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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."

Breathing Space: How Word Separation Can Save the Tibetan Language

January 28, 2010

By Tenzin Dickyi
January 27, 2010 12:29]

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.

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 Although “aerated” Tibetan
script may look startling at first, this minor
change has the capacity to turn the chore of reading into a pleasure.

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 . Please send comments to .
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