The bilingual conundrum!

The exiled Tibetan’s Tibetan vocabulary is riddled with words that have no place in the Tibetan language. Our vocabulary is heavily influenced by the local language of the regions we live in, so much so that the Tibetan term is slowly replaced by its Hindi or English translations.

Too often, we say aloo (Hindi word for potato) instead of sho-go, the Tibetan version. Similarly, we’re more comfortable saying poora (all) instead of tsang-ma, ma-char (mosquitoes) instead of Dhuk-drang, sabji (vegetables) instead of tsaey and pen instead of ngu-khu.

Truth be told, it’s a blessing that Tibetans are at least aware of the Tibetan equivalents of these words. One cannot say the same for many other words for which their equivalents in the Tibetan vocabulary remain a mystery to most exiled Tibetans, unless you were a linguist or a scholar of sorts.

“Walking on Knives”, as ice skating was called, in Tibet (Photo courtesy: Heinrich Harrer for the National Geographic)

To be sure, until the latter half of the previous century, Tibetans were unaware of the existence of certain items, and, hence, needed no words to describe them. As depicted in the Brad Pitt-starrer “Seven Years in Tibet,” Tibetans had never seen ice skates before the noted Austrian explorer and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer introduced Tibetans to the sport of ice-skating, which explains why Tibetans never had a word for it. At the time, Tibetans naively believed the blades of the ice skates were the latest invention meant for cutting meat more effectively!

With the turn of the century and the new millennium, Tibetans have been thrust into a world of never-ending inventions and objects for which we have been forced to invent new words. The computer, for instance, is just one of these and is called lok-le, which literally translates into an “electronic brain”. The China Tibetology Research Center has produced a voluminous body of work to standardize all IT-related terminologies and they refer to the computer as tsee-kor.

Tibetans also have new terms to refer to relatively new inventions like the Internet (dragya) and blogs (zintri). If you must know, new Tibetan vocabulary extends beyond just technology. Wild Yaks, a non-profit initiative that seeks to preserve and promote Tibetan children’s education, lists a wide array of new vocabulary for food and beverages, including Champagne-chang for Champagne and tseek-ja (meaning burned tea) for coffee.

All this points to the fact that the Tibetan language is ever-evolving and every-adapting to include the changes that the world is seeing at large. However, as is true for everyone who must be bilingual, Tibetans too must first ensure the preservation of our own language and simultaneously stay updated with current global changes and trends.

For those of us who are familiar with the Tibetan way of life in exile, we have watched too many televised interviews on VoA on a Wednesday or a Friday, during which many a Tibetan interviewee has fumbled over a word here, a phrase there, or maybe sometimes a whole sentence or two. A less uncommon sight also has been that of the anchor serving as an “auto-corrector” or “auto-translator”, every time the interviewee expresses a particular term in English, rather than in “pure Tibetan”.

Each time I watch such an episode, it is difficult not to be reminded of the foresight and wisdom in the Great 10th Panchen Rinpoche’s advise — one that should resonate ever more strongly in the Tibetan diaspora today: The 10th Panchen Lama

“We are all Tibetans. First and foremost, we must study Tibetan well. Everywhere I go, I always ask Tibetans to study one’s own language. The situation has improved but it is still not satisfactory enough. Everybody, please ensure you study Tibetan well.”


2 thoughts on “The bilingual conundrum!

  1. Flashbeagle says:

    I love how this is an evolving language…most others including my own do not have native words for 21st century phenomena such as blogs, Internet, etc… but are people across generations aware of these “new” words? I would love to know the logic behind how words are added to the lexicon…also, looking forward to more posts… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • allthingstibetan2014 says:

      I doubt most people are aware of these “new” words. But there’s a new trend in the Tibetan exile community to learn the “pure Tibetan” versions for 21st century phenomena such as the Internet. Tibetans are increasingly learning to speak Tibetan as it should — without it being interspersed with non-Tibetan words. This trend took off after the Tibetan news channels began interviewing many common and well-known Tibetans — for many of whom their Tibetan was put to the first real rest for the whole of the Tibetan community (in exile and in Tibet) to see and hear. (Note to self: this might make for a good separate post too).
      Anyway, I hope this answers your question somewhat. Of course, living away from your place of origin always seems to revive those instincts to preserve and promote one’s cultural and linguistic traditions.

      Liked by 1 person

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