For thousands of years the Land of Snows has been home to a civilisation steeped in intellectual, creative and cultural activities. Especially following the development of Tibetan script by Thonmi Sambhota and its dissemination, Tibetans began to transmit many foreign cultures and ideas into Tibet. It was an era of immense cultural, political and socio-economic heights – a monumental period in Tibetan history that everybody aspired to and admired. Despite the total disintegration of the Tibetan empire in the aftermath of the emperor Lang-Darma’s drowning and demolition of Tibetan Buddhism, it is the rich cultural and intellectual strands that bound Tibetans of the three regions together like a bundle of twigs. With the spread of Tibetan Buddhism and culture in many parts of the world including Europe and the United States in the 20th century, innumerable scholars and educated individuals around the world have come to appreciate the significance of the Tibetan culture and its heritage.
Notwithstanding the tremendous scientific and technological advancements of this age, humanity has been at disarray in improving and creating inner peace and tranquility in our lives. Increasingly, we have seen people committing abysmal acts of dread and depravity. Even though it has left many in despair, there is a prevailing attitude in many parts of the world that the Tibetan culture may offer an antidote to nurture and maintain a peaceful mind, and this attitude is not brought about by a casual attraction to the culture but a deep appreciation and acquaintance with the culture. Some individuals maintain that like any other Western rendezvous with new ideas and foreign cultures; this embrace of Tibetan Buddhism and culture would drop and diminish. I would argue that this is mistaken or at least implausible, because the scope and nature of engagement with Tibetan Buddhism and culture by these people stands as robust and reasonable evidence to the contrary.
However, to our greatest disappointment and discontent, Tibetan culture is dragging towards a dangerous state of decline and ultimate death in our own land. Language is the fundamental lifeline of a culture. It is the reservoir of identity and the most precious gem of a nationality – of a people. The fact is that Tibetan language is struggling in the deep waters of decline and devaluation. The august and exalted teacher and the founder of Larung Gar, His Holiness the Khenchen Jigme Phuntsok, once remarked, “a ‘pure’ Tibetan must know and speak Tibetan. If we desist from dressing in Tibetan traditional clothes and stop speaking and using our mother-tongue, then Tibet is already a lost cause.” Today, alarmingly, children of Tibetan parents who are living in towns and cities do not speak a word of Tibetan. This is a growing phenomenon of grave concern because these children have renounced or are habitually estranged from the Tibetan culture, customs and character. Likewise, those self-conceited individuals led by most Tibetan officials in the local governments could hardly speak a sentence in Tibetan or they refuse to do so, because only one-fifth of their conversation is Tibetan, and it tortures your ears to try to make sense of their exchanges. One must wonder why this is the case. As indicated above, for the most part it is just pointless imitation misguided by a fallacious attitude, as I shall explain shortly. But sometimes it is due to the absence of linguistic tools and terminologies for the variety of new electronic devices and other products, which compels us to borrow terms from other languages.
The central reason for the current predicament of Tibetan language is the lack of appreciation for the significance of the language in the sphere of general public attitude. It is not that the language is inadequate or incompetent to develop terms for these new products; it is the need for a mechanism of standardisation of such terms in Tibetan. If one speaks a language or two on top of one’s own, that is truly laudable. But if one speaks another language yet does not know their own native language that seems at least pathetic if not laughable. Some Tibetan writers and publishers have started a trend of employing Chinese punctuation in their publications, and have thus created a strange hash of writings. Historically, for Chinese, this system of punctuation was promulgated and practiced since the Song Dynasty as a linguistic development to tackle the problem of punctuation and spelling. However, we do not encounter these problems for Tibetan because the seven translation conventions, grammar and particles effectively regulate such problems of punctuation. Therefore, I think these constructions are simply unnecessary, even undesirable.
Here, I would like to critically reflect on reasons and conditions concerning how and why Tibetan language is experiencing an existential dread. Firstly, in all the cities throughout the Tibetan regions, people who are working in factories, supermarkets, hospitals, travel agencies, government offices and various everyday-contact departments for Tibetans are largely Chinese. If you do not speak Chinese, you are helpless even to run a small errand. You are coerced to resort to awkward bodily gestures as a desperate attempt to communicate. As a result of such disconcerting yet daily experiences, uneducated and shortsighted Tibetan commoners seem to have lost the sight of value in their own language. Instead, in an effort to learn Chinese, they try to speak Chinese amongst themselves, and thus communicate in an outlandishly mixed and almost gibberish speech. Even when they speak Tibetan they have developed a bizarre tendency to replace perfectly operative and expressive Tibetan words with Chinese terms, and such droplets of Chinese words in their exchanges are taken in comfortably. For instance, in many nomadic communities in the Qinghai Tibetan region, Tibetans speak a highly mixed speech of Tibetan and Chinese. Quite shockingly, certain terms and phrases have become so deeply interwoven into their colloquial Tibetan and everyday conceptions that people are unable to discriminate whether these terms are originally Tibetan and Chinese.
Secondly, as suggested above, linguists and scholars of Tibetan language are called upon by circumstances to conceive and create standardised Tibetan terms for new electronic devices and other products. One of the main causes of Tibetan language degradation and the rise of this mixed and mumbo-jumbo speech is the absence of a standardised vocabulary for the new products that we come into contact with in our daily lives. Another problem is the almost exclusive use of Chinese on signboards and advertisements in the cities. In most cases, those very few signboards with Tibetan script are written with outrageous spelling or grammatical mistakes, rendering the signboards into ridiculous and comical slideshows, while others have failed calligraphically, miserably. Those signboards that have Tibetan and Chinese script together have their Chinese characters written in large block letters occupying the most space with small and thin Tibetan characters squeezed in underneath. Such spatial disparities and differences are representative of the linguistic hegemony and power of Chinese, and these signboards are emblematic of the deplorable condition of Tibetan language in our own land.
Thirdly, as an extremely disheartening phenomenon, Tibetan parents in towns and cities generally encourage their children to speak only Chinese at home and support every possible pursuit of their children in Sinicizing themselves. Unfortunately, they consider this as not just modern and progressive, but as a matter of pride. These parents strain every nerve to speak Chinese with their kids. I have been attentive to this particular community of Tibetans, and it troubles me deeply to observe their unconsciousness of any value and regard to their own language and culture. I have also observed that Tibetan students who are studying in major Chinese universities usually speak Chinese amongst themselves. A few years back, on a bus ride from Lhasa Airport into the city, I met two Tibetan students who were studying at a Chinese university. For over an hour and half of our meeting, I noticed that they did not speak even a single full sentence in Tibetan. They spoke a weird mixture of Chinese and Tibetan that was partially unintelligible to me. This example is not exclusive or uncommon, because this is quite characteristic of Tibetan students in Chinese universities with regard to their ignorance and attitude towards their own language and culture. To elucidate, it is definitely not the case that I abhor or detest the fact that they speak Chinese. It is an admirable fact to know or have facility for any other language. But it is quite unsettling and unfortunate when a foreign language eats one’s own language away in such an unmindfully silent manner.
Fourthly, even though there are laws and legislations laid down in the constitution for government officials in the Tibetan regions to use Tibetan, in practice they use only Chinese in all kinds of briefings and meetings. And in part this is because many of the government officials in the Tibetan regions do not speak Tibetan at all. As a matter of fact, there is a very meagre population of government officials in the Tibetan regions who could speak or understand Tibetan. Despite the occasional hodge-podge of Tibetan-Chinese speech, Tibetan officials trouble themselves to speak Chinese amongst themselves and of course with their colleagues. These behaviors are augmented and informed by a naive attitude that such endeavors are modern, progressive and forward-looking. Everybody who takes notes or records meeting minutes do so in Chinese. It is more or less considered embarrassing if not disgraceful to just know Tibetan and not Chinese. They do everything in Chinese from their works on computer to inconsequential errands.
As a consequence of all the conditions and constraints presented, Tibetan language is becoming unusable in Tibet, and it is of prime importance for everybody to realise that it is declining at an unprecedented pace. Therefore, I urgently call for a collective campaign inspired and awakened by a shared consciousness and concern to revitalise, protect and preserve Tibetan language.