Saturday, November 12, 2005

Origins of the Tibetan Letters and Grammar

The Tibetan language belongs to a group of Tibeto-Burman languages, mostly used in the Tibetan cultural areas of Tibet. It's roots are in a nomadic society, with very short syllables and expressions - such as 'Hey, yak, come down the hill!' Personally I also think Tibetan is spoken very fast due to the lack of long vowels and longer words.

As part of the Buddhist transmission of teachings the Tibetan culture needed a way to write down the translated teachings and commentaries, quite an undertaking. According to Tibetan history, a king named Rongtsan Gampo instructed this to happen, and Thonmi Sambhota, a minister in the Rongtsan Gampo administration, traveled to Bengal in the mid 7th century in order to learn how Sanskrit was written, and he took the so called Lanca letter system back to Tibet. This is the printed form of Tibetan, called U CHEN, used for printing Buddhist materials, for example. There's also another version of the letters used for hand-written texts, such as letters, called U ME.

Anyway, some Indians could recognize the U CHEN letters due to the historical origin of how the Sanskrit letters were written in Bengal long time ago. The Lanca letters also play an important role in the Tantric teachings, so the letters are considered sacred symbols.

The Tibetans have certain sounds not present in Sanskrit, so these were added to the letter set. Also, Tibetans didn't have the concept of the V sound, so they used B instead.

The Tibetan grammar itself was derived from the Sanskrit grammar. As Sanskrit and Tibetan is very different concerning word use and sentence structures, this re-use of grammar was quite an interesting approach.

This system became the foundation for writing down translations and commentaries of Buddhist texts, and the style and word use has been unbroken for a very long time, from around the 9th century forward up to our days. The spoken Tibetan has changed over time, and today it is morphing both in Tibet due to the Chinese influence, and in Indian settlements where Indian and English words have been introduced to the spoken language. However, fortunately the Classical Tibetan is very concise and uniform, and this makes it much easier to translate very old material.

For example, the dharma terms were defined with a one-to-one mapping, with the exception of some earlier translated terms that might still show up in classical texts, and this became a standard dictionary, called Mahavyutpatti. You could order this dictionary as a computer dictionary from TCC, there are also other printed versions available, as well as an interesting mini-Mahavyutpatti from lotsawahouse. The Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology by Rigzin also has many of the Mahavyutpatti terms listed. One of the debate topics amongst contemporary Tibetan translators is the lack of a similar defined dictionary, good or bad, that what the debate is about.


Palani said...

Dear Kent,

Thanks for the information. I have a question. I know you have answered this before, but I thought that it might sit well in this blog as a new post. you could even post it as new rather then reply to this. Can you suggest the most practical way to start off on the journey to learn Classical Tibetan from the home, without having to go to classes.

Kent Sandvik said...

Hi Palani,

yes there are many approaches, maybe it's good to make a separate entry. But quickly,some ideas: take a favourite text and try to dissect it into parts, use an existing translation to help out with it. Try to translate, and compare with originals. Try to read and see how much you comprehend. A lot has to do with seeing patterns that will etch into the mind. Learn simple dharma words, initially. Memorize short famous quotes and learn what each part means. More in an entry tomorrow!