Dan of Swanno sends me a link to a heartfelt description of the agonies of trying to learn how to pronounce Tibetan while looking at the apparently sensible writing system. For a more orderly description of said system, try the Learn Tibetan page, and you can hear Tibetan read aloud here.


  1. A wonderful description. The sad thing is that the alphabet itself is a wonderfully elegant one, simple, logical, serviceable, and beautiful. The attempt to freeze a language’s representation can ruin even the loveliest system, after a millenium or two. (Frenchmen, take note!)

  2. (Frenchmen, take note!)
    Luk not at dh@ mowt in @n@dhr’z ai bifor pl@king dh@ biym fr@m dhai own.

  3. I was going to say what Dale said. I believe that the case is the same with Korean — I’ve read that their writing system is beautifully phonemic, or was when it was written, but doesn’t describe the present language.
    Reading Rabelais or Ronsard you have to remember that most silent letters aren’t silent. So a lot that painful ignoring you had to learn to do has to be unlearned. (But of course, it’s not as simple as that). It seems to be the way in Mongol.
    So many languages are a bit like Chinese, so-called ideographs with an unreliable phonetic element. Just not **quite** as unreliable as Chinese, where one graph can have four distinct pronunciations, only one of which is in any way phonetic.
    Since a major role of writing is to make things permanent, if language evolved as fast as speech it would make the permanent records less usable. Rabelais is actually now easier to read than he should be, at the cost of making modern French harder to learn than it should be. Same for Shakespeare I assume.

  4. Michael Farris says:

    I’d say Korean is phonemic in decoding at any rate. I think that maybe like Vietnamese, it represents a compromise dialect rather than any one dialect. And I think North and South have some slightly different spelling conventions, so I think ‘ate’ (formal) would be
    meok-eoss-eupnita in the south and meok-eoss-seupnita in the north.
    What causes confusion for some people is that each morpheme is (mostly) written separately so that the (made up for here) sequence /mani/ will be written one way if it’s a single morpheme /mani/ or two morphemes /ma/ + /ni/ (both written ma-ni) and another way if it’s a noun /man/ plus the subject marker /i/, when it’s written man-i.
    I don’t understand the logic of some verbal suffixes. One textbook I have suggests thinking that each verb has two stems, which (to me) would indicate that the two stems for ‘eat’ would be written
    but instead they’re written

  5. Michael Farris says:

    I was recently looking at the grammar by Denwood, where he uses a transliteration and a phonemic transcription (Lhasa dialect), wild, wild stuff. I would suggest though that the spelling of his /drup/ is not BA SA/GA/RA/U BA SA, but rather a simple bsgrubs.

  6. Michael Farris says:

    Just thought I’d mention that those who want to hear Tibetan can also find broadcasts at VOA and Radio Free Asia (probably other sites as well).

  7. Good lord! Ghoti squared.
    The discussion on that page is a bit too breezily relativist for my taste. Sorry, but some languages have painted themselves into corners which *are* intrinsically more difficult than others. A bit of irregular spelling is not the same as a writing system which turns the elegance of devanagari into a Rubik’s cube.
    On an unrelated Central Asian note:
    I had thought it was Tibetan, but I see now that it was Mongolian, which took a side-to-side script and turned it into a top-to-bottom script on the Chinese model: Mongolian looks roughly like Arabic rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise. Very pretty, actually, and makes you think what it would have been like aesthetically speaking if some language had done the same thing with a Roman-based script.

  8. Well, now, there are some good points to the Tibetan script. I understand that once you’ve learnt the rules, there’s rarely any difficulty in translating form into sound. Some of the silent consonants do provide an indication of tone, so they’re not entirely useless. There’s something to be said for a written form which unites mutually incomprehensible dialects. And of course, very old texts remain relatively comprehensible.
    Whether these benefits outweigh the fairly serious hurdle on the course of Tibetan literacy, I don’t know enough to say. (I’m planning to study the language myself, as soon as I can get my hands on a copy of Tournadre & Dorje’s Manual of Standard Tibetan, but I haven’t got around to it yet.)
    Some interesting pages on the history of written Tibetan and various orthographic issues, from the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library. (Which will be a very impressive online resource, if they ever finish it.)

  9. What Tim May said. The rules are pretty regular, so far as I understand from the little I’ve studied. Though the Sanskrit transliteration stuff looks like a real bitch.

  10. Actually Korean is quite easy to learn to read and write – I taught myself in about 5 hours how to do it, albeit very slowly, with a book and cassettes. Of course I could not understand a word of what I was reading.
    Anyhow 7 years on, my Korean is at a lower intermediate level due to not having time to take proper classes.
    I am a little confused by all the romanization of Korean in the previous comments – I personally hate romanization when studying languages, prefer to learn it in the original script.
    to eat: 먹다
    ate: 먹었어요(informal) or 드세요 (formal) it’s actually two different words depending on whom you are speaking too. there are a few words like that. Sleep 자다 (informal) and I forget the formal. Most of the verbs change level of formality by conjugation.

  11. Michael Farris says:

    Blinger: “I am a little confused by all the romanization of Korean in the previous comments – I personally hate romanization when studying languages, prefer to learn it in the original script.”
    Well I don’t have the software to type Korean, so I used a compromise romanization, influenced heavily by the Korean MOE, but using – to indicate a written syllable beginning with a vowel.
    “”to eat: 먹다
    ate: 먹었어요(informal) or 드세요 (formal) it’s actually two different words depending on whom you are speaking too.”
    Yeah, I just wanted to distinguish meok- from meok-eo- (and couldn’t remember if it’s meok-eosseyo or meok-eoss-eoyo so I went with meok-eoss-eupnita (a form found in one textbook, but there’s lots of mistakes in it too).
    Maybe not everybody uses the two verb-stem approach to analyzing Korean

  12. Micheal,
    When I stated my dislike of romanizaztion, I did not mean for it to sound like an attack on you. Sorry about that. I do realize that not everyone has a hangul capable keyboard.
    Have you tried installing the asian language pack that comes with windows xp? if not there is a great guide on how to do that: http://webhard.daewoo.com/jsp/hangul.html#xpime

  13. I personally highly approve of romanization, because 1) I don’t read hangul, and 2) the browser I’m using now is just showing me boxes. When I get to work and my iMac with OSX I’ll presumably be able to see the hangul, but I still won’t be able to read them. So give the characters for any languages you like, but add romanization for those of us who need it, thanks very much.

  14. The reason I picked on the French, Hat, is not because French spelling is worse than English, but because the French seem intent, like the Tibetans, on freezing their spelling at whatever cost. The cost eventually is pretty high. It’s true that the rules of Tibetan spelling are fairly regular, but they’re also ridiculously elaborate. You have to memorize which letters can appear in which slots, and which letters can be prefixed by which, and then work by elimination to figure which letters are prefixes, postfixes, and postpostfixes. Some prefixes alter the tone or phonetic value of some following letters (but not of others), and again, unless your historical linguistics are much more sophisticated than mine, you just have to memorize which prefix affects which root letters in which way. (This is after, of course, you’ve determined which letter *is* the root letter, which is not always an easy task.) That the syllable “tra” should have six *common* spellings — not just possible, but *common* — strikes me as a bit over the top.

  15. the French seem intent, like the Tibetans
    And like us, surely? Not arguing with you, your points are perfectly sensible — I just don’t understand the differentiation here. Riformd speling has never gotten anywhere.

  16. It’s the attitude. English-speakers by and large seem aware that their spelling is ridiculous; they’re just pessimistic about being able to fix it. Whereas the French I have known seemed to preen themselves on their silly spelling, and to consider it a great virtue. As do the Tibetans. (I may have just been unfortunate in the French and Tibetans I’ve known.)

  17. Can anyone tell me what ‘orthography’ meant in 17th-century English? I keep finding descriptions of ‘orthographic prints’. I’m guessing it means calligraphic but would appreciate any enlightenment. I’ve decided to learn two Korean vowels at a time. Ya Yo Ya Yo Ya Yo Ya Yo.

  18. That would refer to orthographic projections. To quote the OED’s first definition of orthographic:
    Applied to a kind of perspective projection, used in maps, elevations of buildings, etc., in which the point of sight is supposed to be at an infinite distance, so that the rays are parallel.
    1668 Phil. Trans. III. 892 The Orthographick Projection, by Perpendiculars falling from the respective Points of the Circles of the Spheare, on the Projecting Plain: Such a Projection, if the Plain be the Meridian, Ptolemy called the Analemma. 1796 Morse Amer. Geog. I. 56 If the eye be supposed to be placed at an infinite distance, it is called the orthographic projection. 1802 James Milit. Dict. s.v. Bridge, Elevation, the orthographic projection of the front of a bridge, on the vertical plane, parallel to its length. 1866 Athenæum No. 2002. 339/2 The orthographic delineation of the skull. 1867 Denison Astron. without Math. 11 That mode of projecting a hemisphere or any part of it on a plane is called the orthographic, because it shews the surface as it would be seen straight by parallel lines of sight from an infinite distance.

  19. Ah ha. Thank you. Boy was I way off track.

  20. Veronica says:

    I want to get a tattoo in Tibetan. But I don’t know how to use the letters and what not, can some one pleace help me!? Here’s my e-mail Orangeladybug182@cs.com

  21. hey can you please send me my name written in tibetan script or please tell me a website which will do this

  22. Re: Tibetan the following pages may be of interest:
    Tibetan Calligraphy: http://www.btinternet.com/~c.fynn/index.html
    The Tibetan Writing System:
    (the pages in this section are in Unicode and require an OpenType Tibetan font and an up-to-date version of Uniscribe [usp10.dll] installed on your system.
    A Standard System of Tibetan Transcription by Turrel V. Wylie:
    - Chris

  23. Greetings first of all, i am interested, in a word translated to tibetan characters, the word is “INFINITE”.
    i would like to write it.
    pls, can someone send me an inside, regarding this subject.
    Thank you very much!!!

  24. Antoine, it’s unclear whether you want the word “infinite” written out in Tibetan script, or a Tibetan word that means the same as our word “infinite”, again written in Tibetan script. (Not that I personally could help with either.)

  25. i was wondering how to say loyalty in tibetan…And how it would be writen.. I wanted a tattoo with either the meaing loyalty or truth.. Could you please tell me?Either these two words..or possibly both? And is there any type of superstition like bad luck to get a tibetan writing on your body?just wondering…cuz i wanna be 100 percent sure!

  26. Courtney says:

    Can you please send me my daughters name in tibetan. Her name is emma

  27. could you please tell me if there is a website that does translations that you can recommend? can you please tell me if there is any bad superstition regarding getting a tattoo in tibetan script? thank you

  28. could you please tell me if there is a website that does translations that you can recommend? can you please tell me if there is any bad superstition regarding getting a tattoo in tibetan script? thank you

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