December 15, 2013

ནག་མོ། ཕོ་རོག

The other day I met up with my Tibetan (A-mdo) friends over tons of mo mos, chunks of stewed beef (I guess it was not yak meat), and barrels of beer. Apologies to all those gods and humans who are vegetarians, vegans, teetotalers, and ascetics! Of course, you know that I am exaggerating a bit. We talked about all things under the sun (except for the current politics of the country). Particularly we talked about Tibetan language, literature, poetry, and plays. We also talked about feminism (and gender equality and inequality), racism, colonialism, orientalism, science, education, on so on. In connection with one of these issues, we talked about Tibetan words for “woman,” such skye dman (as opposed to skyes pa, which is understood not just in the sense of “man” but in the sense of “human being,” which would be like a red flag to an embittered feminist). In this connection, I mentioned how I once asked a young man from Kaḥ-thog why a woman is called a nag mo (lit. perhaps “a female black being,” or, so to speak, a “Schwarzin”). His answer—that is most likely to provoke utter contempt of feminists (a reaction that would actually be anachronistic)—was “because she blackens a human being” (mi nag nag bzo tsang). What an idiotic explanation!  But do we have any better explanation? That young man was, by the way, totally illiterate and uneducated. We then discussed Tibetan words that would be politically incorrect by today’s standard of political correctness.

We then talked about the possible origin and etymology of words. But we did not consider words whose etymologies are explainable (rjes sgrub) and those whose etymologies are unexplainable or simply arbitrary (’dod rgyal). These would have been clear to all of us. rNam-rgyal then mentioned that actually some A-mdo scholars have been suggesting or speculating that the word nag mo (for “woman”) and pho rog = pho rogs (for “raven” or “crow”) have been erroneously interchanged by that primordial giver of names called the “primordial chief” (gdod ma’i mgon po) in Tibetan, which is not to be mistaken with the Ur-Buddha Samantabhadra, who is also called the Primordial Lord (gDod-ma’i-dgon-po). That is, there is no reason at all why a black “raven” or “crow” should be called a “mate of a male” or “companion of a male” (pho rog/s). There is equally no reason at all why a woman should be called a “black being” (nag mo). On the contrary a raven or crow is a perfect “black being” (nag mo) and a female human being is the best possible “companion of a male” (pho rog/s). I do not know what you guys out there think of this but I must admit I was charmed by this idea!

Postscript: Interestingly, dGe-’dun-chos-’phel has suggested that many Tibetan names of birds are onomatopoeic or onomatopoetic (i.e. so so’i skad gdangs la ltos nas btags pa) such as khwa, skya ka, skyung ka, pho rog, and ngang pa. See the dGe chos gsung ’bum (2013, vol. 2, p. 217).


  1. Dear D, — I've noticed there has been a different theory, that the current word nag-mo descended from an older word nyag-mo. You can find nyag-mo in the Btsan-lha dictionary. But I also found an explanation along these lines in a work by the Seventh Dalai Lama entitled Rgya Hor Bod-kyi Mchog Dman Bar-pa-la Stsal-ba'i 'Phrin-yig-gi Rim-pa Phyogs-gcig-tu Bkod-pa Dpyod-ldan Yid-kyi Shing-rta (the words were extracted from this work by Christoph C, not myself).

    nyag mo / [58v4] brda gsar du nag mo zer.

    I'm not sure where this would be leading us, since I'm not clear what nyag-mo should mean, etymologically speaking. Meanwhile, easy on the fun. (Oh well, go ahead with it.)

  2. Dear Dan,

    Thank you for that. I feel that “a different theory” that you point out to is not really a different theory. It tells us something about the history of the word’s orthography (and phonology) but not of its etymology. It would be quite natural to assume that words like mi, me, and med were once spelled (and pronounced) myi, mye, and myed and that would not affect the way we speculate their meanings and thus their etymologies. People from A-mdo still seem to pronounce them as myi, mye, and myed. I will confirm with them soon.

    With that fun story, it was largely hyperbolism (and not an account of applied hedonism)!

    Thanks again and take care!


  3. I wonder if it doesn't REALly tell us something about the etymology, since it would lead us away from the "black" meaning to something different, even if it's not all that clear what that would be. Nyag doesn't mean black at any time in its history, does it? I still think we should say yes to fun.

  4. We may have to after all consider your suggestion. But to be sure, I did not mean to suggest that nyag (as in sna nyag pa) at any given point in history meant “black” but that possibly nag that we all know was once (as today in A-mdo dialect) pronounced or spelled—this may be verifiable—nyag. In other words, we should, perhaps, also consider the possibility that in olden times (and as still retained in A-mdo dialect), there were two words both of which were spelled nyag but had two two different meanings (i.e. homographs as well as homonyms): one meant “black” and the other something “flat/flattened?” (as in sna nyag pa). If to follow, for example, A-mdo dialect, one might spell and pronounce both of these words as nyag. According to the main-stream literary Tibetan (which underwent several phases of orthographic reforms), of course, these two words would no longer be considered homographs and homonyms. I wonder if I make sense. It is after mid-night. These are, as usual, pure speculations.