Old Orthography

(i) The strong da (da drag)

dadrag.jpgThe da drag, or ‘strong da’ was a standard feature of Old Tibetan orthography. A final da syllable often followed a nga, ra or la, so that for example we have gyurd (which later becomes gyur) and pheld (later phel). Initally the da drag may have been a fundamental element of grammer. If so it had lost this aspect by the time of the earliest extant documents. The da drag appears in the ancient grammatical treatise ascribed to Tönmi Sambhoṭa, The Thirty Verses, but no grammatical role is assigned to it there. More importantly, the da drag had a phonetic role indicating the way the nga, ra and la were pronounced when followed by certain other syllables. This can still be seen in Classical Tibetan. When the statement particle –o follows a consonant, that consonant is normally reduplicated; for example, yin no and byung ngo. But some syllables which orginally had the da drag act as if they still have it; for example when –o is added to gyur it becomes gyur to. Thus the da drag lived on as a phonetic element after its disappearance from writing.

The da drag is said to have been removed from the official script by the second reformation of the written language in the reign of Senaleg (799–815). It can be seen in most of the ancient Tibetan pillar inscriptions, through to the Chinese Treaty pillar of 821/2. It is found in about 30% of the Dunhuang manuscripts, but we have yet to determine if it can be used as a reliable index for dating manuscripts. It still appears as late as the 18th century in certain sutras, especially those of the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) genre; here the da drag seems to have been preserved as a kind of sacred orthography associated with these sūtras.

(ii) The ya attached to ma (ma ya btags)

yabtags.jpgThis is the subscribed ya syllable, a fundamental part of the Tibetan alphabet. In the old orthography, a number of words and conjunctions, all based on the ma syllable, had a subscribed ya attached. Later, these lost the ya, so that:

  • myi (‘man’) became mi
  • myed (‘nonexistent’) became med

And so on. The ma ya btags probably did originally indicate a phonetic quality. According to The House of Cloves it represented a feature of the now-lost dialect (yul skad) of certain early translators.

Like the da drag, the ma ya btags is said to have been removed from the official script by the second reformation of the written language. However it continues to appear consistently in all the Dunhuang manuscripts, right up the end of the 10th century, and (less consistently) in the 12-13th century manuscripts from Kharakhoto. Like the da drag, it can still be seen as late as the 18th century in certain sutras.

(iii) The supporting ’a (’a rten)

arten.jpgThe letter ‘a appears at the end of many Tibetan syllables, where it serves to distinguish, for example, gad from gda’. Originally ‘a was fixed to the end of syllables much more freely than this. For example, in the Zhöl pillar we have la’, pa’, ste’ and yi ge’. It is highly unlikely that the ‘a rten signified a long vowel, as the subscribed ‘a did (and still does). Laufer suggested that it might have indicated a stress, but there is no obvious pattern to its use to suggest this. According to The House of Cloves the ‘a rten, like the ma ya btags, was an obsolete feature of the dialect (yul skad) of certain early translators.

Like the da drag and ma ya btags, the ‘a rten is said to have been removed from the official script by the second reformation of the written language. It appears in about 50% of the Dunhuang manuscripts, and we have yet to determine if it can be used as a reliable index for dating the manuscripts.

(iv) The reversed gi gu (gi gu rlog)

gi gu rlog (ITJ309)This feature, in which the curl of the gi gu vowel is often to the right as well as the left, is found throughout the inscriptions, and indeed appears in manuscripts through to the 11th century and in some cases later. Various attempts by recent scholars to deduce a pattern to the direction of the gi gu have produced no convincing results, with the exception of Laufer’s analysis of the Treaty Pillar, in which he showed that the two forms of the gi gu were used to transcribe two different Chinese vowel sounds. The common consensus is that there may originally have been a phonetic rationale behind the two forms, but it was soon lost, after which the direction of the gi gu was determined by scribal whim.

The reversed gi gu is found in about 90% the Dunhuang manuscripts, but much less frequently in the 12-13th century manuscripts from Kharakhoto. It seems to have fallen gradually out of use over this period.


1. Beyer, Stephan V. 1992. The Classical Tibetan Language. New York: State University of New York.
2. Laufer, Berthold. 1914. “Bird divination among the Tibetans (notes on document Pelliot no 3530, with a study of Tibetan phonology of the ninth century).” T’oung Pao 15: 1-110.
3. Przluski, J. & M. Lalou 1933. “La da-drag Tibétain,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies VII/1:87-9.
4. Skyogs ston Lo tsa ba Rin chen bkra shis (ca. 1495-after 1571). Dag yig li shi’i gur khang (The House of Cloves). In Sonam Angdu (ed.) Tibeto-Sanskrit Lexicographical Materials. Leh: Bagso Tongspon Publication, 1973. (Originally published in 1536).
5. Zhang Liansheng. 1986. “The puzzle of da-drag in Tibetan.” Linguistics of the Tibeo-Burman Area 9/1: 47-64.

6 thoughts on “Old Orthography

  1. I wonder if you think there is any significance to what I’ve seen a lot, namely an ‘a-chung (or ‘a-rten) with a ‘flag’ on its right shoulder–in fact, your example above has one, and compare the form smack in the middle of your illustration for the reversed gi-gu, which is written without. Is this just a writer’s flourish, or is it distinct from form written cleanly with a curved right shoulder?

  2. Good question. I should add a section on the ‘flagged’ ‘a. Gendun Choepel suggested that the mark indicated an invented letter (rather than one with an immediate model in Brahmi). Thus it appears on tsa, tsha, and dza. Of course it doesn’t appear on zha and za, which are also invented. I think Gendun Choepel claimed to have seen zha with a flag in the Dunhuang manuscripts, but I haven’t (that’s not to say that it isn’t there of course!).


  3. Dear Professor van Schaik,
    I’m searching for some relatively specific information concerning “da-drag”, the nature of which I’ll explain below, and I found and read your web-pages, most especially the one concerning this topic, namely https://readingtibetan.wordpress.com/tutorial/old-orthography/.
    Since this web-page you’ve written touches on my issue approximately, I’m hoping that it might be within your knowledge kindly to help me out with the information I’m seeking. I’m needing to find out as comprehensively as possible which all forms had da-drag and which did not. (By “had”, I mean — just to make it clear — are attested either to bear da-drag in some text(s) or else, as you explained, to disgorge one in liason — shall I call it — with a following particle.) If a complete or nearly complete list exists of which forms had and did not have da-drag, hopefully, you could tell me where to get the list. If such a good list doesn’t already exist, then I’m wanting to draw one up myself. In that latter case, the information I’m needing is to know which are the early texts I should cull from, in other words, which are the early texts that agree with one another as to what lexical items have da-drag, i.e., the texts that could be relied upon to have written the da-drag if (and only if) it etymologically belonged.
    It occurs to me that you might wonder why I’m interested in this matter, the reason being that I’m studying issues in the reconstruction of Tibeto-Burman and Sino-Tibetan.

    in hopes you can help,
    yours most appreciatively,
    Tim Miller

    • Dear Tim,

      I’m not aware of a list of word forms that are found with the da drag. If you want to compile such a list, a good place to start would be the transliterations of Dunhuang manuscripts at the OTDO website. Most of the texts there at the moment are from the Tibetan imperial period.


  4. Dear Professor van Schaik,
    I appreciate the help you gave in your answer to my first message to you. Since you’re not aware of a good list of forms that regularly had da-drag, then I would want to go ahead and compile one. And you suggested as a good place to start doing that the transliterations of manuscripts from Tun-huang at the “OTDO” website, adding that theses manuscripts at the moment most stem from the “imperial” period. Since I don’t know much about Tibetan political history, it isn’t immediately clear to me where exactly that period falls within the linguistic history of WT, but I suspect your implication is all manuscripts from that period would indeed be the/a right type to cull from to make this list … As for navigating the the right web-pages of that site to find the transcriptions you suggest, I’m hopeful I can do that.

    Yours again appreciatively,
    Tim Miller

  5. The reversed gi gu was used until quite recently in writing Dzongkha. It seems to have only fallen out of disuse in the past 15-20 years – a few still use it. Previously it was almost always used when writing “mi” and in some other words. Bhutanese say it indicates a different vowel sound.

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