When Thonmi Sambhota, the outstanding innovator of the Tibetan script, single-handedly devised the Tibetan writing system in the 7th century (and among other innovations introduced the dot between syllables), there were considerations which no longer hold true now: at that time, parchment or paper was scarce and expensive. Printing was done laboriously from woodblocks and dense continuous script fit more words onto the woodblock and more content on the page. These considerations are irrelevant today thanks to advanced printing technology.
Let’s not forget that in the early days the script was not meant for mass consumption but rather seen as an elite privilege that one needed years of laborious training to master. After all, most writing systems in the world were developed not for mass consumption, but for the administration of empire and for governance. In fact for the greater part of the written word’s six thousand-year history, the different writing systems have required the presence of scribes who trained for long years to be proficient in reading and writing them. In Tibet, of course, the spread and diffusion of Buddhism has meant that the Tibetan writing system became the ultimate tool to preserve and transmit the teachings through the culture of the great monasteries. Within the monastic curriculum itself, years could be devoted to instill reading and writing proficiency in the young student.
Today, with the public school system – with the medium of study often Chinese or English – taking precedence over the monastic model, we no longer have the luxury of a long training period. And the Tibetan writing system is already complicated enough without the handicap of a script that may look beautiful but might well suffocate itself. The variations in spelling are mostly unpronounced, and words are often said differently from the way they are written. If space between words can be as an inhaler to the asthmatic, and revive Tibetan literacy for future generations, what might be the costs of whitespace?
A legitimate concern is that the unparalleled canon of Tibetan literature will be inaccessible to future readers accustomed to reading separated words. However, a few hours’ practice should allow scholars who will be fluent readers to access old manuscripts. Word separation will be crucial not only to beginning readers parsing lines, it will be an aid for scholars engaged in reference reading by facilitating swift silent reading and an expanded field of vision. As an interesting aside, it will also simplify the creation of a computer spell-check program and translation program for Tibetan.
I know this proposition will upset and outrage many Tibetans, because we have always been resistant to change – and we have been writing this way for centuries. But remember that traditionally scripture was written in stanzas so that readers always knew where to pause even without space. Most writers writing in Tibetan today do so in prose. The young reader slogs through, stumbling ever so often. Even the learned scholar trips every once in a while.
All things being equal, where words are spaced and comprehension is easier, more people will pick up a book. My brother Tendor and I have been informally 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. Without exception, every one of the surveyed Tibetans found it easier to read and comprehend the separated script. We hope to continue the survey online and make it available to all interested participants.