(i) The strong da (da drag)
The 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)
This 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)
The 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)
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.