The Tibetan language, like an asthma patient in a dust storm, is gasping for breath. Although Tibetan children born and raised in locations as geographically disparate as Lhasa, Dharamsala or New York may grow up speaking Tibetan as a first language, they’ll almost certainly write it as a second. As long as Tibet remains a colony of China, this will not change. For Tibetan students inside Tibet, the language of professional success is now Chinese. For Tibetan students outside, it’s English. Disadvantaged by the system, Tibetan is inevitably neglected.
For the fate of Tibetan as a spoken language, the result of this neglect is so far minimal: as the language of home and hearth, it surrounds us in infancy and we grow up speaking Tibetan as our mother tongue. For Tibetan as a writing system, however, the result of this neglect is devastating: Tibetans of our generation do almost all of our reading and writing in a foreign language and almost none in Tibetan.
When young Tibetans trained outside the monastic system – who constitute the majority – cannot write a decent letter in Tibetan or read a sentence without tripping over at least three words, we have a crisis at hand. What’s to be done?
The root of the problem is quite simple: we cannot write Tibetan well because we almost never read Tibetan, and we almost never read Tibetan because it is so difficult to read it. And there’s one very simple way to immediately ease the difficulty of reading Tibetan: word separation. Adding a space between words so that we can see each word as an immediate discrete unit having visual meaning will simplify the daunting task of reading Tibetan script overnight.
In fact, this is what people throughout the world have been doing with other writing systems. Ancient Greek and Latin were written in scriptura continua, which is continuous script without spaces between words. Paul Saenger, the distinguished scholar of medieval writing practices, asserts that it was only at the end of the seventh century that Irish monks began to introduce spaces between words into medieval manuscripts, and it took several centuries for this practice to be adopted as standard. (Paul Saenger argues that it was this “aerated” script that led to the development of silent reading as we know it.) This space between words, also called whitespace, is now ubiquitous across many writing systems. Even Hindi, previously written in continuous Devanagari script (the base from which Thonmi Sambhota devised the Tibetan alphabet and writing system) is now spaced. Korea’s Hangul, previously continuous, is now generally spaced. Ethiopic, which like Tibetan uses the interpunct, the dot – although they double it, like so (:)- is increasingly written with a space between words.
Actually, writing Tibetan as we currently do, with the single dot to differentiate between syllables and no space between words, is a faithful representation of speech: after all in speech, we pause not between words but only at the end of a sentence. However, for the reader, that space – the visual equivalent of a pause – makes a world of difference: the whitespace allows words to be discrete, to have meaning that can be accessed visually as well as aurally. The eye can see quicker than the ear can hear and reading comprehension is consequently faster and simpler. Because Tibetan does not use word dividers, textual meaning is harder to access and the writing encourages the reader to read aloud rather than silently. In Space Between Words, Paul Saenger contends, “In general, graphic systems that eliminate or reduce the need for a cognitive process prior to lexical access facilitate the early adaptation of young readers to silent reading, while written languages that are more ambiguous necessitate the oral manipulation of phonetic components to construct words.” Tibetan of course falls into the latter category. He continues, “These latter writing systems require a longer training period, one that features oral reading and rote memorization and that continues, in some instances, even into adulthood.”