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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Opinion: Speaking the devil's tongue!

August 31, 2010

The escalating influence of sinicization and
'globalization' is challenging the Tibetan
linguistic identity, both inside and outside Tibet today
By Chime Tenzing
Phayul
August 30, 2010

Recently a friend of mine who studies English
literature in an American university returned to
Dharamsala for his annual University vacation. He
invited me for a lunch together at a hotel in the
town. As we started talking between bites and
sips, we unravelled a great deal of similar taste
for Western and English literature, but when I
hesitantly admitted that I did not have a similar
taste for Tibetan literature, he said with a
raised eyebrow, that as a Tibetan it is important
to know Tibetan. He went on to say that as a
Tibetan, however well versed you are in any other
languages, if you do not know Tibetan you are
like a one-eyed man. This he recounts from his
own experience studying in America and the
interactions he had with his American friends and
teachers. Therefore he chose to come back to
Dharamsala during his vacation (instead of
running after dollars) and spend time honing his
Tibetan language skills at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

The meeting left with me a lasting impression and
admittedly brought a paradigm shift to my
attitude toward the Tibetan language. I gradually
started putting effort in reviving my interest in
learning Tibetan by trying to read in Tibetan as
much as I could. It all began to dawn on me how
important it is to know Tibetan to be Tibetan,
not only as an individual, but also as a
community as a whole unit , to preserve our rich
cultural heritage and identity through the use of
our own mother tongue. My newfound concern for
the language gave way to the discovery of the
fact that today the Tibetan language is dying a
forceful as well as natural death!

For the linguist Edward Sapir, language is not
only a vehicle for the expression of thoughts,
perceptions, sentiments, and values
characteristic of a community; it also represents
a fundamental expression of social identity.
Sapir says: "the mere fact of a common speech
serves as a peculiar potent symbol of the social
solidarity of those who speak the language." In
short, language retention helps maintain feelings
of cultural kinship. So, it is indeed a worrying
state for the Tibetan language as it is
threatened with the risk of ‘assimilation’ due to
widespread Chinese language all over Tibet, even
in the so called Tibetan Autonomous Region. If
this dangerous trend continues for long, the very
identity of Tibetans would eventually be lost and
the victory of evil over good would be complete!

While Tibetans in Tibet are forced to speak the
tongue of the ‘devil’, Tibetans in free world are
compelled to speak in other tongues in order to
‘move with the changing times’ or to meet the
growing demands of the globalization. In the
process, the importance of our mother tongue is
severely affected with the tides of globalization
one the one side and the threat of sinicization
on the other. Therefore, the time has come for
the Tibetans to give a serious thought on the
state of Tibetan language today, both inside and
outside Tibet and work towards safeguarding it
before our rich linguistic tradition is lost forever.

The latest bare-all critique by Woeser "If
Tibetans took to the streets for the Tibetan
language" leaves us worrying about the state of
Tibetan language under the tenacious grip of the
communist regime. The writer freshly confirms our
lingering fear of the prevailing threat to the
Tibetan language under the communist China with
appalling details and real life accounts. It is
evidently obvious that China is making every
attempt to replace Chinese with the Tibetan in
the name of ‘unifying the country under one
language’! The article rightly points out why
China is pressing so hard on wiping out Tibetan
language - because they believe "the higher the
level of the Tibetan language, the stronger the
religious consciousness and as a result the stronger reactionary behavior."

Ironically, China's White Paper of 25th September
2008 claims that Tibetan language forms a part of
the Chinese language! However, contradictory to
what the Chinese claim, in the annals of the
Tibetan literary history it is indisputably
recorded that the Tibetan language is spoken in
numerous regional dialects which, although
sometimes mutually intelligible, generally cannot
be understood by the speakers of the different
oral forms of Tibetan. It is employed throughout
the Tibetan plateau and Bhutan and is also spoken
in parts of Nepal and northern India, such as
Sikkim. In general, the dialects of central Tibet
(including Lhasa), Kham, Amdo and some smaller
nearby areas are considered Tibetan dialects.
Other forms, particularly Dzongkha, Sikkimese,
Sherpa, and Ladakhi, are considered by their
speakers, largely for political reasons, to be
separate languages. However, if the latter group
of Tibetan-type languages is included in the
calculation then 'greater Tibetan' is spoken by
approximately 6 million people across the Tibetan
Plateau. Tibetan is also spoken by approximately
150,000 exile speakers who have fled from Tibet to India and other countries.

Although spoken Tibetan varies according to the
region, the written language, based on Classical
Tibetan, is consistent throughout. This is
probably due to the long-standing influence of
the Tibetan empire, whose rule embraced (and
extended at times far beyond) the present Tibetan
linguistic area, which runs from northern
Pakistan in the west to Yunnan and Sichuan in the
east, and from north of Qinghai Lake south as far
as Bhutan. The Tibetan language has its own
script which it shares with Ladakhi and Dzongkha,
and which is derived from the ancient Indian Bra-hmi- script.

Commenting on why the Tibetan language has
suffered greatly after the Chinese invasion of
Tibet, a Tibetan scholar from the Translation
Bureau of the Tsolho [Ch. Huangnan] "Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture", Kalsang Lodoe, writes -
"In the Tibetan autonomous areas, Tibetans are
supposed to be the nationality that exercises
autonomy and Tibetan language the commonly-used
language. Since the ‘liberation’ of Tibet,
however, the principal leaders and heads, as well
as those performing secretarial jobs, in all the
offices of the administration and
specialised/professional departments, as well as
the business or commercial enterprises, have all
been sent from China. And if there are
knowledgeable Tibetans who desire to serve
politically, they are not utilized by calling them reactionaries..."

As a teacher of Chatsang Primary School in
Sabgang Township of Kangkar (Ch. Kangma) County,
Samdrup Chungdhing, writes -- "although Tibetan
is purportedly taught in the so-called "Tibetan
Classes", these exist in form only, and the
standard of these schools is pathetically poor.
Some students do not know how to write their own
names in Tibetan without making spelling
mistakes, while others do not understand [the
basic Tibetan grammar of] where to put Mgo-rtags
and Dogs-rtags. With such a low level of Tibetan
linguistic knowledge, they are bound to face
problems even in their own works, let alone in
maintaining or upholding the culture of Tibet."

With this stark reality challenging our century
old linguistic tradition and our identity as
Tibetans today, there is an urgent need to
realize the importance of preserving our language
for the common good of the Tibetan race before it
is wiped out from the surface of earth. While
there is little choice for the Tibetans inside
Tibet, but Tibetans living in free society could
make a difference by promoting the language
within its family, friends, neighborhood,
schools, community and society at large. Unless
we realize this and take the responsibility of
safeguarding our language with a sense of
urgency, there is no other ways to challenge the
advocates of devil in our dialects.
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