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Searching For Common Ground

Tibetan language is closely tied to the extraordinary culture and history of the Tibetan civilization. It is a language with a rich literary heritage and has a unique position in the history of world literatures due to its central role in the development and transmission of Buddhism and Bön.

Today, Tibetan comprises six major dialect groups, spread across the Tibetan plateau. The three largest dialect groups are those of Central Tibet, Kham, and Amdo. In the eighth century however, a single language united by a common religion and writing system stretched across this area, from Eastern Pakistan, to Western Sichuan and Gansu Provinces. While the written language has remained relatively stable due to its close ties to Tibetan Buddhism, today, more than twelve centuries since the creation of a standard writing system, speakers who belong to the different dialect groups frequently find it difficult to communicate amongst themselves.

Tibet’s linguistic pluralism is a direct reflection of the region’s vastness and rugged topography. Tibetan’s linguistic diversity has greatly contributed to the unique customs and traditions of the various regions of the Tibetan plateau, but when these differences obstruct the basic need for communication, Tibetans are faced with both internal and external challenges.

For much of human history, the situation currently faced by Tibetan language has been the rule, rather than the exception for languages in general. In just the past few centuries the rise of state education systems and the tremendous growth in business, transportation, and media networks have given way to standard languages, simplifying commercial and cultural transactions across vast areas.

The pattern is being repeated on the Tibetan plateau with the rapid growth of infrastructure and the rise of advanced communications technologies in the last few decades. Today, speakers of various Tibetan dialects are coming increasingly into contact with one another. Driven by these ever more frequent interactions, a strong desire to formulate a standard Tibetan language has emerged within Tibetan intellectual circles, but significant differences exist as to what should be the basis for a standard Tibetan language.

To evaluate this emerging discussion as well as the risks and benefits of standardizing languages in general, we brought together David Bradley, Jamga, Miklós Kontra, Dawa Lodrö, Geshe Nornang, and Jaffer Sheyholislami. In presentations over the course of the two day conference, they shared their research and experience working with different communities.

While many Tibetans today look positively on standardization, the way in which Tibetan language should be standardized—as well as the possible repercussions of that process—causes debate. Questions of identity, communication, and cultural unity arise especially between Tibetan and non-Tibetan linguists, whose methods differ from their common goal of facilitating intra and inter-regional communication amongst the inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau.

Tibetan speakers presented conservative, innovative, and representative approaches to the standardization of Tibetan language. Geshe Nornang, for example, a retired lecturer at the Asian Language and Literature department from the University of Washington, proposes a return to traditional Tibetan pronunciation as an effective way to reintroduce a common regional language, without risking linguistic injustices. By promoting cultural seniority as opposed to cultural superiority, he believes that re-embracing the Tibetan pronunciation preserved in the written language could eventually reduce the differences between the language’s written and spoken forms. Although there can often be what David Bradley refers to as “tension” between the two forms of language, Tibet’s thirteen-hundred year old standard writing system could serve as a common base of history and tradition, in the face of the region’s cultural diversity and its population’s wide geographic distribution.

While Geshe Nornang’s proposal addresses one part of the standardization process, it does not address the ever-growing need for new standard terms in Tibetan language. Secretary General of the National Tibetan Language Terminology Standardization Work Committee in Beijing, Jamga, explains how new ideas call for the creation of new terms, and proposes standardizing Tibetan pronunciation and terminologies, as opposed to the language as a whole. The thirteen-hundred year-old written language lacks terminology related to the modern sciences, technology, and contemporary society. Without standard terms fostering education, research, and even simple discussion of these fundamentals of modern life proves difficult to impossible.

Hoping to achieve both the standardized terminology and pronunciation advocated by both Jamga and Geshe Nornang, Dawa Lodrö, editor-in-chief of Drangchar Magazine, advocated for a scholarly effort to produce a standard language. Combining research undertaken by Tibetan linguists with a panel of scholars representing the varieties of spoken Tibetan, Dawa Lodrö believes that an intellectual consensus could provide a foundation for standardization efforts.

While most Tibetan-speakers present advocated for the formulation of a standard language, the non-Tibetan linguists argued that although standardization is often looked to as a means to revitalize a culture, the path to standardization is fraught with challenges and risks. Adopting a single language—regardless of its provenience—implies that that variety is the correct one, and all other ones are not. This can lead to linguistic disparity and, eventually regional exclusion, as has been the case for Hungarian, Kurdish, and other Tibeto-Burman languages.

Professor David Bradley, of La Trobe University in Australia, emphasized the particular role that religion has played in stabilizing the written variety of Tibetan, and the tension that can arise between modern spoken varieties and an archaic literary variety of such importance. For such languages, he asserted, script reform can be particularly contentious, and the risk for standardization efforts in general is its ability to create greater internal division.

Applied Linguist Miklós Kontra from the University of Szeged in Hungary, more fully explored the social implications of standardized languages. He described how linguicism, discrimination against other linguistic varieties, can emerge, and in some cases produce “linguistic hierarchization,” a ranked system of languages based on their cultural importance or status. Linguistic purism, a strict determination of correct and incorrect ways of speaking based on a normative standard, can further negate regional heritage through means of the supposed cultural superiority which often attends the standard language.

This social fallout from the standardization process can have powerful effects on the community, particularly on speakers of non-standard language varieties. Language, according to Jaffer Sheyholislami, is not only a central element in personal and cultural identity, but also both a collective and individual right. Viewed from such a perspective the challenges of standardization take on a new dimension.

Cultural exclusion, internal division, and linguistic discrimination seem to be embedded in the very process of language standardization, yet a common language holds the promise of simplified and increased exchange within and across Tibetan regions. As the conversation on the standardization of Tibetan language continues to evolve the risks and benefits must be weighed in turn and always the people for whom Tibetan is not merely a language, but a key element of their individual identity must be considered.