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."