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BREATHING SPACE: How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language
By Email[Wednesday, January 27, 2010 12:29]
By Tenzin Dickyi

The Tibetan language, like an asthma patient in a dust storm, is gasping for breath. Although Tibetan children born and raised in locations as geographically disparate as Lhasa, Dharamsala or New York may grow up speaking Tibetan as a first language, they’ll almost certainly write it as a second. As long as Tibet remains a colony of China, this will not change. For Tibetan students inside Tibet, the language of professional success is now Chinese. For Tibetan students outside, it’s English. Disadvantaged by the system, Tibetan is inevitably neglected.

For the fate of Tibetan as a spoken language, the result of this neglect is so far minimal: as the language of home and hearth, it surrounds us in infancy and we grow up speaking Tibetan as our mother tongue. For Tibetan as a writing system, however, the result of this neglect is devastating: Tibetans of our generation do almost all of our reading and writing in a foreign language and almost none in Tibetan.

When young Tibetans trained outside the monastic system – who constitute the majority – cannot write a decent letter in Tibetan or read a sentence without tripping over at least three words, we have a crisis at hand. What’s to be done?

The root of the problem is quite simple: we cannot write Tibetan well because we almost never read Tibetan, and we almost never read Tibetan because it is so difficult to read it. And there’s one very simple way to immediately ease the difficulty of reading Tibetan: word separation. Adding a space between words so that we can see each word as an immediate discrete unit having visual meaning will simplify the daunting task of reading Tibetan script overnight.

In fact, this is what people throughout the world have been doing with other writing systems. Ancient Greek and Latin were written in scriptura continua, which is continuous script without spaces between words. Paul Saenger, the distinguished scholar of medieval writing practices, asserts that it was only at the end of the seventh century that Irish monks began to introduce spaces between words into medieval manuscripts, and it took several centuries for this practice to be adopted as standard. (Paul Saenger argues that it was this “aerated” script that led to the development of silent reading as we know it.) This space between words, also called whitespace, is now ubiquitous across many writing systems. Even Hindi, previously written in continuous Devanagari script (the base from which Thonmi Sambhota devised the Tibetan alphabet and writing system) is now spaced. Korea’s Hangul, previously continuous, is now generally spaced. Ethiopic, which like Tibetan uses the interpunct, the dot – although they double it, like so (:)- is increasingly written with a space between words.

(Photo: Ancient manuscript in scriptura continua.)
(Photo: Ancient manuscript in scriptura continua.)
Actually, writing Tibetan as we currently do, with the single dot to differentiate between syllables and no space between words, is a faithful representation of speech: after all in speech, we pause not between words but only at the end of a sentence. However, for the reader, that space – the visual equivalent of a pause – makes a world of difference: the whitespace allows words to be discrete, to have meaning that can be accessed visually as well as aurally. The eye can see quicker than the ear can hear and reading comprehension is consequently faster and simpler. Because Tibetan does not use word dividers, textual meaning is harder to access and the writing encourages the reader to read aloud rather than silently. In Space Between Words, Paul Saenger contends, “In general, graphic systems that eliminate or reduce the need for a cognitive process prior to lexical access facilitate the early adaptation of young readers to silent reading, while written languages that are more ambiguous necessitate the oral manipulation of phonetic components to construct words.” Tibetan of course falls into the latter category. He continues, “These latter writing systems require a longer training period, one that features oral reading and rote memorization and that continues, in some instances, even into adulthood.”

When Thonmi Sambhota, the outstanding innovator of the Tibetan script, single-handedly devised the Tibetan writing system in the 7th century (and among other innovations introduced the dot between syllables), there were considerations which no longer hold true now: at that time, parchment or paper was scarce and expensive. Printing was done laboriously from woodblocks and dense continuous script fit more words onto the woodblock and more content on the page. These considerations are irrelevant today thanks to advanced printing technology.

Let’s not forget that in the early days the script was not meant for mass consumption but rather seen as an elite privilege that one needed years of laborious training to master. After all, most writing systems in the world were developed not for mass consumption, but for the administration of empire and for governance. In fact for the greater part of the written word’s six thousand-year history, the different writing systems have required the presence of scribes who trained for long years to be proficient in reading and writing them. In Tibet, of course, the spread and diffusion of Buddhism has meant that the Tibetan writing system became the ultimate tool to preserve and transmit the teachings through the culture of the great monasteries. Within the monastic curriculum itself, years could be devoted to instill reading and writing proficiency in the young student.

Today, with the public school system – with the medium of study often Chinese or English – taking precedence over the monastic model, we no longer have the luxury of a long training period. And the Tibetan writing system is already complicated enough without the handicap of a script that may look beautiful but might well suffocate itself. The variations in spelling are mostly unpronounced, and words are often said differently from the way they are written. If space between words can be as an inhaler to the asthmatic, and revive Tibetan literacy for future generations, what might be the costs of whitespace?

A legitimate concern is that the unparalleled canon of Tibetan literature will be inaccessible to future readers accustomed to reading separated words. However, a few hours’ practice should allow scholars who will be fluent readers to access old manuscripts. Word separation will be crucial not only to beginning readers parsing lines, it will be an aid for scholars engaged in reference reading by facilitating swift silent reading and an expanded field of vision. As an interesting aside, it will also simplify the creation of a computer spell-check program and translation program for Tibetan.

I know this proposition will upset and outrage many Tibetans, because we have always been resistant to change – and we have been writing this way for centuries. But remember that traditionally scripture was written in stanzas so that readers always knew where to pause even without space. Most writers writing in Tibetan today do so in prose. The young reader slogs through, stumbling ever so often. Even the learned scholar trips every once in a while.

All things being equal, where words are spaced and comprehension is easier, more people will pick up a book. My brother Tendor and I have been informally testing the merits of word separation on a number of Tibetans, making them read two copies of the exact same text, one containing continuous script and the other containing separated script. Without exception, every one of the surveyed Tibetans found it easier to read and comprehend the separated script. We hope to continue the survey online and make it available to all interested participants.

Tendor, an activist and a musician, who first started advocating word separation in written Tibetan a year ago, has been writing with word separation at his bilingual blog www.yarlungraging.com. Although “aerated” Tibetan script may look startling at first, this minor change has the capacity to turn the chore of reading into a pleasure.

(Image capture of a post written in separated or aerated script on the blog Yarlung Raging)
(Image capture of a post written in separated or aerated script on the blog Yarlung Raging)
I believe that a study by the Tibetan Department of Education or a similar institution should formally assess the merits of word separation. A top-down implementation of an aerated writing system in the Tibetan schools, starting with the elementary classes and moving up to the higher grades, can bring about the immediate revival and long-term survival of the Tibetan language. Imagine if ten years from now, Tibetan students can read Tibetan with the same ease with which they can speak it, and children crave and nag for Tibetan language comic books! Such a future is certainly possible if we adopt word separation today, making the same leap that almost all other literate cultures have already made.

If this top-down implementation sounds too radical at this time, it might be more realistic to urge a bottom-up initiative that can gradually spread among the Tibetan public. To this end, I ask bloggers and writers in and outside Tibet to experiment with aerated script, to add space between words.

Written Tibetan can remain hallowed and privileged, or it can be accessible and popular. Since the time of Emperor Songtsen Gampo, it has been written Tibetan, bod-yig, that has bound the three provinces together, bod-yig that has preserved the intrinsic unity of the Tibetan people through imperial fragmentation and governmental dissolution. Bod-yig, Sambhota’s legacy to all Tibetans, has saved us time and again. Now it’s time for us to save this legacy. Future generations will thank us for allowing our words to breathe and to live.

Tenzin Dickyi holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Harvard University. She lives in New York and writes at www.YuthokLane.blogspot.com. She can be reached at jhutok@gmail.com

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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  Readers' Comments »
To Gangchenpa la (Marme)
INSPIRING ! (Gangchenpa)
Can Some Tibetan Teachers write colorful childrens books and videos (Sumtsul)
breathing space (iamglad)
Great idea (FreeTibet84)
Saving Space (Marme)
NimaB U.S.A (pedhma)
rethink (drukpa77)
you are lost (drukpa77)
Two headed bird now three. (Bö59)
Tibetan language survival (TsewangS)
space (gendunchopal)
whitespace (pemba00)
Cannot Agree More... (horseshoes)
Excellent Article (Sumtsul)
make it work. (tenzindondul)
lively tibetan (youngbhoepa)
anoteofagreement (NimaB)
Save our language (DorjeeKnows)
wonderful idea (anjede)
My hat off to youngsters like Tenzin Dickyi la!!! (pedhma)
I cannot agree more. (horseshoes)
Show us the way (gyalpot)
Language (returntotibet)
i agree (tedr2)
Wow. I love it. (seethetruth)
Worthy to discuss! (ltsholpa)
Brilliant Idea (samdup)
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