Ladakh News

The debate over writing in Ladakhi

By Khanpo K. Sherab, Stawa 11-18


The issue of language in Ladakh has become a subject of intense debate over the last two decades with the publication of the bi-lingual magazine Ladags Melong and HE Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche's Ladakhi Grammar (La dwags si brad sprod). Scholars remain divided over the use of colloquial Ladakhi by a prominent monk and a magazine. While, some praised this novel approach, others opposed it by arguing that it would degrade Classical Tibetan.

The people who opposed the use of an indigenous Ladakhi writing system have not understood the nature of language. They base their arguments on canonical texts of Classical Tibetan grammar while ignoring readers in their own region. These scholars started publishing their own magazine called La dwags gsar 'gyur in 2000. La dwags gsar 'gyur used unfamiliar terms from Classical and Modern Tibetan even when familiar terms were available in Ladakhi. As a result, it failed to make an impact or counter the popularity of Ladags Melong as its classical style was not accessible to common readers.

Oxford English Dictionary defines language as "The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way." Thus, the primary purpose of language is to facilitate communication between people. This definition of language is value-neutral and no language is superior or inferior.

The scholars who argue for the superiority of Classical Tibetan over colloquial Ladakhi ignore well-established terms, phrases, pronunciations, and grammar structures that Ladakhis have been using for centuries. The influence of Modern Tibetan is increasing with greater assimilation and cultural exchange between Ladakhis and Tibetans. This process can be perilous for Ladakhis as they can easily be overwhelmed by the larger number of Tibetan speakers. There is a real risk of losing the distinctive identity and characteristics that distinguish the two. In this context, Ladakhi language is on the verge of extinction.

Thonmi Sambhota authored the Tibetan grammar treatises called Sum rtags between the 8th century and 12th century. In that period, Tibetan was spoken in the manner currently spoken in Baltistan, Kargil, and Sham regions. The distortion of Tibetan pronunciation started after traders from China and Mongolia gained access to Lhasa. Prominent Tibetan scholar, Sew Panchen (1700-1774) notes in his celebrated commentary, Sum cu pa that "During Drigung Skyopa (Lord Jigten Sumgon 1147-1217) era in Tibet, every letter in a word used to be pronounced distinctively. However, it was gradually bastardised." Modern Tibetans do not pronounce all the letters of a word, while people in Baltistan and Ladakh (Sham and Kargil) pronounce each letter.

As a result of these changes, students of Tibetan find it difficult to differentiate between words with different spellings but the same pronunciation. No clear logic governs the pronunciation of words with diverse spellings. In contrast, students of Ladakhi find it easier to learn the language as they do not need to decode the pronunciation. A professor of Tibetan history at Paris University once argued that Ladakhis studying in Tibet were taught to utter every letter during reading practice (sbyor klog) to help them learn Tibetan. She claimed that these Ladakhis carried this pronunciation back to Ladakh. However, I challenged her by arguing that only elites could afford such a journey and education in that period and it fails to explain why all Ladakhis speak similar dialects. She accepted the validity of this argument.

Many Ladakhis feel inferior to Tibetans with regard to language, culture, and spirituality. Many Ladakhi students, including monks and lay-persons, study at Tibetan institutions, where they become Tibetanised and internalise ideas of Ladakh being inferior. These ideas have become dominant after these students entered the mainstream. They undergo an intellectual paralysis about their social, linguistic, and ethnic identity, which has eroded Ladakh's heritage.

We must explore the impact of writing in Ladakhi on Classical Tibetan. Numerous books written in Modern Tibetan have been widely appreciated by readers who are not versed in Classical Tibetan. Modern Ladakhi, rather than Modern Tibetan, is closer to Classical Tibetan. Given that there is no opposition to writing in Modern Tibetan, why are we making such a fuss about Ladakhis writing in their own language?