Tibetan writing is regarded as one of the most complicated in the world, which is due to two reasons. First, Tibetan script belongs to the family of Brahmic or Indic Scripts which are known to involve challenging rules for formation of ligatures (conjuncts). Yet, ligatures are relatively simple in Tibetan, since they are always formed vertically (thus, they are usually referred to as
stack), and the letter shapes do usually not change much in the process. Vowels are written by non-spacing diacritics placed above or below the preceding consonant (or stack); yet the complication known from many Indic scripts that glyphs have to be reordered or be substituted by alternate shapes is absent; on the other hand, many vowel signs consist of two or even three parts.
The second reason for the complexity of Tibetan lies in its largely historic orthography. Written Tibetan reflects the state of the languages hundreds of years ago, and cannot easily by translated into the right sounds (without knowing the language, of course). Consonants are often mute (although this varies in different dialects), or change the phonetic value of other letters in the same stack; even entire syllables can be mute. The inherent vowel is frequently not spoken: Because the script supports only open syllables directly, closed spoken syllables have to be written as two syllables with implicit omission of the final inherent vowel, e. g. min would be written as mi-na, མིན.
A simple introduction into Tibetan script that quickly turns into an amusing rant on how to write the Tibetan word drup can be found at the kuro5hin web site. Actually, drup is written བསྒྲུབས་, in my transliteration scheme this is ba-sgru-ba-sa. Any questions?
A main difference to the contemporary Indic scripts in India is that Tibetan lacks the independent vowel letters, except for the implicit vowel a. All remaining vowels are always written with vowel signs which are applied to the previous consonant (or stack), or if word-initial to the letter for the implicit vowel. There are long and short versions of all vowels, but long ones are not needed except for loan words; the length is indicated by an additional diacritic at the bottom of the stack. All vowel signs are non-spacing, again in contrast to Indian scripts.
With the consonants, Tibetan reproduces the five series of Sanskrit (velar, palatal, retroflex, alveolar and labial), although the language lacks retroflexes; these are just used as a orthographic tool in Sanskrit loans which are plentiful due to religious reasons. Tibetan adds a sixth series of four alveolar affricates that are usually transliterated ts, tsh, dz and dzh, although I consider this a bad choice, as it could be confused with chance combinations of, e. g., t+s, and it is far from obvious that the h here stands for aspiration; thus, I use ṯ, ṯʰ, ḏ and ḏʰ. Next, Tibetan has the voiced sibilants z and ź; the latter is a palatal, the voiced version of ś, and is more often rendered zh (analog to ś, which is usually romanized sh). Finally, there is also a glottal stop which I render ʾ (as is common in Arabic).
The Unicode standard did not implement Tibetan according to the Indic virama model; rather, all consonants are coded twice, once in full (
letter) to be used if they form the first (or only) part in a stack, and once as diacritic (
subjoined letter) to be used otherwise. This facilitates rendering, and thus the Tibetan Index has a good chance of being rendered correctly on all platforms, as long as there is some Tibetan font available, and the browser can find it (which, I have been told, is quite a nasty issue with Internet Explorer). If you want to install a Tibetan Font, Jomolhari [ཇོ་མོ་ལྷ་རི་] might be a good option.
Romanizing Tibetan is a hard job due to its ideosyncratic-historic orthography. Here in this index I use a scheme that closely mirrors the original spelling, but prediction the pronunciation from this is rather guesswork. In native Tibetan script, word boundaries are not indicated, but a small dot above (tsheg [ཚེག་], the tsh stands for the sound I transcribe as ṯʰ) marks the end of a morpheme. In transliteration, I use a blank for morpheme boundaries, but written syllables that make up a polysyllabic morpheme, or form a closed spoken syllable, are connected with a hyphen.
There are to rather different styles of Tibetan script: On your computer, you are likely to see the u-chen [དབུ་ཅན་] with
straight lines, which is the variety suited for books. In handwriting, another style called u-mey [དབུ་མེད] is employed. The Tibetan spelling of these two terms rather clearly illustrate the points about
historic orthography made more earlier.
Tibetan script is currently used for a number of interrelated languages in the Himalayan rim; besides Tibetan proper [བོད་སྐད་] and its closely related cousin Ladakhi [གླེ་སྐད་], it is also used for Dzongkha [རྫོང་ཁ་], the national language of Bhutan, and occasionally for other Sino–Tibetan languages in Nepal; I have also read about its use in Pakistan to write the Balti language. Thus, this index has a chance to be promoted to a multilingual one in the future. If you can contribute an appropriate language, please drop me a note.
As a humble beginning, I can present a small number of spice names in the Dzongkha language. They are the result of a chance meeting with three Bhutia girls in an Indian Railways coach, and I am not sure whether I interpreted the scribblings correctly. So better take them with two grains of salt.
- Top of Georgian Index
- German version of this file
- Table of Contents
- Alphabetic Index
- Botanic Index
- Geographic Index
- Morphologic Index
- Spice mixture Index