Quick Tips: Talk to Yourself!

External becomes internal; explicit becomes implicit. We internalize what is, at first, external.

That's why, if we wish to develop the skill to think in Tibetan, first we must speak in Tibetan! And a great way to practice thinking to yourself in Tibetan is to start talking to yourself in Tibetan.

So the next time you're on a walk; doing household chores; making your grocery list; or simply thinking about your day, practice by doing it aloud, in Tibetan! 


སྔོན་པོ། Tibetan 'Grue'

Did you ever notice that the colors in Tibetan pretty standard-ly end in 'po:'

མར་པོ།  སེར་པོ།  དཀར་པོ།  ནག་པོ།  སྔོན་པོ། ་་་་་་  

Except for one: ལྗང་ཁུ། ? Why the odd ending for the color "green"?

There are two curious entries in the བོད་རྒྱ་ཚིག་མཛོད་ཆེན་མོ། related to this:

  • ལྗང་བུ། གྲོ་ནས་ཀྱི་མྱུ་གུ་སྔོན་པོ།
  • སྔོན་པོ། ནམ་མཁའི་དོག རྩྭ་སྔོན་པོ། རས་སྔོན་པོ།

Both entries suggest that the natural color of grass, or barley sprouts, in the Tibetan color scheme is not "green" but "blue." If so, it would make sense that "green"—ལྗང་ཁུ—was coined with the import of Buddhist color schemes from India.

And that སྔོན་པོ is not "blue," but "grue."

This theory gains even more weight when we count the number of hits we get when searching for color terms (note that the frequency of all terms, across English and Tibetan, are %-wise comparable, with one exception—green):

TBRC (Tibetan Corpus):

  1. WHITE - dkar po - 52,623
  2. BLACK - nag po - 38,938
  3. RED - dmar po - 36,848
  4. BLUE - sngon po - 25,870
  5. YELLOW - ser po - 18,225
  6. GREEN - ljang gu - 7,402 + ljang khu - 3,708 = 11,110

COCA (English Corpus):

  1. WHITE - 208,113
  2. BLACK - 176,735
  3. RED - 90,798
  4. GREEN - 71,948
  5. BLUE - 59,997
  6. YELLOW - 26,990

Automating "Translation"

I've written a very simple script that "translates" Tibetan—or rather, it does as much Tibetan work as many of us do in the university-level classroom.

I'm going to pick on Rockwell here, because that's the book I was taught Tibetan from. All I've done for the script is input the glossary from Rockwell—the script simply converts the Tibetan symbols to Rockwell's given English equivalent.

In other words, I've outsourced the tedious work—work every student is taught to do in the grammar-translation classroom—of "using the glossary to look up words one-by-one" and then "write out the English words one-by-one," and given those jobs to the computer. 

What I've done is given the computer the following tasks:

  1. Recognize the Tibetan symbol(s)
  2. Look the symbol string up in the glossary
  3. Replace the Tibetan symbols with English symbols

Using the Script

For example, I can feed the following symbol string to the computer:


  1. །སངས་རྒྱས་ཆོས་དང་དགེ་འདུན་ལ
    །སྒོ་གསུམ་གུས་པས་སྐྱབས་སུ་མཆི KP 3A:6 (verse)
  2. ་་་བླ་མས་བུ་ཆེན་རྣམས་ལ་ཆོས་དང་གདམས་ངག་གི་དཀོར་མཛོད་རྣམས་ཁ་ཕྱེ་་་ MINT 88:11-2...

What the script spits out is:


  1. ། [Buddha] [dharma] [*AND*] [Buddhist community, sangha] [*TO(la)*]
    [three gates = body, speech, mind] [respect, devotion] [*AGENT/INST*] [refuge] [*TO*(ladon)] [to go] KP 3A:6 (verse)
  2. ་ [lama] [*AGENT/INST*] [son] [great] [*PLURAL*] [*TO(la)*] [dharma] [*AND*] [oral instruction] [*OF*] [treasury] [*PLURAL*] [pf. to open] ་ MINT 88:11-2...

Now I'm ready to "translate"! Using the grammar clues [*GRAMMAR*], all I need to do now is re-arrange the English words into a sentence that makes sense. (This is exactly what many Tibetan students are up to to this day!). 

But wait... I have to ask, couldn't I give this output to just about any native English speaker, even one who doesn't know a lick of Tibetan? With a few simple instructions (try reading it backwards; word order is SOV; etc.), they, too, could begin "learning Tibetan" without ever actually seeing even one word of Tibetan.

The question I'd like Tibetan teachers and students to think very hard about is this: If the computer can easily provide the English for us, what "Tibetan" work is really being done?


I've mentioned in a past post that "reading" is a complex process that requires: 1) decoding and 2) comprehension. What the script does is a version of the first bit of work for the student: decoding.

And, I'm arguing, that's all the Tibetan work a student can do in the Grammar-Translation classroom anyway. When we're taught in English, and we decode Tibetan into Englishall of our comprehension necessarily comes in English! We never learn how to comprehend Tibetan.

If students don't learn how to comprehend the source text (to truly read it), how can we expect them to learn how to translate?! If students can't learn how to think in Tibetan, how can they begin to understand an author who thinks in Tibetan?!

Machine Translation

One final point: This is not machine translation. Even if we started asking the computer to re-arrange the words according to the grammar (which we could do), it wouldn't be anything like how modern MT (machine translation) works.

Early on, this was exactly the method computer scientists tried to use to make a working MT. But natural languages are idiomatic; they break their own rules; they are metaphorical, not literal; they are, in the end, so much more than just bare vocabulary and grammar that this approach simply doesn't work.

So much so that every working MT model, like Google Translate, is based on other methods—like multi-word-level statistical analysis. 

If even machines can't make word-by-word translation work (and, they are much much faster at looking up words in the glossary than humans are), then why do we still expect Tibetan students to?!


Early Buddhists: Plain Language Advocates

"Two monks, Brahmans by birth, were troubled that other monks of various clans, tribes, and families, were corrupting the Buddha's words by repeating them each in his own dialect (sakāya niruttiyā).

They asked the Buddha, 'Let us put the Buddha's words into Vedic Sanskrit verse (chandaso āropema).' But the Blessed One, the Buddha, rebuked them...

And he commanded the monks: 'You are not to put the Buddha's words into Vedic Sanskrit verse. To do this would be to commit an infraction. I authorize you, monks, to learn the Buddha's words each in his own dialect.'"

Vinayapitaka 2:139, translation available in Pollock, Sheldon: The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power, p. 54


Space between Words

It would behoove the Tibetan translator to be familiar with Paul Saenge's book "Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading."

While we all know that Tibetan employs an interpunct (the "tsheg", ཚེག་) to divide syllables, we should also realize that it lacks a space between units of meaning, as is the tradition of modern languages such as English. This can probably be traced back to the writing system's origins in the Devanāgarī script of Sanskrit (which also did not employ a space, although modern Hindi does).

What seems not to be common knowledge, however (at least, I had never heard of it), is that when Latin and Greek were written in ancient times, they were written as continuous script (scriptura continua). Indeed, the focus on the orality of these ancient texts made spacing inconsequential. (They knew about spacing in other languages, and had experimented with it; they just found it useless).

Saenge writes: "These latter writing systems require a longer training period, one that features oral reading and rote memorization." By now, I hope this is beginning to remind you of another oral tradition heavily based on rote memorization, and how this book may give us some insights into Tibetan Buddhism and its textual tradition.

Oral reading was thus not only the preferred method of reading, but a necessary aspect of decoding and understanding writing since "overt physical pronunciation aided the reader to retain phonemes of ambiguous meaning." Rote memorization was used since "long-term memory of texts frequently read aloud also compensated for the inherent graphic and grammatical ambiguities of the languages of late antiquity."

In fact, "it was the very absence of word boundaries that made the technique of the identification and memorization of those sequences of letters representing licit syllables a fundamental aspect of ancient and early medieval pedagogy." And, let's add, a fundamental aspect of Tibetan Buddhist pedagogy (and here I'll point readers to Anne C. Klein's article, "Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet").

The implication is, of course, that as students of the Tibetan language, gaining a sense of Tibetan prosody is all the more important; for even in a space-separated language, readers access phonology to comprehend the written word (see Treiman et al., 2003. “Language Comprehension and Production”).

And I'll add a Tournadre quote here to bolster this point: "It should be emphasized that prosody and accentuation are extremely important for reading Literary Tibetan, whether verse or prose. Even from a grammatical point of view it is essential to make the right pauses and these follow some prosodic rules. If those rules are not applied, the text becomes incomprehensible" (p. 479 of the Manual of Standard Tibetan).

What is clear, however, is that "during the course of the nine centuries following Rome's fall, the task of separating written text, which had been for half a millennium a cognitive function of the reader, became instead the task of the scribe." This had an enormous impact on how we approach texts, how we read them, and in what contexts and for what purposes. As the title of the book suggests, what had once been mainly an oral and communal activity became an individual and silent one. Speed had been exchanged for the strong connection to language's oral roots.

Speaking of the benefits of spacing, studies cited in the book have shown that English texts are more easily and efficiently read when separated by spacing, and that "word-separated writing enhances the reader's short-term memory of word order." This is because space automatically parses meaning at the word level, allowing for automatic recognition at the level of the word as an entire unit. This word-level recognition adult readers develop is called "automaticity."

One's initial feeling (say, if one were a language pedagogist developing beginner's materials) may be that separating words would be most necessary for beginning readers. Yet, it's important to note that the opposite is actually true: "Experiments performed on adult, English-speaking readers confirm that the total suppression or partial obfuscation of spatial boundaries between words increases the duration of the cognitive activity necessary for reading. Conversely, although young readers who are obliged to read silently may encounter difficulties in comprehension, deletion of interword space does not affect them." In other words, removing spaces interferes with an advanced reader's ability to speedily and automatically recognize and understand words, while children are still reading at the level of the syllable.

And children's natural inclination is to both read and write in scriptura continua, as it's actually, in a way, a more accurate reflection of the fluidity of natural speech. Still, "the ever-present space between words allows young occidental readers to develop easily from reading skills based on synthetic recognition of a word by means of its syllabic component to the global recognition of the word as an entire unit with a single meaning and pronunciation."

Since the space parses language at the level of the word, less cognitive capacity is needed to disambiguate the language. This frees up more attentive capacities to be used for comprehension and speed. Thus, even if someone habituates themselves to the Tibetan orthography, they may "adapt and improve their reading rates over time; however... these readers' brains would always compensate for the extra cognitive burden by more numerous ocular fixations and regressions." An awareness of this fact should be soothing to those of us struggling to attain some level of Tibetan language reading comprehension.

In general, it seems Classical Tibetan pedagogy has, at least partially, sprung from the inability to approach Tibetan reading as we approach English reading; we believe the oral language is useless to the study of the literary language of old. What this all seems to point to, however, is that perhaps a shift in our approach would be beneficial; instead of slowly, silently, and laboriously pouring over a text in order to parse and understand it, strengthening our connection to the language's orality ought not be anything but beneficial...

I will finish with a final quote from the book:

"The importance of word separation by space is unquestionable, for it freed the intellectual faculties of the reader, permitting all texts to be read silently, that is, with eyes alone. As a consequence, even readers of modest intellectual capacity could read more swiftly, and they could understand an increasing number of inherently more difficult texts. Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance."


The Map is NOT the Territory

Our title today comes from Korzybski; follow the link to see how he used it, but I'd like to use the metaphor to discuss language, and the study of language. The map—here, language—is not the territory—the experiences, or representative mind-states, we are using that language to communicate.

For a very concrete example, let's consider the English exclamation "ow!" (or "ouch!"), which is used within our linguistic map to demarcate the territory of "a sudden, surprising pain"—which is the actual terrain of experience itself.

In Tibetan, however, our territory of "sudden, surprising pain" is actually split into two districts: ཨ་ར་ (a ra, a sudden dull pain; for example, from being hit or struck) and its adjacent neighbor ཨ་ཚ་ (a tsha, a sudden sharp pain; for example, from being pinched or burning oneself).

If we consider a situation of hypothetical translation, our simple, concrete example becomes suddenly complex. Our English-into-Tibetan must now take note of the context in which the exclamation was uttered (was it a dull or sharp pain?), while our Tibetan-into-English must now concern itself with whether or not giving more context or leaving it absent is the more appropriate choice.

To put it in linguistic terms, vocabulary is not isomorphic (one word in one language does not simply equal one word in another); and Messages contain information that is both linguistic and extralinguistic (contextual information).

This is why leaving information out, or adding extra information in, can be the right decision in translation. Fidelity—how accurate we are—is not measured by whether we use the same grammar or vocabulary (the same linguistic information); it is measured by whether or not we convey the same Message.

ow (1).png



The Tibetan word བརྡ་སྤྲོད is often translated as "grammar;" however, we can also see that it is a compound word consisting of:

བརྡ་ = symbol, sign, word, idea, or message

སྤྲོད་ = to give

Thus, བརྡ་སྤྲོད་, more literally translated, means "communication." (And, it is still used this way in modern speech—གོ་བརྡ་སྤྲོད་—meaning communication).

This etymology is fitting, for what else is there to "grammar rules" beyond structured symbolic meaning that ensures the accurate communication of ideas? The rules themselves are but slaves to this function; they are otherwise arbitrary.

Implicit to the "giving of a message," then, is the recipient's ability to receive the message; i.e., to understand it.

Hence the advice to translation trainees:


ཧ་གོ་དགོས་ན་བརྡ་སྤྲོད་མ་སྦྱང་། །    
གོ་བརྡ་སྤྲོད་ཆེད་བེད་སྤྱོད་བྱེད་དགོས། །


English is often painted as a very welcoming language; it will quickly & readily absorb words from just about any other language. And yet, in many ways, English has remained surprisingly true to its Anglo-Saxon roots.

When we speak or write in our common tongue—when we use plain English—we tend to favor words of Germanic or Norse word-roots over those of French or Latin or Greek (or other even more obscure) etymology. To this day, English English words are everyday; other English words are often formal; fancy-pants; uppity; strange; weird.

For comparison, take a gander at this list, which includes pairs like: book vs. literary; thinking vs. pensive; ask vs. inquire; buy vs. purchase; follow vs. ensue; and forgive vs. pardon.

Over the years, there have been movements to return English to the "Linguistic Purity" of its past... Though they have very little traction, offshoots still exist today, including: First English; Ednew English ("Renewal" English); and Anglish (named for the tongue's Anglo-Saxon roots), to name a few.


We should be aware that, when we translate, using "Anglish" terms gives us a certain power: the ability to imbue our language with a closer, more intimate, and natural feeling to our language. Anglish words have meatiness, heft, and weight. They give depth.

Furthermore, they have easily-recognizable wordbits (morphemes)! They are straightforward, outspoken, and forthright about what they mean and why... Tibetan, too, is a tongue deeply rooted in the transparency of its wordbits. And, when Buddhism made its way to Tibet, new words and compound words were coined in its service.

If we're ever to truly have a Buddhist English, one that reflects our sense of the world, and one that resonates deeply with its native speakers, then perhaps it's time we give up relying on Sanskrit loanwords.

For if the history of our language has shown anything, it's that we may come to adopt some of these terms as our own; yet, even if we do, they'll retain a tinge of not-quite-English-ness about them for century upon century...

'Classical' Tibetan is a Living Oral Tradition

“Religious vitality is preserved [within Tibetan Buddhism] through the internalization of doctrine via an oral tradition, specifically, that of memorization, oral commentary, and monastic debate” (Cabezon, 1994).

The emphasis of this oral lineage is even encoded in the name of one of the major lineages—the Kagyu (bka’ brgyud), or “Oral Lineage.” Furthermore, philosophical literature is often “couched in the language of debate”—to the point where “in order to understand the commentarial exegesis some familiarity with debate is required” (Perdue, 1992).

Since “Tibetan Buddhist writings have long been intimately associated with various forms of orality, an understanding of how Buddhist texts are read or encountered in Tibetan traditions requires that we consider [those forms] in which such textual encounters are embedded… [for] ‘reading’ in the Tibetan context intertwines oral and literary orientations” (Klein, 1994).

In other words, the Tibetan language is the liturgical language of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and within this linguistic realm, the relationship between the literary and spoken versions of the language are not stagnant and distinct. They are interacting elements of a living oral tradition, which is both“literary” and “oral” in nature.

And since all Tibetan dialects are “related to Classical Literary Tibetan from lexical, phonological, morphological and syntactic points of view,” the orality found within this tradition bears the marks of the literary language (Tournadre, 2001). So while the literary language itself is not generally used for everyday conversation, a version of elevated speech is spoken by religious teachers and lay intellectuals even to this day (Tournadre, 2003).

This, then, is one of the ways in which a foundation in Spoken Tibetan can form a basis for studying the literary language.

Suggested reading:

Anne Carolyn Klein, “Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet.”


Cabezon, Jose Ignacio (1994). Buddhism and Language: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism. New York: SUNY. p. 84.

Klein, Anne Carolyn (1994). “Oral Genres and the Art of Reading in Tibet,” Oral Tradition 9/2: 281-314.

Perdue, Daniel (1992). Debate in Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Snow Lion. p. 851.

Tournadre (2001). “Final Auxiliary Verbs in Literary Tibetan and in the Dialects,” Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, Vol. 24.1. p. 51.

Also see Tournadre (2003). Manual of Standard Tibetan. New York: Snow Lion. p. 27, where he notes that while literary Tibetan is not generally used for conversation, “some lamas or lay intellectuals use a form of expression which is virtually Literary Tibetan… there is therefore a real diglossia in their speech.”