Wednesday, January 27, 2010

BREATHING SPACE: How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language (3)

Tendor, an activist and a musician, who first started advocating word separation in written Tibetan a year ago, has been writing with word separation at his bilingual blog www.yarlungraging.com. Although “aerated” Tibetan script may look startling at first, this minor change has the capacity to turn the chore of reading into a pleasure.

I believe that a study by the Tibetan Department of Education or a similar institution should formally assess the merits of word separation. A top-down implementation of an aerated writing system in the Tibetan schools, starting with the elementary classes and moving up to the higher grades, can bring about the immediate revival and long-term survival of the Tibetan language. Imagine if ten years from now, Tibetan students can read Tibetan with the same ease with which they can speak it, and children crave and nag for Tibetan language comic books! Such a future is certainly possible if we adopt word separation today, making the same leap that almost all other literate cultures have already made.


If this top-down implementation sounds too radical at this time, it might be more realistic to urge a bottom-up initiative that can gradually spread among the Tibetan public. To this end, I ask bloggers and writers in and outside Tibet to experiment with aerated script, to add space between words.


Written Tibetan can remain hallowed and privileged, or it can be accessible and popular. Since the time of Emperor Songtsen Gampo, it has been written Tibetan, bod-yig, that has bound the three provinces together, bod-yig that has preserved the intrinsic unity of the Tibetan people through imperial fragmentation and governmental dissolution. Bod-yig, Sambhota’s legacy to all Tibetans, has saved us time and again. Now it’s time for us to save this legacy. Future generations will thank us for allowing our words to breathe and to live.

12 comments:

tenzin said...

I have said this before. Tibetans need to regain pride in things Tibetan: Tibetan food, Tibetan songs, and most important of all Tibetan language and literature. I have read Tendor's blog and his writings in Tibetan, and felt he walks the talk.

Learning English has professional advantages; it advances our career. In short, it can help us make money.

But reading Tibetan literature, Tibetan books, Tibetan poetry, makes one will feel at home, a big advantage, I think. In other words, one won't feel alienated as one does while reading English novels and poetry.

One of the biggest myths circulating in our community, especially among the younger generation, I think, is the widespread notion that reading Tibetan is difficult. Its not, I assure you. If you don't believe it, read Dondup Gyal and Gedun Chophel's poetry, or for that matter novels of Pema Tsewang Shastri, you will realize what I am saying.

As for Tibetan grammar, it has been very much simplified by Khechog Ngulchu Yabse. I think we all are familiar with Lekshay Jonwang, how simple yet effective a text it is to help us learn Tibetan grammar. I haven't come across an English grammar and composition text, which is as simple as Lekshay Jonwang...

Ultimately, it boils down to the Tibetan parents and to all of us; whether we genuinely feel it is important for us and our children to learn Tibetan; if so, we need to make some sacrifice and hard work; its not going to be easy, after all we are talking about learning literature. All literatures are difficult, we know it. That’s why its beautiful and precious.

The process has to begin from the grassroots, from childhood. In our rush to aim for good jobs and influence, most of our parents consider English more important than Tibetan, and hence the crisis that we have in our hands...

This attitude needs to be changed, I think, if we are to "save" Tibetan literature…

Of course, I am not against change. I fully endorse your ideas if it helps young Tibetans learn Tibetan language more easily and effectively.

What I am trying to say is that, based on my own personal experience, learning Tibetan and reading Tibetan is not as difficult as we think it is!

I simply had to sacrifice a little by joining the Sarah university in Dharamsala, where I learned Tibetan for three years, surviving on rice and dal...

Thanks for writing it. Please keep on writing. I enjoy your jhutok columns.

CFynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CFynn said...

As you mentioned, another advantage would be that adding spaces between words makes implementing automatic Tibetan spell checking in word processors much easier. Without spaces a Tibetan spell checker needs to have grammatical knowlege built-in in order to initially parse the Tibetan text correctly and determine to which word each syllable belongs - only then can the words be looked up to determine if they were spelt correctly. The difficulty of doing this is one of the main reasons why there is currently no Tibetan spell checking implemented in standard word processors such as OpenOffice or Microsoft Office.
Spaces between words would more or less eliminate this first difficult step and allow
the adoption of standard spell-checking engines for use with Tibetan.

If a normal space looks too wide between words in Tibetan script, there are a number of narrower width space characters available in Unicode ~ one of which could be adopted as an inter-word character for use with Tibetan. A narrow space between words might look a little less jarring to traditionalists.

- Chris

nepalese_princess said...

@ Tenzin.
How many people do you think are able to spend 3 years studying Tibetan at Sarah? Can most exiles even get this kind of intensive Tibetan learning experience in their adolescence?

Why not make it easier to cultivate Bod-yig reading in young people?

BTW, I find reading in Tibetan to be much harder than writing in Tibetan. That could be much helped if there was a space between words.

Nyinjey said...

For Nepalese Princess...

I think any one can spend some time studying Tibetan in a Tibetan institute, if not three years at least one year or six months.

All you need is love and passion for Tibetan. That's it...

jhutok said...

Tenzin, you are right that reading Tibetan novels (about Tibetans) will be a much more relatable experience than reading English novels (about Injis). My feeling actually is that if we introduce space between words, because that will make reading faster, it will help promote leisure reading. (I think you will agree that right now in Tibetan, there is scholarly reading and there is religious reading but leisure reading, not so much.) And that will encourage would-be novelists to write more novels in Tibetan!

Chris, yes exactly, thank you! Tibetan spelling is already difficult enough- with the same sounds having a number of different spelling and meaning. Spell check is an amazing tool and why hasn't anyone created Tibetan spell check yet? Also google translation for tibetan -which of course doesn't exist as yet- would be greatly simplified and perhaps realized if there was word separation. Some people have said, ah but how would you define a word, there's the problem. But actually that's been done long ago. There are many extensive, almost comprehensive Tibetan dictionaries!

Nepalese princess, I agree. Not everyone has the luxury of spending a year or even three months at Sarah or Varanasi. The thing is, there are many duties if you are Tibetan- to attend protests and rallies, to educate your friends and circle about Tibet, to follow Tibet news, to know and sing Tibetan songs and dance Tibetan dances, to know the history and culture and religion, to donate time and money and resources...and I mean, it's what it is: these are our responsibilities and we should do them. Just, sometimes, when this is on top of paying rent and trying not to get stampeded on the New York subway, then it can feel as though there are too many things that you have to do as a Tibetan.

Nyinjey said...

Jhutok la,

I agree that there's not much leisure reading in Tibetan as there's in English.

But all Tibetan literature is not scholarly. That's why I told you about the writings of Dhondup Gyal and Gedun Chophel.

By and large, they used colloquial Tibetan.

I support your ideas of reading Tibetan by spacing out the words.

All I am against is the widespread misconception that Tibetan is extremely difficult. Its not. The classic case is the Tibetan grammar text composed by Ngulchu Yabsey, a lot easier than all the texts that I came across about English grammar.

I know not every Tashi, Dolma and Sonam can spend some time studying in Sarah...

But those who take this initiative will work wonders for them and by extension for our struggle: you can get all the opportunity to do something about Tibet there: learn Tibetan, participate in protests and debates, sing and dance Tibetan songs, eat Tibetan food, and most important of all you will have the chance to have intellectual exchanges with young Tibetans from Tibet. Its a virtual Tibetan world out there. All you need is a little bit of sacrifice

Anonymous said...

I checked most of the blogs and websites. There seemed to be an obsessive notion that only way to separate the words to make Tibetan readable is the "spacing". Those who are against spacing there is no question or issue of much needed improvement only because "spacing" is simply not possible. For those who like the idea claim that language will idea simply "die" if there is no space in between.

For me the idea of spacing in its own right works perfect as it is. But it precludes various elements of the overall structure of the language that must be addressed. It is like a big structure that is little bit tilted. We can not just simply push it to make straight.

Tibetan language is very contextual. It also uses profusion of contraction that are expandable as well that no other languages uses. "Spacing" in Tibetan is analogous to writing English words with all the syllables dotted just as in Tibetan which will look like this: "Spa.cing" in Ti.be.tan is a.na.lo.gous to wri.ting Eng.lish words with all the sy.lla.bles dot.ted just as in Ti.be.tan which will look like this. Reading such English will be very good for Tibetan reader. But you don't expect the whole language to be changed. And I don't think you don't want to go that far.

Let us keep looking for better idea.

Anonymous said...

I checked most of the blogs and websites. There seemed to be an obsessive notion that only way to separate the words to make Tibetan readable is the "spacing". Those who are against spacing there is no question or issue of much needed improvement only because "spacing" is simply not possible. For those who like the idea claim that language will idea simply "die" if there is no space in between.

For me the idea of spacing in its own right works perfect as it is. But it precludes various elements of the overall structure of the language that must be addressed. It is like a big structure that is little bit tilted. We can not just simply push it to make straight.

Tibetan language is very contextual. It also uses profusion of contraction that are expandable as well that no other languages uses. "Spacing" in Tibetan is analogous to writing English words with all the syllables dotted just as in Tibetan which will look like this: "Spa.cing" in Ti.be.tan is a.na.lo.gous to wri.ting Eng.lish words with all the sy.lla.bles dot.ted just as in Ti.be.tan which will look like this. Reading such English will be very good for Tibetan reader. But you don't expect the whole language to be changed. And I don't think you don't want to go that far.

Let us keep looking for better idea.

Anonymous said...

The word recognition problem has been there always in the Tibetan language. It was the case with me when I was beginning to learn Tibetan as a young girl in the early 1960s. However in the recent years the problem seemed to have grown bigger than before, almost out of control to the point that its absence may literally kill Tibetan language altogether. We know that it is not because Tibetan language has became more complicated and thus gotten more problematic.

This fear for the survival of the Tibetan language without the spacing for the words is legitimate and well be prophetic, but is not reasonable. Because if that were the case Tibetan language should be dead long time ago. The fear for the loss of the interest by the younger generation because of the lack of word recognition in the Tibetan language is too is legitimate, but that too it unreasonable. Because such fear is limited to the Tibetans who live in non-Tibetan speaking countries and use Tibetan as a second language or to those who are in the process of opting to choose Tibetan as a second language. For them Tibetan language is as good as dead language and their fear is meaningless one.

I case you want to know what is meant by second language and who are those that uses Tibetan as a second language? If you find yourselves using predominantly one particular language, written or spoken, over the other language/s is your first language. All other languages will be your second languages. This means that almost all Tibetan who live different part of the world, except Tibet, India and Nepal, will not be able regard Tibetan as their first language.

For the Tibetans who see the importance of Tibetan language and regards it as an essential tool for their personal and cultural survival they are going to tough it out in learning to write, read and thus speak Tibetan with or without the spacing as the word recognition as their forefathers did successfully.

I do agree that the lack of word recognition undermines the morale of the students and imposes a totally unnecessary and meaningless hurdle, but do disagree lack of word recognition "suffocates" the learning process. To find the way how to solve the problem can be a great blessing and a major contribution to the Tibetan writing system. Yet I do not think spacing is the right option for a Tibetan word indicator, for one thing there are lots of technical or the grammatical issues that the workability of the spacing in Tibetan unaccounted for. Know that Tibetan word structure is not as straight forward as one presumes it to be just as in English and other languages.

Do you think we can find just the write solution other than the "spacing"? Whoever finds the solution will he/she be genius?

Rally said...

I have been looking for young Tibetan language in color and cartoon videos in Tibetan, there are millions of childrens books in English and Chinese but its so difficult to find something in Tibetan. These Tibetans books and videos for young children will be important tool to keep our younger Tibetans growing up in Western countries to learn Tibetan language.
To all Tibetan Teachers you will lots of money if you could write lively books and make carton videos for young Tibetn children.

Harris said...

In fact, when words are spaced and comprehension is easier, more people will pick up a book. I have read about the experiment when testing the merits of word separation on a number of Tibetans, making them read two copies of the exact same text, one containing continuous script and the other containing separated script.