May 16, 2017

Towards a Typology of Abbreviations in Tibetan Literary Culture



One can observe various types of abbreviation or contraction in Tibetan literary culture. Abbreviations or contractions can be of titles of works, names of persons, poly-syllabic words, and so on. Some of them are terse, apt, and convenient; some idiosyncratic and bizarre. Most of these are intuitive and thus require no separate list of abbreviations or contractions. Here I put down some random thoughts relevant to the topic. (§1) The most common type of abbreviation is perhaps of long titles of works such of the rDzogs pa chen po’i sngon ’gro’i khrid yig kun tu bzang po’i bla ma dgyes pa’i zhal lung. This could be abbreviated simply as Zhal lung, if there is no risk of being mistaken with other titles such as the gSang bdag zhal lung. If there is a risk, then better abbreviate the title as Kun bzang bla ma’i zhal lung. It is long but still much shorter than the actual title. Such abbreviated titles are usually not given by the authors and are thus simply popular titles or scholarly jargon. For Tibetan scholars, such titles are intuitive. For Tibetan titles, one should read the article on Tibetan titles by Orna Almogi. (§2) The next type of abbreviation or contraction is what I call “orthographic/graphic abbreviation,” that is, what is known as b/skung yig. These can be justifiably called “orthographic/graphic abbreviation” insofar as no phonemes have been abbreviated or contracted but only graphemes. For example, bkra shis is abbreviated as bkris, but one is always expected to pronounce bkra shis. Orthographic/graphic abbreviations are actually said to be impermissible in important documents, which would include the bKa’ ’gyur and bsTan ’gyur, but the fact that the bsTan ’gyur gser bris ma—the Golden dGa’-ldan edition of  the bsTan ’gyur—abounds in b/skung yig suggests that economization of resources such as gold and paper played a role. Indeed orthographic/graphic abbreviation would save much space, time, and resource. (§2) A sub-type of orthographic/graphic abbreviation would be a kind of contraction where numerical figures are used (in combination with alphabetic letters) as parts of words or phrases. A common example would be 4in for bzhin or gyur 1 for gyur cig. We see here the preference of sound over sense. I suspect that such conventions were implemented by not all too educated scribes. Nonetheless, the graphic abbreviation is not counterintuitive and any sensible reader would tolerate it with a certain sense of amusement. (§3) Usually Tibetan literary culture does not use abbreviations using letters (e.g. something similar to USA). But certainly syllables are used. For examples, rgyab or srib (verso) is abbreviated as ba, and mdun or nyin (recto) as na. This is probably because Tibetan is a syllabic language. In other words, it is not possible to abbreviate by using, for instance, pure Tibetan consonants. Interestingly, in the cases of rgyab/srib and mdun/nyin, it is not ming gzhi (core syllables) that have been abbreviated but the postscripts (rjes ’jug), which have made into syllables by adding the vowel a. (§4) One should also compare Tibetan syllabic truncations of titles such as Byang sa for Byang chub sems dpa’i sa with syllabic truncations of Sanskrit titles such as BoBhū for Bodhisattvabhūmi. (§4) Abbreviations in Tibetan are made not only by selecting or omitting certain syllables but also by blending certain letters and thereby forming new syllables. For examples, pha rol tu phyin pa is not abbreviated as pha phyin but rather as phar phyin; shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa not as shes phyin but rather as sher phyin; nye bar sbas pa not as nye sbas but rather as nyer sbas; rdo rje dbang phyug not as rdo dbang but rather as rdor dbang; shes rab kyi dbang not as shes dbang but rather as sher dbang, and so on. (§5) Another way to abbreviate a group of items having a certain fixed number is to form a cluster of items such as rTsa bzhi ’jug gsum for rTsa ba shes rab, bZhi brgya pa, and dBu ma ’jug pa and sKa-cog-zhang-gsum for sKa-ba dPal-brtsegs, Cog-ro Klu’i-rgyal-mtshan, and Zhang Ye-shes-sde. This is one of my favorites. The economy of words and convenience of such a convention seem obvious. (§6) There maybe many more ways of abbreviating Tibetan titles, names, and expressions.

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