August 06, 2013


Recently the IATS Conference in Ulan Bator, I happen to learn of the ambitious collaborative project of Tibetan-Tibetan Dictionary from sMon-lam himself. The project is certainly his brainchild. I had the impression that he and the people behind the project are keen in learning from the modern western science of lexicography. I was very elated and my anticipations and optimism grew. The Tshig mdzod chen mo is in many ways a great dictionary but one my criticisms is that the compilers of the dictionary were not aware of the contributions made, for example, by Jäschke, who was a trained cautious philologist. The categorisation of Tibetan verbs (bya tshig) in Jäschke, for example, seems better than in the Tshig mdzod chen mo. But to my dismay, I learnt that the compilers of the envisioned Tibetan-Tibetan Dictionary have decided not to consider yod pa “to be there” and yin pa “to be” (and the like) as verbs, with the argument that verb must have three tenses and yod pa and yin pa have no tenses. Such a decision seems to be speak against one’s (or at least my) sense or rationale of language and grammar. With a hope that I might be able to persuade him to reconsider the decision, I approached sMon-lam and tried to cautiously explain my concern. But my attempt at explanation fell on deaf ears. He seemed impervious to my well-intended suggestion. It caused me to ruminate. On the one hand, who, if not Tibetans themselves, are the authorities on Tibetan language? On the other hand, can all Tibetans be authorities on Tibetan language? Just as not all Germans can be considered Germanists, not all Tibetans can be considered authorities on Tibetan language. I would assume that one should seek the expertise of a well-trained philologist and linguist, be he/she be Tibetan or non-Tibetan. I tried to understand and explain the problems faced by traditional Tibetan scholars with regard to the identification and classification of verbs. First, one of the factors is their understanding and interpretation of the word bya tshig itself. The word bya ba is understood as an “to do, to act,” or “action,” or, “to be done.” Strictly speaking then, only “verbs of actions” (Handlungsverben) would qualify to be “verbs.” Even “verbs of occurrence” such as ’byung ba “to arise” would not qualify to be verbs. Second, the question is should one first describe a linguistic phenomenon and then define it, or, should one first define it and then use it to prescribe? Third, a “verb” must have tenses and yin pa, yod pa, and and so on and have no tenses. Is this true? Fourth, the argument is that “to be” is a verb in Western languages but not in Tibetan. But, if we were to consider only the literal meaning or definition of verb, we would realise that Verbum in Latin means “word.” But no grammarian, no lexicographer, no linguist, would consider all words to be verbs. In English, for example, despite the fact the verb literally means “word,” only those words that express an “action, occurrence, or state” are called verbs. Similarly, although bya tshig literally means “action words,” there seems to be absolutely no problem in considering other verbs of occurrence, copular verbs, verbs of existence, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs, and so on, as verbs. Actually one must! But who is obliged to heed to the far cry of a pauper (mu to’i rgyang ’bod)!


  1. Pauper's far cry? Good one DW. Here's another one for you: Why don't Tibetan dictionary makers use the infinitive forms of the verbs in their dictionaries? Generally we give the nominalized form of the verb with the -ba/-pa ending, and then as if oblivious to the form right there in front of our eyes, immediately go on to supply translations for it as if it were an infinitive. This causes much unnecessary confusion among Tibetan learners. What do you think? Bayerste!

  2. Haha, in my view byed pa (“to do”), dga’ ba “to be happy,” etc. are already infinitive forms. D.

  3. How so, laughing man?