[This is my (Sam van Schaik) translation of an essay on the Tibetan script by Dungkar Losang Khrinley, from his recent magnum opus, the Dungkar Tibetological Great Dictionary]
The origin of Tibetan writing
The Tibetan scripts that are in use today came into existence 1,300 years ago when a script known as the Pungyig (spungs yig) of Persia appeared in the country of Zhangzhung, in Ngari. This script was especially easy to write, and its letters changed gradually into the “headed” (dbu can) script. When the “headed” script was written quickly, the forms of the “headless” (dbu med) letters emerged. This is one explanation.
[The traditional explanation is as follows:] During the seventh century, when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo ruled the kingdom, Tibetan society was productive and wealthy. Furthermore, Tibet had friendly diplomatic relations with the Tang dynasty, and the kingdoms of Nepal, India and Persia. Tibetans experienced and studied the culture and technologies of these other nationalities, and exchanged their own culture and technology. Because the Tibetans had friendly relations and traffic with several kingdoms and nationalities which possessed a script, they saw how convenient it was, and that their own lack of a script would threaten the the growth of the Tibetan kingdom’s wealth and culture, and make it more difficult to exchange experiences of culture and technology with other nationalities.
Therefore sixteen intelligent sons of Tibetan families were given many precious objects like gold and sent to India to study the culture, but some died due to an inability to withstand the extreme heat, and the remainder returned having been unable to study the Indian language. Still, King Songtsen Gampo’s enthusiasm was undiminished, and he chose a son of his minister Tönmi Nangdrag called Anula (or Sambhoṭa), gave him a considerable amount of gold, and sent him to India to study the sciences. Thönmi Sambhoṭa studied with many scholars, such as the South Indian Brahmin Lije and the Paṇḍita Lharigpai Senge. Tönmi Sambhoṭa learned more than ten different scripts, including the Indian script, and also studied and mastered the languages associated with each of these scripts. On his return to Tibet, he carefully analysed the Tibetan language.
Because the old Tibetan letters were insufficient, Tönmi Sambhoṭa started anew. Based on his experience of the grammars (sgra sbyor) of the spoken and written languages of India and Kashmir, he adopted those aspects which worked with the customs of the Tibetan language, and created the first Tibetan letter forms and the first grammar of the spoken Tibetan language. Using these letters and grammar, he wrote eight works, including two treatises on the science of language called The Thirty Verses (sum cu pa) and The Guide to Signs (rtags ‘jug).
After that, the spoken and written languages of Tibet underwent a great expansion, aided by the simultaneous progress, even greater than before, in the territory, wealth and culture of Tibet. Because the script and grammar were concordant with the language of the Tibetans, they allowed the study of other nationalities’ techological skills and cultures, allowing for even more progress than before.
After that there was a continuous stream of people going to study the Chinese language and script in capital of the Tang dynasty, Chang’an. Among the king’s ministers too, there were many who understood the Chinese language and script. Every year some of them went on official visits to the capital of the Tang dynasty, Chang’an. Thus a son of a minister who was very well-known during the Tang Dynasty was made a minister of Trisong Detsen, and many famous Chinese monks and skilled doctors came and settled in Tibet. There came to be a group of [Chinese] translators and doctors who understood both the Tibetan and Chinese languages, some of whom translated many Chinese religious books on Buddhism and medical texts into Tibetan. There were Tibetans too who understood both the Tibetan and Chinese languages, translators with wide expertise who translated Chinese books on Buddhism, astrology and mathematics into Tibetan.
The forms of the Tibetan letters
The letter forms that Thönmi Sambhoṭa had created on his own gradually developed into several styles. During the time of Trisong Detsen the writing expert Khepa Khyungpo Yutri and the translator Denma Tsemang established the proportions of the “headed” (dbu can) and “headless” (dbu med) [styles]. The letters written according to the proportions established by each of these two were quite different from each other in style. The system of Khyungpo was known as the Lilug (li lugs) and the system of Denma Tsemang was known as the Denlug (ldan lugs). After they had been created, the [two] original letter forms became one. Even today one can see letters and diagrams based on these proportions. At the time, these letter forms were especially beautiful.
The systems of orthography
There have been three revisions of the spelling (dag cha) of certain proper nouns (ming tshig) and technical terms (tha snyad) in the original language rules that are still in use today.
The first revision occured at the beginning of the eighth century, during the period of King Trisong Detsen, when Lotsawa Kawa Paltseg, Chogro Lotsawa Lui Gyaltsen and Zhang Lotsawa Yeshe De were translating many religious books on Buddhism from the language of India into Tibetan. During this period they revised certain proper names and technical terms in the translations that had previously been made during the time of King Songtsen Gampo, bringing them into accord with the actual meaning (gnas tshul).
The second revision occured in the middle of the ninth century, when King Kri Ralpachen was one the throne. It was a revision of some of the old prefixed and suffixed letters, bringing them into accord with the contemporary Tibetan language.
The third revision occured at the end of the tenth century, during the restoration of Buddhism, when Lha Lama Yeshe Ö was on the throne and Lotsāwa Rinchen Zangpo was was translating many religious books on Buddhism, brought from India, into Tibetan from the Indian language. During this period there was another revision of the translations of certain proper nouns and technical terms to bring them into accord with the language of that period.
Today the original decrees regarding these three revisions are still extant. To sum up, in the middle of the seventh century, during the period of King Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan letters and grammar were invented. Since then, they have been in use for 1,338 years.
The old Tibetan script differs very little from the script used today, and can be written, read and understood. An example is the earliest kind of Tibetan script in the pillar edicts. The pillar edict in front of the Potala at Lhasa was set up in the middle of the eighth century, and is still there today, 1,170 years later. All of the Tibetan letters of the edict on that pillar can be read, and moreover the entire meaning can be understood.
The six special features of the Tibetan script in use today
(1) The first special feature of the Tibetan script is that it is easy to learn because the letters can be spelled out (sbyor klog). Counting the vowels (dbyangs), consonants (gsal), and attachments (sbyar) there are 41 basic letter forms. When the superfixed letters (mgo can) and the subfixed letters (‘dogs can) are counted separately there are 4 vowels, 30 consonants, 37 superfixed letters, and 34 subfixed letters; when the header (mgo) the dot (tsheg) and the vertical (shad) are added, there are exactly 108 letter forms.
When one knows how to write these 41 letter forms properly, one will be know and be able to write all of the letter forms of the Tibetan script. Therefore, as with the way the Chinese script is learned, a different name is given to each of the different letter forms, but unlike Chinese it isn’t necessary to know 5,000, so they can be learned quickly.
Regarding the number of Tibetan syllables in everyday use, in the past, because of the archaic forms such as the final da (da drag) and the supporting a (a rten), there were at least 8,000 forms in everyday use. However, after the simplification of the language some kinds of letter were abandoned, so that today the number of syllables—excluding substitutable syllables (sgra tshab yi ge)—is only 5,000. Thus this is the number of syllable forms that can be written in the Tibetan script. It is not necessary to study these 5,000 syllable forms individually. If one knows how to write the 41 basic letter forms in everyday use that are customarily studied first, that knowledge is sufficient.
(2) The second special feature of the Tibetan script is that, because it is a phonetic alphabet (sgra sbyor yi ge) there are only a few phonetic rules to learn, unlike ideograms (‘dra gzugs yi ge). [1419.i] As was explained previously there are five prefixes and ten suffixes. If one counts the styles of pronunciation (sgra klog) which include the prefixes and suffixes—today the prefixes and suffixes are not clearly pronounced—there are no less than 58 styles of pronunciation. Thus there are many variations in pronunciation, [but] unlike Chinese script, in general if one knows how to read aloud with the correct pronunciation of the four tones—high, low, even and weak—it’s all right.
When using Tibetan to write the languages of other nationalities, the phonetics of most of them with very few exceptions can be written using the Tibetan script. Thus in the past languages like Chinese, Indian, Kashmiri, Sogdian, Uighur and Persian were were written using Tibetan script. Those who wrote thus matched [the Tibetan script] exactly with the languages of those countries. If one wanted to write them in Chinese script, it would not be possible to have exactly the same phonetics; for example, Lhasa is bla sa, Drepung is kre pang, Paris is pa li, and Shri Lanka is si li lang ka.
(3) The third special feature of the Tibetan language is that there is a complete system of language rules in which the Tibetan script is harmonized with the spoken language. In the Tibetan script there is a text-based system including the fundamental rules for the eight places of the inserted letters (yi ge ‘jug pa), the vowels and consonants, the four inserted prefixes and the four inserted suffixes, the independent particles (phrad rang dbang can) and the dependent ones (gzhan dbang can), subjective and objective objects (dngos po bdag gzhan) and the three tenses (dus gsum).
The original language rules for the eight places of the inserted letters were written by Lotsāwa Chi Khyidrug during the reign of King Tride Songtsen at the beginning of the eighth century. A great number of Tibetan scholars assert that The Thirty Verses and The Guide to Signs were written at the beginning of the seventh century by Tönmi Sambhota. Nowadays, many people inside and outside the country say that they were composed during the period of fragmentation by a Lotsāwa learned in language and the sciences, and then attributed to Tönmi. In any case, the textual system for the language rules which are the subject of this special feature of the Tibetan language are complete in all their parts. Nowadays, many authorities having written supplements and explanations [of these language rules], they have become even more fully complete than before.
(4) The fourth special feature of the Tibetan language is the existence of complete glossaries (ming mdzod) and dictionaries (tshig mdzod) of terms from the ten exoteric and exoteric sciences. Moreover, a new dictionary concering the new proper nouns of the present generation has been composed, and drawn from that, a glossary of over 60,000 terms. Furthermore, unusual terms which are connected with particular specialized groups have been rendered in Tibetan script: mathematics, chemistry, agriculture, medicine, meteorology, geology and law. While these are complete, new terminology is created on the basis of the forty-one letter forms in everyday use, and there is none of the difficulty of having to create new letter forms for each new proper noun.
(5) The fifth special feature of the Tibetan language is when that the meanings of the sciences and religion that are translated into Tibetan are translated from the script of other nationalities, whether they are translated according to the meaning of the sound of the words, they will be correct. From the middle of the eighth century, when religion and science started to be translated into Tibetan, up to the eighteenth century, there have been over 300 Lotsāwas. At first they received a complete training in the Tibetan language, and then they attained an understanding of the correct meanings of the words in the foreign languages of other nationalities to be translated. Thus the Tibetan script can be very profitably used as a basis for studying the sciences of other nationalities.
There is a great difference between Chinese and Tibetan in the ease of understanding translations of Buddhism or scientific literature from other nationalities. Many Chinese scholars say that there is no end to learning [how to read Buddhist texts]. Many scholars from Japan, Italy, Germany and Russia have carried out research on Buddhism which has been translated into the Chinese script. In such cases, when they have turned to a detailed study of Buddhist books in the Tibetan script, the results have been very good. This has been a very valuable experience for me personally.
(6) The sixth special feature of the Tibetan script is that it unifies ‘Do, Ü and Kham’. There are three distinct cultures within the Tibetan language: Amdo, Ütsang and Kham. While it is difficult for these different cultures to communicate with each other, anybody can communicate through the Buddhist books and manuals written in the Tibetan script.
Moreover, the pillar inscriptions and Dunhuang writings from the period of the Tsenpos are a fine example of the Tibetan script. If one looks at them it is possible to read and understand the 180 [meanings]. Therefore the fact that for such a long time the Tibetan script and language have remained he same is truly a special feature. If on the other hand the script were written based on the languages of Amdo, Ütsang and Kham, there would be a danger before long of destroying the system of a single language and script for all of Tibet.
Regarding the modern practice of all scholars of Amdo, Ütsang and Kham using the single Tibetan language of script. The pronunciations of their dialects (skad) are taken as the basis for the Lhasa dialect. It is important that the terminology and sentences are taken from the dialects of Amdo, Ütsang and Kham to become a single dialect which can be widely disseminated. Therefore it is important that everyone should learn properly the pronunciation of the Lhasa dialect.
Entry: Bod kyi yi ge / The Tibetan Script (pp.1416–1420).
Title: Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo / Dungkar Tibetological Great Dictionary.
Author: Dung dkar blo bzang ‘phrin las / Dungkar Losang Khrinley.
Publisher: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang / China Tibetology Publishing House.