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Breaking the Line

In the seventh century, the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo sent seven ministers to India, where they were to study the Brahmi and Gupta scripts used to write Prakrit and Sanskrit. Influenced by these two writing systems, the minister Thonmi Sambhota is traditionally credited with devising the Tibetan script in the mountains of Kashmir. In less than two decades, his system would be adopted and propagated for the writing of Tibetan languages from northern Pakistan to the eastern edges of the Tibetan Plateau.

Unlike many other written languages, clauses in Tibetan are written in an unbroken line, with syllables divided only by a tsek, a small mark similar in appearance to an apostrophe. This unique element of Tibetan orthography is a leading cause, according to some, in the decline in use of written Tibetan, especially among younger Tibetans. Intellectuals speculate that the length of the sentences and the difficulty in distinguishing between words hinder reading comprehension and discourages young Tibetans from writing and reading in Tibetan. Expressing the frustration of some young Tibetans, Rikjong Dhondup Tashi, the managing editor of the Tibetan-language blog, Khabdha, remarked that “Tibetans can write one sentence, and it will cover one whole page! If it’s a full page, how can you read that?”

Each speaker proposed reforms to improve the situation. Tenzin Dickyi, a popular blogger based in New York, advocated breaking the continuous line of Tibetan script by inserting spaces between individual words. She argued that “word separation will definitely increase comprehension, because you can immediately pick out words as you read the text. It will increase clarity and reduce ambiguity.”

She asserted that various studies by linguists have determined that writing systems that employ a continuous script are more likely to be abandoned by users than a script that is separated. She cited Old English, which began using word spacing in the twelfth century, as an example. The introduction of word spacing in English had a profound impact on the language, changing both the way texts were written and read, and the how English speakers thought about their language. Because of this shift, words increasingly came to be seen as the basic unit of meaning.

In the past fifty years, digital technologies have been produced primarily by users of word-separated scripts, meaning separating Tibetan words with spaces would additionally make the Tibetan language more computer-friendly. Tenzin Dickyi stated that “with word separation, the computer will know what the words are. It will be easy for the next Tibetan genius to make a Tibetan spell check or word count.” In her opinion, word separation would also facilitate education in Tibetan. “Tibetans could read an economic textbook in Tibetan, or a chemistry textbook in Tibetan. It will facilitate a global conversation between Tibetan and all other languages in the world.”

In further support of her proposal, Tenzin Dickyi conducted a brief survey among local Tibetan speakers in New York City. She presented each participant with two versions of the same text, one written according to current orthography, and the other written with spaces between words. While some older readers struggled with the unusual text, younger participants remarked the text with separated words was a faster read and easier to comprehend. The same experiment was conducted with a native English speaker who is learning Tibetan. He remarked that the separated words allowed him to distinguish between words he had already learned and those he did not know. Recognizing some of the words allowed him to better comprehend the context, which allowed him to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Tenzin Dickyi admitted to two immediate disadvantages of inserting spaces between words. Arguments have been made that breaking the line will produce texts that will require the use of more paper, which would be damaging to the environment. There is also the concern that adapting to this new system of writing will impede future Tibetans from reading religious and historical texts, an important connection to their shared culture.

Alternative solutions to word separation have greater support within the Tibetan community. Lama Pema Wangdak, Director of the Palden Sakya Center and the Vikramasila Foundation, considers the insertion of space between words to be unnecessary, and potentially injurious to the traditions of Tibetan writing. “It is a matter of semantics when you say you want to change the language. That’s really threatening to everyone. I’m for change, but I want to be a little more cautious. Language is like the structure of a building. You can’t put it straight like the Pisa Tower. If you want to change it, you’ve got to change the whole structure.”

His proposal for reform is more moderate than word separation, involving inserting a triangular, rather than square, tsek to indicate the conclusion of a sentence. “Just like in English, there is a subtle difference between the comma and the period. If you’re a Tibetan learning for the first time, you can’t tell which is which. But once you’re used to it, you can tell.”

This innovated tsek would allow readers to differentiate between sentences, but there are numerous possible shortcomings to this proposed reform. First, the inclusion of this new tsek does not render the Tibetan writing system any more computer-compatible. An audience member also raised concerns about Tibetans with poor or failing eyesight. This new tsek would appear little different to them than the current tsek that delineate syllables. Additionally, Tibetans who chose to write with the traditional writing instrument of Tibet, the bamboo pen, would also encounter difficulties. The nub of the pen is a flat tip, which could complicate the writing of this particular tsek. Lama Pema, however, disputed this statement. “When you write, you don’t expect to write perfectly. Everyone understands there are many different handwriting styles. Whatever your pen allows you will be the tsek.”

While Tenzin Deckyie and Lama Pema Wangdak look to Tibetan orthography to understand flagging interest in the written language among young Tibetans, blog-editor Rikjong Dhondup Tashi held that the problem lay not with the Tibetan script, but with poor educational standards. He stated that in Tibet, there is a stronger emphasis on language education, while Tibetans living in non-Tibetan societies devote less attention to learning their mother tongue. “How many Tibetans face the problem of reading and writing? If the majority of the population doesn’t have this problem, why should we reform the Tibetan language?” he asked.

His solution for increasing reading comprehension involved adjusting sentence structure and length to reduce the complexity of sentences. Rikjong cited tenth century Tibetan scholars who wrote in shorter sentences, and advocated this as preferable to “aerating” Tibetan script. “Separating the words,” he said, “may help people read quickly, but it may not help people understand [better],” and, if any reforms are to take place, higher comprehension must be their goal.

Tibetans may eventually decide that reforms to Tibetan orthography are necessary, but from this passionate discussion, it is clear that regardless of which proposals are adopted or ignored, the line between the Tibetan people, their language, and culture remains strong. “The system of Tibetan writing is a gift that Thonmi Sambhota bestowed upon us,” Tenzin Dickyi reminded the audience in closing. “It is the birthright of every single Tibetan. We should all consider solutions to make sure that Tibetan survives as a rich and literate language beyond the twentieth century.”