August 31, 2013

དེབ་གཏེར། དེབ་ཏེར། དེབ་ཐེར།

Leonard van der Kuijp, “On the Composition and Printings of the Deb gter sngon po by ’Gos lo tsā ba gzhon nu dpal (1392–1481).” JIATS 2, 2006, pp. 1–46.

See ibid. (pp. 4–5): “The word deb gter/ther/termeaning “book,” is ultimately of Persian or Greek origin, and entered the Tibetan lexicon via Mongolian,[1] when most of the Tibetan cultural area was under Mongol rule (1240 to the 1350s). The orthographic instability indicated by the use of gterther, and ter is by no means uncommon for loanwords we encounter in Tibetan writing. Why some Tibetans should have chosen to use this word for book rather than a bona fide word for the same from their own lexicon is a question whose answer is still outstanding. Probably, the reasons are not altogether different from the “oeuvre” / “writings” alternation the reader finds in this essay. It is a question of style and perhaps also an attempt to capture a different kind of elegance. The patina of the foreign is sometimes more attractive than the local.” 

[1] B. Laufer, “Loanwords in Tibetan,” Toung Pao 17 (1916), 481–82, no. 140.


  1. Stephen Beyer, The Classical Tibetan Language, p. 140, says it may come ultimately from Greek diphtherā ('parchment'), and so is related to English diptheria (because of the 'parchment' that forms on the skin of the afflicted person). To quote more exactly:

    "Persian debter "document" may in turn come either from Old Persian dipi "writing" or from Greek diphtherâ "Parchment." In the latter case, the Tibetan deb-ther would be related to the English diphtheria, a disease so named because of the parchment-liked covering that forms on the skin."

    I think in classical Greek diptherâ had a primary meaning of "skin (hide, leather)" and on the basis of that meaning "scroll" (hence book).

    I'd suspect deb-ther would have been the original spelling, with the -gter syllable creeping in as a "Tibetanizing" move. I don't know about the parchment-like skin condition, and would rather not know.

  2. Dear Dan, thank you for drawing attention to this alternative thought and source. D.