The Changing Tibetan Language

The following is an excerpt from Everyday Exile: Life in the Tibetan Settlements of India and Nepal,  by Tammy Winand.

       One of the topics which always interested me in my observations of the Tibetan exile community is the evolution of the culture's native language since the 1959 diaspora in Nepal, India and Bhutan (and now beyond, in western countries) following the Chinese occupation.

       Within Tibet, there are numerous regional dialects of Tibetan. A native of Amdo province may have difficulty communicating verbally with a native of U-Tsang. Since the occupation, it is not unusual for them to have to resort to the Chinese taught in schools to communicate with one another. In some places in Tibet, Tibetan language is no longer taught.
Tibetan U-Chen Style Script Chart


       New arrivals from Tibet to the exile communities express difficulty in understanding, sometimes even recognizing, the local dialect as Tibetan. Again, they must often use Chinese to speak with other Tibetans. I witnessed this first hand among the residents of Gu Chu Sum Ex-Political Prisoner Association.

       Dharamsala area officials tell me all new arrivals are offered standard Tibetan language classes when they are matriculated into the community (at Tibetan Transit School). All children born in exile are taught Tibetan language in the school system. However, there are still those who fall through the cracks, whether they somehow arrive undocumented or do not, for whatever reason, attend the offered classes.

        In the Tibetan exile communities of India and Nepal, the influence of Hindi and English on the language is apparent. In local dialect, words such as “pey-cha” (a corruption of the Hindi “paisa”, a monetary unit) and “aloo” (Hindi for potato) are typically used in place of the respective Tibetan “go mo” and “sho gko” for money and potato.

       Walking in the street, one is as likely to hear Tibetan children speaking English or Hindi as Tibetan. Some high school students only want to speak in English with westerners, for various reasons, often refusing to speak Tibetan even with foreigners who are conversant.
Students at TCV Lower in McleodGanj Using English After Class

       A geshe from Lhasa who has been in India more than two decades told me that when he had a chance to return to visit friends and family in Tibet, they asked him jokingly “Where are you from?” because, they told him, his speech had become “very strange”.

       In November 2010, school students from McLeodGanj organized “Language Preservation” marches, circling the town square and 2 main streets with cards showing the Tibetan alphabet. They took pledges to speak and preserve the Tibetan language, with certain days (Lhakhar, aka White Wednesday) where they will only speak Tibetan. Some communities in Tibet are also applying this pledge, refusing to speak Chinese in shops within Tibetan areas, and imposing fines for every Chinese word used.
Tibetan Youth in Dharamsala Signing Pledges for Freedom of Language Language Solidarity March, November 2010