Dick & Garlick has a thought-provoking post on Jamyang Norbu’s

five-part essay [Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5] in the Times of Tibet which attempts to refute propaganda myths about the Chinese ‘modernization’ of the Tibetan language. In response to the claim that the language lacked a scientific vocabulary prior to Chinese intervention, Norbu methodically lists every neologism adopted in the early 20th century, demonstrating that the Tibetans had names for modern inventions like electricity, radio, photography and the airplane long before the occupation of their homeland. In the process, he creates an unusual portrait of a society and a language adapting to modern times.

Dick & Garlick quotes some of the borrowings used in the early part of the century:

Tibetans called the telegraph tar from the Hindi for wire, a motorcar was a mota or gari, from gaadi, flashlights were known as bijili after the Hindi word for electricity, and the postal service was called dak. Borrowed words like these were in common use throughout the country, while in Lhasa you could smoke a shik-ray (cigarette), chew gig-chiri (chewing gum), or buy a tikkus (ticket) to the beskop (bioscope, cinema) to watch the movies of Charlie Chumping.

The first part of the series is here; you can get to them all from Norbu’s author page, linked to his name above.


  1. Those essays will keep me busy for a while.
    In the meantime, I think it is worth mentioning that Hindi tar isn’t only a wire, but telegram/telegraph etc, in umpteen Indian languages as well. In Kim, Kipling uses tar for telegram in ch. 11.
    Kipling writes tikkut for ticket (Kim ch. 2), and transcribes गाड़ी gaa.dii ‘carriage’ as garri in ch.7.
    Dak for mail etc. is Hindi etc. as well.
    An extra bonus for me is that the author in one single paragraph (Besides kerosene and cement …) manages to mention no less than three inventions by Swedes: the primus stove, safety-matches and the zipper.

  2. While adding archived links for the separate parts (3 and 4 seem to be unavailable), I thought I’d post this piquant excerpt from Part 2:

    With all these new products flowing into Tibet, such commercial terms as “dozen” (Tib. darzen), as well as the concept of commercial brand names, which Tibetans termed lemba from the English “number”, entered the popular vocabulary. So in cigarettes you had amo-lemba or Camel brand and cheaper Indian brands, tadri lemba, Battle Axe brand, and sashu lemba, Lantern brand. Fabrics, sewing thread, soap etc., also came in a variety of brand names as Peacock Brand (mapcha lemba), Sheep brand (lu lemba), Scissor brand (kenchi lemba, using the Nepalese word for scissors) and Chain brand (chakta lemba).

    The term lemba was also used to designate certain famous ladies, especially amongst the Lhasa demimonde. Most well known, in this context, were three female vocalists of the nangma musical ensembles of Lhasa: shimi lemba (cat brand), porok lemba (crow brand) and naptu lemba (snot brand). Another lady of easy virtue who is said to have worn Western style shoes (jurta, from the Hindi juta) instead of the traditional Tibetan boot lham, was called jurta lemba. One lemba lady (who shall remain nameless) moved to Darjeeling in the forties and, as Miss Lily, is said to have contributed to the War effort by entertaining American GIs on leave in that hill resort.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Another lady of easy virtue who is said to have worn Western style shoes

    For shame!

  4. I will read this at my leisure.

    China has a vested interest in claiming that the Han Chinese are helping their backward ethnic brothers on the path to modernisation. It’s one way of emphasising the cultural superiority of Han Chinese culture and the supremacy of the Han, now being implemented with deadly effect in Tibet, Xinjiang, and as of next month, Inner Mongolia, where the teaching of these languages is / will be relegated to a few hours a week. Everything important will be taught in Chinese.

    Mongolian also has a history of terminological innovation, in which Buryats in Russia (Soviet Union) first took the lead. A fair amount of early vocabulary is from Russian, and this applies both to “Outer” and Inner Mongolia. A simple example: the word for ‘physics’ is fizik wherever you are in the Mongolian-speaking world.

    Of course, there is now a definite split between newer terminology in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. And guess what, the Inner Mongolian terminology is totally and completely modelled on and translated from Chinese (not on international terminology) — and isn’t going anywhere, just like the language in Inner Mongolia. In a few years it will be a useless decoration, a vain effort at ethnic assertion (within the strict confines of Party ideology). Chinese will be used for everything and these minority languages, declining home languages within China, will have no use for higher level vocabulary.

    One interesting side effect is that people in China are likely to become worse at learning English. It’s well known that Han Chinese aren’t so good at foreign languages while Mongols, for instance, are usually quite good at them. Get rid of the minority languages and it will be one welcome step in sealing the country off.

  5. Nuclear physics in Mongolian looks like this:

    Fotoemulisiin ezlekhüünd irj bui bolon üüssen niit nyeitrony enyergiin spyektriig simulyatsiin argaar gargan avch, turshlagyn utgatai kharitsuulakhaas gadna ankhny tusch bui sum proton bolon bai tsömiin khoorond yavagdakh ikh enyergitei khariltsan üilchlel buyuu tsömiin tsatsargaltat urvalaas üüsej bui khoyordogch nyeitrony oron zain tügeltiig gargaj avsan.
    Zurag 1-d üzüülsen fotoemulis dekh nyeitron ööriin kinyetik enyergie protond kharimkhai sarnilaar üüssen mörnii urt, Enyergi-transmutats tökhöörömjiin bosoo tenkhlegtei kharitsuulsan öntsög bolon günii öntsgiig khemjeed, (1) tomiyoogoor protony kinyetik enyergiig fotoemulis dotor üüsej bolokh devsgeriin khemjiltiig khasaj tootsson. Tomiyoo (2)-yg khereglen nyeitrony enyergiig todorkhoilood, khemjiltiin ür düng zurag 3 deer bitüü khar duguigaar üzüüllee..

    From an article titled “Neutron energy spectrum measured by photographic emulsion method and simulated by GEANT4 software toolkit” published in Proceedings of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 58 No 02 (226), 2018.

    Interestingly, the amount of foreign loanwords is actually less than in English where a similar text would have close to 80% Latin words.

    For example, “kharimkhai sarnil” which sounds perfectly fine and very much Mongolian is “elastic dispersion” in English.

  6. 3 and 4 seem to be unavailable

    I have found and added them, in case anyone’s been holding their breath.

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