Desideri’s Tibetan.

Alison Gopnik writes about Hume, history, and her midlife crisis for The Atlantic; it’s a long and interesting read, but not really LH material except for this passage, describing Ippolito Desideri‘s experience as a Jesuit missionary in Tibet:

When he finally arrived in Lhasa [in 1716], the king and the lamas welcomed him enthusiastically, and their enthusiasm didn’t wane when he announced that he was a lama himself and intended to convert them all to Catholicism. In that case, the king suggested, it would be a good idea for him to study Buddhism. If he really understood Buddhism and he could still convince the Tibetans that Catholicism was better, then of course they would convert.

Desideri accepted the challenge. He spent the next five years in the Buddhist monasteries tucked away in the mountains around Lhasa. The monasteries were among the largest academic institutions in the world at the time. Desideri embarked on their 12-year-long curriculum in theology and philosophy. He composed a series of Christian tracts in Tibetan verse, which he presented to the king. They were beautifully written on the scrolls used by the great Tibetan libraries, with elegant lettering and carved wooden cases. […] He worked on his Christian tracts and mastered the basic texts of Buddhism. He also translated the work of the great Buddhist philosopher Tsongkhapa into Italian.


It’s hard to imagine how Desideri kept any sense at all of who he was. He spent all his time reading, writing, and thinking about another religion, in another language. (Thupten Jinpa, the current Dalai Lama’s translator, told me that Desideri’s Tibetan manuscripts are even more perceptive than the Italian ones, and are written in particularly beautiful Tibetan, too.)

These world travelers with their endless appetite (and facility) for languages amaze me; to go all the way to Tibet to try to convert people is one thing, but to learn the language well enough to write in “particularly beautiful Tibetan” is quite another. (See my earlier posts The Tatarman of Vámbéry and Sándor Kégl for similarly astonishing travelers.)


  1. For heaven’s sake, don’t you realize by now that the blog is about you, and what you are interested in, we are disposed to be interested in? Having a theme helps to give you focus, no doubt, but let your thoughts play freely over the subject. I’ve quoted this before, and I may well quote it again another day:

    I think of LH as having a foreground program and a background program. When there is a current linguistics chew toy, the talk is very focused and on topic; when the immediate discussion winds down, there is a background playful poking at the information to see what latent bits can be stirred up or whose memory can be jogged. Sometimes you can see something more clearly when you look away for a moment.

    That applies not only to the comments, but to the posts. De te fabula narratur.

  2. Well, sure, but it’s the focus, vague and shifting as it is, that makes the blog worth reading. If I wrote about what I had for breakfast and what my cats were up to, it would be just another brick in the wall.

  3. On the other hand, if I kept too rigorously to the blog’s official mandate, I would frequently have nothing to post, and the blog would risk falling into the “hey, look at that, a new post, I forgot that thing existed!” status of some of the desuete items in the blogroll. Therefore I stretch a point and cram all manner of vaguely relevant material into the capacious LH Santa’s bag. So we beat on, boats against the current…

  4. Alison Gopnik, daughter of linguist Myrna Gopnik…

  5. And sister of Adam Gopnik!

  6. Borne forward ceaselessly into the future.

  7. >And sister of Adam Gopnik!

    Here’s Adam writing about his last name:

  8. “In that case, the king suggested, it would be a good idea for him to study Buddhism. If he really understood Buddhism and he could still convince the Tibetans that Catholicism was better, then of course they would convert.”

    This is what real cultural confidence looks like.

    Also, it seems obvious that if you are going to talk to people, you need to use terms and categories they understand. If you go outside the Abrahamic Tradition, talk of Messiahs and vicarious atonement and so on, you are just going to get the Victrola dog look a lot. Besides, if you study Mahayana Buddhism you are finally going to get cogent and lucid discussions of original sin, total depravity, the need for atonement, the means of grace, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the life of the spirit and all that – once you get outside a theological tradition gunked up with Greek essentialism and Middle eastern historico-mythology.

  9. Here’s Adam writing about his last name…

    … and rehashing folk etymological theory that “GOP” in the name was an acronym (not of a political party but of a St. Petersburg homeless shelter, perhaps “Городское общество призора”, located per Wikipedia at 10 Ligovsky Avenue). I couldn’t find any references to this institution in the old books though – the closest I got is Домъ Призрѣнія Малолѣтнихъ Бѣдныхъ (Charitable House for the Underage Indigents), since 1818 at 18 Ligovsky Ave. A new facility has been constructed in 1859 at 16 Ligovsky Ave. It was a big boarding school with the staff of 82 and 185 students, an in-house typography, a summer camp, and annual tuition of 114 rubles per the 1874 calendar in Google Books. Back then, it was the only charitable home at Ligovka. All these addresses are now within the property of Moscow Station, the famed railroad terminal of Russia’s first intercity line. Did something change there in early XX c.? Anyway wherever I see wikipedia referring to a nonexistent name, I tend to think that it is an invention rather than a vague recollection…

    PS: for old Russian book searches, this tool for transliterating into the Old Orthography with its yats and yers may be really useful!

  10. Thanks for that Slavenitsa site; I’ve added it to the Language resources.

  11. I find it hard not to see the parallels between gopar’/gopnik “street criminal of low esteem” & skokar’/skokach (classic Russian slang for “burglar”) since both roots mean the same, to hop / to jump…

  12. “In that case, the king suggested, it would be a good idea for him to study Buddhism. If he really understood Buddhism and he could still convince the Tibetans that Catholicism was better, then of course they would convert.”

    Contrast this with good old Prince Vladimir’s approach: (

    This is my rushed translation:

    In the year 6494 (986) came Bulgars of the Mahometan faith, saying “You, prince, are wise and clever, but don’t know the law. Believe in our law and bow to Mahomet”. And Vladimir asked “What is your faith like?”.They then answered: “We believe in G-d, and this is how Mahomet teaches us: to perform circumcision, not eat pork, not drink wine, but after death, he says, you can commit fornication with women. Mahomet will give each one seventy beautiful women, and will select one of them to be the most beautiful, and will place upon her the beauty of them all, and she will be a wife to him. Here, one should give himself to all kinds of fornication. If one is poor in this world, so will he be in the other” and all types of falsehoods they said, about which it is even shameful to write. Vladimir listened to them, since he himself liked women and all sorts of fornication, that is why he listened to them with pleasure. But here is what he found distasteful: circumcision and refraining from swine meat, and about drinking, he opposed, saying “For Russia it is joy to drink: we cannot be without it.”

    ‘В год 6494 (986). Пришли болгары магометанской веры, говоря: “Ты, князь, мудр и смыслен, а закона не знаешь, уверуй в закон наш и поклонись Магомету”. И спросил Владимир: “Какова же вера ваша?”. Они же ответили: “Веруем Богу, и учит нас Магомет так: совершать обрезание, не есть свинины, не пить вина, зато по смерти, говорит, можно творить блуд с женами. Даст Магомет каждому по семидесяти красивых жен, и изберет одну из них красивейшую, и возложит на нее красоту всех; та и будет ему женой. Здесь же, говорит, следует предаваться всякому блуду. Если кто беден на этом свете, то и на том”, и другую всякую ложь говорили, о которой и писать стыдно. Владимир же слушал их, так как и сам любил жен и всякий блуд; потому и слушал их всласть. Но вот что было ему нелюбо: обрезание и воздержание от свиного мяса, а о питье, напротив, сказал он: “Руси есть веселие пить: не можем без того быть”. Потом пришли иноземцы из Рима и сказали: “Пришли мы, посланные папой”, и обратились к Владимиру: “Так говорит тебе папа: “Земля твоя такая же, как и наша, а вера ваша не похожа на веру нашу, так как наша вера – свет; кланяемся мы Богу, сотворившему небо и землю, звезды и месяц и все, что дышит, а ваши боги – просто дерево”. Владимир же спросил их: “В чем заповедь ваша?”. И ответили они: “Пост по силе: “если кто пьет или ест, то все это во славу Божию”, – как сказал учитель наш Павел”. Сказал же Владимир немцам: “Идите, откуда пришли, ибо отцы наши не приняли этого”. Услышав об этом, пришли хазарские евреи и сказали: “Слышали мы, что приходили болгары и христиане, уча тебя каждый своей вере. Христиане же веруют в того, кого мы распяли, а мы веруем в единого Бога Авраамова, Исаакова и Иаковля”. И спросил Владимир: “Что у вас за закон?”. Они же ответили: “Обрезаться, не есть свинины и заячины, соблюдать субботу”. Он же спросил: “А где земля ваша?”. Они же сказали: “В Иерусалиме”. А он спросил: “Точно ли она там?”. И ответили: “Разгневался Бог на отцов наших и рассеял нас по различным странам за грехи наши, а землю нашу отдал христианам”. Сказал на это Владимир: “Как же вы иных учите, а сами отвергнуты Богом и рассеяны? Если бы Бог любил вас и закон ваш, то не были бы вы рассеяны по чужим землям. Или и нам того же хотите?”.’

  13. Hat, I wonder if you have read the remarkable account of the British officer E. B. Soane? He lived in Iran for many years, and after his return to England, he felt drawn to visit Ottoman Kurdistan by a feeling of fellowship with the Kurds he had met Iran. He had learned Persian so perfectly while in Iran, and assimilated so well in Near Eastern society, that when he entered Ottoman Kurdistan, he could pass himself off as a Persian and a Shiʻi Muslim. He became a favorite at the court of the remarkable Adile Xanim for a while, and then when his disguise was almost blown there by a jealous cleric, he moved on and worked as a merchant buying and selling clarified butter. His Chaldean and Kurdish merchant colleagues never suspected a thing. I was especially entertained by the caustic humor he directs against the various self-important and incompetent Ottoman functionaries that inconvenience him as he makes his way down the Tigris Valley and through the Zagros.

    His memoir of his years in Kurdistan, To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in disguise : with historical notices of the Kurdish tribes and the Chaldeans of Kurdistan is readily available in several formats at

  14. I did not know about him; thanks for that!

  15. Harry Turtledove wrote a story “Islands in the Sea” (starts most of the way down the page; search locally for the title) about a competition between Muslims and Orthodox Christians trying to convert the khan of the Bulgars (and with him his people both Turkic and Slav: cuius regio, eius religio). The backstory is that Constantinople fell in the 8C rather than the 15C; this story is set about a generation later.

  16. >a competition between Muslims and Orthodox Christians trying to convert the khan of the Bulgars

    And of course there is the Kuzari, by Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi

  17. Greg Pandatshang says

    I blinked my eyes for a moment about this “king”. Central Tibet is not notable for its rule by royals in recent centuries. I had to refresh my memory about the dates, but 1716 turns out to be a year before the Dzungar invasion of Tibet. The king at the time would, I suppose have been Lhabzang Khan, the last of the Khoshuud Oirat kings of Tibet. These Mongolic overlords had been taking a hands-off approach for a good while before Lhabzang Khan showed up in 1705 to depose the Dalai Lama and attempt to replace him with the khan’s own illegitimate son. The Dzungars put a stop to that not long after Desideri arrived, with the Great Qing hot on their heels. And then the civil war in 1727-28! Desideri certainly was in Tibet during interesting times. It’s a wonder not only that he was unscathed by the fighting but that the successive regimes all allowed him to operate.

    But there’s no way he could have presented his writings after twelve years to the king who was there when he arrived. There really hasn’t been any king in Lhasa since Lhabzang Khan.

  18. I always thought that гопник comes from гоп-стоп (hop-stop) street robbery, with the idea that “hop” is a surprise part of “stop”. Maybe it is even related to allez oup like in saying не говори гоп пока не перескочишь = “don’t say (h)op until you jump”.

  19. Lhabzang Khan was third-generation Buddhist. His grandfather Turbaikh Gushi Khan converted to Buddhism circa 1600.

    Before that many Oirats were probably Muslim (like 15th century Oirat warlord Ismail-taisha).

  20. @D.O.,

    I suspect the origins will never be confirmed – there seem to be a multitude of possible theories. Russian Wikipedia discusses many of them here

    And for those who would like to listen to a Chinese (or Malaysian?) girl sing a perfect cover of Aleksander Rozenbaum’s “гоп-стоп”, especially the adorable way she says “Посмотри на это небо
    Взглядом, бля, тверёзым, ”

  21. Very adorable, thanks!

  22. The girl seems to be from Sibu, where people speak the sweetest of all the Chinese languages.

  23. There’s an instructive discussion of the mysterious couplet “А просто вспомни ту малину, Васькину картину,/ где он нас с тобой прикинул точно на витрину” here.

  24. Greg Pandatshang says

    By the way, Lhabzang in Tibetan means “good/auspicious/wholesome god” or, per Rangjung Yeshe wiki, “benevolence of the gods”. Never seen anyone else with this name. Not sure if there’s supposed to have a Sanskrit equivalent (probably Devabhadra if there were). Definitely not the same as the common Tibetan name Lobzang or Lobsang, “good/auspicious/wholesome mind”.

    I occasionally feel surprised to see modern Mongolians with transparently Tibetan names. No good reason for that surprise I guess, coming from an Anglophone Buddhist of northern Christian extraction who nevertheless happens to have a Hebrew given name. (as a further aside, my government name is ambiguously Jewish, except that my given name only appears in the New Testament and so is quite rare among Jews. On the rare occasions when it comes up, it’s interesting to see who picks up on that and who doesn’t).

    The name Gushri is, I think, Chinese, equivalent to國師 (“state teacher”, guóshī in Mandarin). You see this word pop up in the titles of Tibetan lamas, too, sometimes; for instance, the Goshir Gyaltsap, who is associated with the Karmapa. That “r” in Gushri/Goshir, with its variable location, is an interesting adaptation.

  25. Could that be a contamination from the Indian śri? As it’s always written that way.

  26. @languagehat,
    That instructive discussion uses a great Russian expression “Сбить с панталыку” – with lots of proposed etymologies for панталык proposed here:

  27. Thanks! The derivation from раntl was the one I was familiar with; I got a laugh out of the alleged etymology based on Mt. Pentelikon in Attica.

  28. the Indian śri?

    Sanskrit śri is a perhaps a better way of phrasing this.

    government name is a phrase whose origins I have often wondered at…. how old is it? is it from AAVE? It seems to me to be some sort of dialect usage because I have encountered many Americans who are unfamiliar with it…. ?

  29. It looks like AAVE to me, especially in the clipped form government; the top ghits are rap lyrics.

  30. Greg Pandatshang says

    Could that be a contamination from the Indian śri?

    Could be. It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody at some point had attempted to retcon Goshri as an abbreviation of Gautama śri. But I had assumed that the r was simply an attempt to match the retroflex quality of that sibilant in Chinese (although god knows what it sounded like at the time it was borrowed). The “sh” in modern standard Tibetan, at least, is quite front. Modern standard Tibetan does have /ʂ/ in native words which is apparently very similar to the sibilant in guóshī; it is written with the digraph “hr”. But this sound is rare and I imagine it would have seemed too marked to be appropriate for transcribing foreign words prior to the 20th century.

    The variable “r” that I mentioned turns out to be an artifact. When I looked up the Wylie it turns out to be go-shrī. I have no idea how somebody first got the idea to write that as Goshir, although, in the interaction between a non-rhotic Tibetan dialect and a non-rhotic English dialect, maybe the final “r” was intended to indicate vowel length.

  31. Greg Pandatshang says

    government nameは I picked it up from, I think, The Wire or The Corner. So I wouldn’t assume it’s General AAVE, but belongs to one or more local AAVE thieves’ cant subdialects, i.e. gangsta slang. To tell the truth, I’ve never used that term before with someone who knew what I was talking about, but I trusted the LH readership to figure it out from context.

  32. Actually, I kind of wondered about your usage, because you used “government name” and “given name”, and generally I hear “name” (or “people call me”) and “government name”. “Given name” to me is “first name”, i.e. as opposed to “last name” or “family name”.

    I learned it in the late 80s or early 90s, and found it such a handy term. Is there a good free online resource to look up these sorts of expressions? Something a bit more scholarly than Urban Dictionary.

  33. Greg Pandatshang says

    I think my usage does match yours. When I said “given name” I meant the first word of my government name, by which I meant my actual name instead of this pseudonym I use on the internet. It’s the combination of my first and last names that is ambiguously Jewish, insofar as I have a Hebrew first name and a German last name which is common among both Jews and gentiles.

  34. Since Pandatshang isn’t your real surname, may I ask its origin and how you pronounce it?

  35. It appears to be the surname of a well-known Tibetan trading family.

  36. Good to know, but I’m still curious about pronunciation (especially given the not exactly transparent relation of written/transliterated Tibetan to the way it’s spoken).

  37. Greg Pandatshang says

    Right. Pandatshang is the most famous of the nouveau riche Khampa Tibetan trading families that arose in the late 19th / early 20th century (not sure what the socioeconomic trends were that led to sudden prominence for several merchant families). A few of the Pandatshangs were important in mid-century Tibetan politics. I say /ˈpʰɑndəˌt͡sʰɑŋ/, which I think is reasonably close to the standard Tibetan pronunciation (really none of those consonants should have aspiration, although the is aspirated underlyingly), but there’s some kind of complication or variation in the Tibetan spelling of that name, so I’m not really sure how they pronounce it.

    Prior to this conversation, it had never occurred to me that my use of it as a nom du web has overwhelmed legit historical references on the first page of Google results. Oh, well.

  38. Searching for [Pandatshang -Greg] suffices.

  39. I say /ˈpʰɑndəˌt͡sʰɑŋ/

    Thanks, now I will as well!

  40. Jim wrote:“… you are finally going to get cogent and lucid discussions of original sin, total depravity,

    Well, it isn’t like Jesuit missionaries had never encountered Buddhists before. For example, my understanding is that their mission in Japan was fairly successful until the intense persecutions under the shoguns came about. It should also be noted that Catholics don’t believe in “total depravity”.

  41. “The Buddhist church, with its gorgeous ritual, its clergy, processions, tonsure, celibacy, chanting of scriptures, rosaries, fasting, and masses for the dead, bore such an amazing resemblance to the outward forms of the Roman Catholic church that the early Fathers could not but regard it as a mockery of it as a mockery of Christianity itself, devised by Satan in order to delude mankind.” (c) Erik Zürcher on Jesuit view of Buddhism

  42. Catholics don’t believe in “total depravity”.

    Well. They say they don’t. But the kind of total depravity Catholics reject — the belief that unsaved human beings don’t have free will — is not something that any normal Calvinist believes either. Hyper-Calvinists like the Westboro Baptist Church (bezek unto their khothar!) do actually seem to believe this, but then they come awfully close to believing in universal damnation too (only about 40 people saved, all the rest damned). See also God Hates Shrimp

  43. Here’s Donald Lopez talking about Desideri (if I remember correctly he reads from Desideri’s own work in Tibetan and in translation).

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