Thon-mi Saṃbhoṭa himself, namely, the mDo rdz’i sgra mdo (rGyal rab gsal me, p. 182), which is no longer accessible now but obviously accessible to the author of the rGyal rabs gsal me.
§3. Tibetan alphabet consists of four vowels (dbyangs bzhi) and thirty consonants (gsal byed sum cu). These are also called “thirty-four core-letters” (rmang gzhi sum cu so bzhi). See the Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1611). Perhaps Tibetan ming gzhi—which maybe rendered here as “syllabic nucleus,” that is, a “core-letter,” which functions as a kernel or basis for a syllable—should not be mistaken with rmang gzhi. There maybe many discussions in Tibetan sources why a in Tibetan alphabet (i.e. unlike in Sanskrit and Latin/Roman alphabetical systems) has been considered a consonant rather than a vowel and for some there are five vowels and twenty-nine consonants. It appears that the main (or perhaps the only) criterion for Saṃbhoṭa for considering a letter a consonant has been whether a letter stand and function as a “syllabic nucleus” (ming gzhi). In other words, only those letters (i.e. as graphemes and phonemes) that can serve as “bearer” of vowel signs or sounds, have been considered “consonants.” So it seems that in Tibetan alphabetology, just as pure consonants are actually “unutterable” so can pure vowels not stand or be represented (graphically) on their own. Vowels need consonants as much as consonants need vowels! They need each other! This makes perfect sense in a syllabic language such as Tibetan! Unlike i, u,e, and o, a can stand on its own and function as a “syllabic nucleus.” We might want to ask why would have Saṃbhoṭa liked to create འ་? (By the way, A-mdo-bas indeed call it ཨ་ཆུང་). Apparently it was felt necessary for two reasons. First, a letter (or grapheme) was needed to represent the corresponding Tibetan sound (or phoneme) which is quite distinct from a (as in ’od zer or ’Od-dpag-med). Second, it was also necessary to represent the vowel inherent in every consonant, which was later done away with, and to mark elongation (ring cha) of vowels (relevant for transliterating or transcribing Sanskrit texts). Of the thirty consonants, a is “mother” (ma) and the rest twenty-nine “father” (pha). The graphic aspects of these letters and other symbols or signs used in Tibetan alphabetology will be discussed in the context of the Tibetan scriptology.
§4. Of the sixteen vowels (i.e. including visarga and anuavara) in Sanskrit, Saṃbhoṭa is said have adopted five vowels (i.e. i, u, e, and o for four Tibetan vowels and a as a consonant). Of the thirty-four consonants in Sanskrit, he discarded “five dense letters” (’thug po’i yi ge lnga) and “five/six reversed letters” (log pa’i yi ge drug). For details, see the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 16). sDe-srid (in his g.Ya’ sel) counts kṣ among reversed letters but Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung disagrees.
§5. When, by whom, and why were “five dense letters” (’thug po’i yi ge lnga) and “five/six reversed letters” (log pa’i yi ge drug) created? According to the rGyal rabs gsal me, these were not created by Saṃbhoṭa himself by later paṇḍitas and lo tsā bas to transliterate mantras. This makes much sense to me, but Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung thinks that these were “already created [by Saṃbhoṭa] in passing” (zhar la bzos zin) while establishing the main scripts (bod yid byings gtan la phab dus). See the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 18). During the time of the Great Fifth, the ligature hpha (read: ha la pha) was introduced into Tibetan as mentioned in Gung-lo-chen mGon-po-skyabs’s rGya nag chos ’byung, that is, for phonetic rendering of the intended Chinese sound.
§6. Which letters of the Tibetan alphabet were added by Saṃbhoṭa himself? Traditionally six letters (i.e. c, ch, j, zh, za, and ’) are said to be added by Saṃbhoṭa. See the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 16). According to dGe-’dun-chos-’phel, however, Saṃbhoṭa created the following seven letters: ts, tsh, dz, w, zh, z, and ’. According to him, the scripts of all of these seven letters were initially marked with a hook called “tsa limb” (tsa lag) or “tsa-sign” (tsa rtags), which can be seen even in w, zh, z, and ’ in some archaic writings. See the dGe chos gsung ’bum (1) (pp. 268.1–271.3). The term rtsa rtags is also employed in the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 22). The Ka khol ma, however, states that there is said to be only “five-and-half” (phyed dang drug) inasmuch as ’ letter does not obtain prescripts and postscripts. See the Ka khol ma (p. 107): rgya gar la med pa’i yi ge phyed dang drug yod zer | ’ yig ’phul dang rten mi thob pas yi ge phyed pa de ’ yin zer ba yod; ibid. (p. 106): bod yig rgya la med pa’i phyed dang drug yod do ||. But the explanation may hold only if we understand that ’ letter cannot have “both prescript and postscript at the same time” because it can have postscripts, for example, ’ang, ’os, ’od, and so. Even then we have to compare ’ only with other letters in the group of letters purportedly introduced by Saṃbhoṭa?
§7. Five letters that function as “five prescripts” (sngon ’jug lnga) are: g, d, b, m, and ’. Ten letters that function as “ten primary postscripts” (rjes ’jug bcu) are: g, ng, d, n, b, m, ’, r, l, and s. Two letters that function as “two secondary postscripts” (yang ’jug gnyis) are: d and s. Prescripts are called “inlet/ingress letters” (’phul ba’i yi ge = ’phul yig = ’phul ba). Postscripts are called “outlet/egress letters” (mtha’ rten gyi yi ge). Prescripts and postscripts called “inlet-outlet or ingress-egress letters” (’phul rten gyi yi ge). See the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 17). All of these are pure consonants (i.e. srog med), that is, without the inherent vowel. The terms phul yig lnga and rten yig bcu are employed in the Ka khol ma (p. 106). For the issue of yang ’jug, see below §26.
§16. Why are Tibetan letters r, l, and s called “three mothers of all letters” (yi ge kun gyi ma gsum)? No explanation has been found yet!
§17. Why are Tibetan letters k, g, b, and z called “three mothers of letter l [in] particular” (la yig sgos kyi ma bzhi)? No explanation has been found yet! The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1852 = s.v. yi ge la yi ma bzhi) records the expression but provides no explanation.
§18. Why are Tibetan letters c and h called “two off-springs of letter l [in] particular” (la yig sgos kyi bu gnyis)? No explanation yet! The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1852 = s.v. yi ge la yi bu gnyis) records the expression but provides no explanation.
§19. Why are Tibetan letters ts and dz called “two children of letter r [in] particular” (ra yig sgos kyi bu gnyis)? No explanation has been found yet! The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1852 = s.v. yi ge ra yi bu gnyis) records the expression but provides no explanation.
§24. Why is w regarded as “one letter that is dispensable” (med kyang rung ba’i yi ge gcig)? The idea that w is dispensable probably presupposes the theory that it has been adopted by Saṃbhoṭa from the Sanskrit alphabet and also presupposes the failure to reflect on the distinction of the sounds of wa and ba in Tibetan. In Sanskrit alphabet, w would be indeed be redundant but certainly not in Tibetan. In fact Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung does explain that for writing in Lanydza script, w is redundant because it is similar to b. See the Thon mi’i zhal lung, p. 73). This is not recorded in the Dung dkar tshig mdzod.
§25. “Letters of life-force and conditions” (srog dang rkyen gyi yi ge [= srog gi yi ge and rkyen gyi yi ge]): 4 vowels, dbu khyud, shad, and bar tsheg. According to Verhagen 2000: 182, n. 779, these have been discussed in Verhagen 1995 (unseen). Also note that those consonants that contain vowels (inherent or otherwise) are called srog can (“with life-force”) and those without are called “without life-force” (srog med). See, for example, the Tshig mdzod chen mo (s.vv.).
§8. Three Tibetan letters, namely, r, l, and s are called “three [letters] with head” (mgo can gsum) but strangely not because these are letters that possess heads but because these are letters that function as “heads” for a number of other letters. In other words, these are “superscripts” or “superimposed scripts.” Perhaps initially the word mgo can was used as a bahuvrīhi (i.e. adjectival) compound qualifying those syllables (or characters/ligatures) that possess superscripts, that is, in the sense of mgo can gyi yi ge.
§9. Four Tibetan letters, namely, y, r, l, and w are called “four [letters] with affix” (’dogs can bzhi) but strangely not because these are letters that possess affixes or “pendulums” but because these letters can be “affixed” or “suspended” at the feet of several other letters. Perhaps initially the word ’dogs can was used as a bahuvrīhi (i.e. adjectival) compound qualifying those syllables (or characters/ligatures) that possess subscripts, that is, in the sense of ’dogs can gyi yi ge.
§10. Syllables with superscripts or/and subscripts are called “letters of stack-suspension” (brtegs ’dogs kyi yi ge). The letter that constitutes the kernel of the syllable is called a “core letter” (ming gzhi’i yi ge). A core letter that is devoid of superscript, subscript, and prescript is called a “lone core-letter” (ming gzhi rkyang pa). A syllable that has both superscript and prescript is called a brtsegs ’phul (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v.). A core letter that is endowed with a prescript is called a ’phul can/yod (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.vv.). A core letter that is devoid of a prescript is called a ’phul med (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v.). Mer-gen-mkhan-po Se-ra-ba Ye-shes-rnam-rgyal has pointed out the during the earlier period of propagation (snga dar dus) of Buddhism in Tibet, all superscripts and subscripts were pronounced quickly. Being unable to pronounce these distinctly could lead to a split in the syllable. According to him this is how once kye beame ka ye. See the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 163).
§11. k, kh, c, ch, j, ny, t, th, p, ph, ts, tsh, dz, w, zh, z, y, sh, h, and a are called “20 principals of the letters” (yi ge’i gtso bo nyi shu) (Thon mi’i zhal lung, p. 16). The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1852 = s.v. yi ge gtso bo nyi shu) records the expression but provides no explanation. But why? No explanation is given there. The Sum cu pa itself seems to offer an explanation. Most probably because these letters are also called “twenty bare core-letters” (ming gzhi rkyang pa’i yi ge nyi shu tham pa), that is, no constellation/combination of these letters, even with the help of the four vowels, can form a syllable. See the Si tu ’grel chen (p. 39); Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 84).
§12. Why are Tibetan letters g, d, b, m, and ’ called “extremely cherished five letters” (shin tu gces pa’i yi ge lnga)? Of course the question is also whether what is meant here is “extremely cherished five letters” (i.e. vowel-free consonants) or “extremely cherished five syllables” (i.e. ga, da, ba, ma, and ’a). The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1852) records the expression but provides no explanation.
§13. Why are Tibetan letters k, g, ny, t, d, n, zh, sh, and h called “nine letters with feet” (rkang pa can gyi yi ge dgu)? Evidently because all of these letters graphically depicted as having “feet” (most of which are perpendicular lines).
§14. Why are Tibetan letters k, g, b, z, r, l, and s called “seven mother-letters” (ma’i yi ge bdun)? Six letters (i.e. k, g, b, z, r, and s) are called “mother-letters” because one can affix to them ya btags, ra btags, and la btags as appropriate. But what about l to which none of the three can be affixed? This is a question raised in the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 19).
§15. Why are letters k, g, ng, c, j, ny, t, d, n, p, b, m, ts, dz, l, and h called “sixteen child-letters” (bu’i yi ge bcu drug)? Because one can affix to them “three that soar like a hat on the top” (steng na zhwa ltar lding ba gsum) and “three that are elegant like cushion from beneath” (’og nas gdan ltar mdzes pa gsum)? It is said that zhwa dang gdan gyi dpe’i yi ge drug bu are tsha’i yi ge! See §23. Note: For rNgog, four vowels (i.e. gi gu, and so on), ra btags, ya btags and called “six children of letters” (yi ge’i bu drug).
§20. Why are Tibetan letters kh, ch, th, ph, tsh, w, zh, y, sh, and ’ called “ten self-reliant letters” (rang sa ’dzin pa’i yi ge bcu)? Because it does not require ’phul rten and ma bu? See the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 17) but still not clear to me. The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1891) records the expression but provides no explanation.
§21. “Omnipresent letters” (kun tu rgyu ba’i yi ge gnyis): g and b! This is not recorded in the Dung dkar tshig mdzod.
§22. Possible superscriptions und subscriptions: (ra mgo can bcu gnyis) + (la mgo can bcu) + (sa mgo can bcu gcig) + (ya btags bdun) + (ra btags bcu gcig) +(la btags drug) + (wa btags bcu gnyis). The Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1454) lists forty-eight “lone core-letters” (ming gzhi rkyang pa) that can have prescripts (’phul or sngon ’jug) and “14 triple-deckers” (sum brtseg can bcu bzhi): rkya, rgya, rmya, skya, sgya, spya, sbya, smya, skra, sgra, snra, spra, sbra, and smra.
§23. “Three that soar like a hat on the top” (steng na zhwa ltar lding ba gsum): gi gu, ’greng bu, and rna ru. It is clear! “Three that are elegant like cushion from beneath” (’og nas gdan ltar mdzes pa gsum): zhabs kyu, ya btags, and ra btags. “Children letters” (bu tsha’i yi ge): zhwa dang gdan gyi dpe’i yi ge drug. See also the Dung dkar tshig mdzod (p. 1852 = s.vv. yi ge’i steng gi lding ba gsum & yi ge’i ’og gi mdzes pa gsum).
§26. There have been interesting debates with regard to the two secondary postscripts (yang ’jug) (i.e. d and s)—also called da drag (lit. “forcefully aspirated da”?) and sa drag (lit. “forcefully aspirated sa”?) (e.g. in the Thon mi’i zhal lung, p. 89). Note that the Sanskrit visarga or visarjanīya has been occasionally rendered as tsheg drag. (a) With regard to da drag, except for some remnants, the practice of employing it explicitly has been done away with (through writing reforms) but the saṃdhi rule associated with it still applies and thus its implicit existence should be recognized. Some Tibetan scholars have seen more advantages in revoking the use of da drag inasmuch “the mass of letters has been curtailed” (yig tshogs bskyungs) and the characters have assumed “lighter contours” (zor yang ba). Others have seen more disadvantage in doing away with da drag inasmuch as it caused confusion with regard to the pertinent saṃdhi rule. For details, see the Thon mi’i zhal lung (pp. 88–89). This has been more recently discussed in Thub-bstan-sbyin-pa’s sMra sgo’i rgyan. (b) With regard to the use of sa drag, the point of departure of debates has been whether Si-tu Chos-kyi-’byung-gnas has endorsed the sa drag convention or not. sDe-dge-bla-ma Nor-bu-bstan-’dzin (also nicknamed Sa-phud-bla-ma, Sa-gcod-bla-ma, Nor-bstan, Sa-phud-nor-bstan, and Sa-phud-bla-ma-tshang) in his Sa’i yang ’jug dor ba’i dag yig (composed in 1894) has claimed sa drag is not attested in Thon-mi’s treatise but was created later at around the time of gTsang-nag-pa Rig-pa’i-seng-ge. Sa-phud-bla-ma was a contemporary of Mi-pham (1846–1912). Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung in his Thon mi’i zhal lung (pp. 89–102, 198–199) presents and refutes this position.
§27. The function of wa zur is said to be to mark the ming gzhi in doubtful cases. For example, to distinguish dags from dgas, the former should be spelled dwags (as in La-dwags). Did traditional Tibetan grammarians discuss this? One should to check! What about the wa zur in kwa ye? Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung states that it is not to mistake with ka ba (“pillar/post”). See his Thon mi’i zhal lung (pp. 162–163). But this explanation does not convinces me. Perhaps in this case, it is simply meant as a guide to pronunciation of the vocative (or rather exclamation). Some Tibetan grammarians have spelled ka dag as kwa dag, with the argument that it is a contraction of kwa ye grogs pa dag. This is purely nonsensical, also according to the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 162). Some have also wrongly spelled ka wa and kwa ba.
§28. The double ’greng bu is called ’greng bu ke sha can (cf. MW, s.v. keśa “lock of hair on the crown of the head”). The question has been raised by Tshe-tan-zhabs-drung whether it is correct to spell “Kai-rdo-rje” (i.e. with a ’greng bu ke sha can) for the Tibetan translation of “Hevajra”). He claims that it is wrong because there is no tradition of writing ’greng bu ke sha can in the Tibetan vowel system, and that occurrence of kyai in other instances is a contraction of kye kye. See the Thon mi’i zhal lung (p. 163).
§29. The Sanskrit alphabet has been learnt by Tibetans for several reasons.
§30. Notes on Tibetan orthography: Ideally a Tibetan dictionary that records all orthographic variants of a certain word attested (if possible in a chronological order where the most standardized orthography is given precedence) in various inscriptions and manuscripts is a dire desideratum. This paragraph will include some random remarks that are relevant for Tibetan orthography. (a) Importantly, ’-postscript that marked the inherent vowel has been revoked. (b) The da drag became implicit. (c) The use of inverted gi gu sign came to be discontinued. (d) The interchangeability of the first three letters in each section (sde) has been discontinued. For example, dkon cog became standardized as dkon mchog. (d) A change in the orthography could have well been a consequence of the change in pronunciation. Cf. the Si tu ’grel chen (pp. 119–121). In other words, some orthographies can be explained by considering a shift in pronunciation. Perhaps Mer-gen-mkhan-po’s theory that ka ye (i.e. an exclamation) is result of change in the pronunciation of the word kwa maybe mentioned here as an example. (e) One of the (in my view undesirable) developments in Tibetan orthography is the orthography for modern or spoken Tibetan. Most textbooks of modern Tibetan have been written (naturally) for non-Tibetans and the priority has been given to approximation in pronunciation and not to orthography. Most textbooks of modern Tibetan have also been written by persons whose interest or competence does not lie in written or classical Tibetan.
§31. “Thirteen-Fold Exposition of the Tibetan Alphabet/Letters” (bod kyi yi ge la bshad pa bcu gsum): (1) srog gi yi ge (i.e. dbyangs bzhi), (2) rkyen gyi yi ge (i.e. dbu shad gnyis), (3) pha ma bu tsha’i yi ge (i.e. ma = a; pha = 29 consonants; bu = gi gu, zhabs kyu, ’greng bu, na ro, ya btags, and ra btags), (4) pho mo ma ning gi yi ge (i.e. ming gzhi’i dbye ba pho 5, mo 20); (5) sgra’i nga ro’i dbye ba (i.e. drang ba, bkug pa, smad pa, bsgreng ba, and bstod pa); (6) nga ro ’dren tshul (i.e. a, ha, and ’a); (7) yi ge’i gnas kyi khyad par (i.e. dam pa, lhod pa, shin tu lhod pa, and khyad par du ches lhod pa), (8) rkyang pa’i yi ge (9) ’dogs can gyi yi ge, (10) mgo can gyi yi ge (i.e. ra la sa dang brtsegs pa), (11) khyab chung ba’i yi ge (i.e. wa, lga, lnga, tra, thra, stsal, lka, lba, kwa, zwa, lwa, etc.), (12) rjes su ’jug pa’i yi ge (i.e. rjes ’jug bcu), and (13) yang ’jug gi yi ge (i.e. yang ’jug gnyis). See mGon-po-dbang-rgyal, Chos kyi rnam grangs (p. 338).