June 29, 2016


In a big conference, one often misses some interesting papers just because one cannot multiply oneself. One of the many papers I missed in the recent IATS conference in Bergen (Norway) is a paper on Tibetan linguistics by a Tibetan scholar in Tibetan language. I think it was the paper by Chung Tshering. So I asked Lopen Lungtaen (Royal University of Bhutan), who happened to attend his talk, for some important points he made. Here is what I learnt. In Tibetan language, the first syllable of many disyllabic names of kinship is a, for example, a pha (“father”), a ma (“mother”), a zhang (“maternal uncle”), a khu (“paternal uncle”), and so on. Have we, however, asked ourselves what a in these words mean? You may have and even found an explanation, but I have not. According to the paper, I am told, a is an honorific (zhe sa) element. Thus, khu bo, for example is a normal form, whereas a khu is an honorific form. This has been an eye-opener for me! This might also explain why names of family members younger than oneself can hardly be construed with an (e.g. in gcung po and sring mo) because one normally does not employ zhe sa for those junior to or younger than oneself. But this position need not presuppose that all disyllabic words with a as the first syllable are honorific forms. Nor would it imply that honorific forms must necessarily have an a as the first syllable. But having said that, many non-Tibetic languages, too, have a or i as the first syllable. Consider, for example, a ba (“father”) and i ma (“mother”) in Hebrew. I thus personally speculate that vowels in such cases are vocative particles (’bod sgra). In this connection, one should by all means consider words such kye ma and e ma, where ma is clearly “mother” and kye and e are vocative particles.