Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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4. Pronunciation of Tibetan words
Tibetan is a language of the Sino-Tibetan family, which includes various languages spoken in China as well as Burmese and Thai. It is written in a phonetic alphabet derived from the Brahmi script of India, from which most modern Indian scripts, as well as the alphabets used to write Sinhalese, Thai and Mon, are also derived. There are many different systems commonly used by Europeans to transliterate the spelling of Tibetan words. In this encyclopedia, the system designed by T. Wylie is used for transliteration, and a system used at the University of Virginia is used to indicate approximate pronunciation of names.
The spelling of Tibetan words was fixed over a millennium ago and has not changed since. Pronunciation, however, has shifted. Unfortunately, it has not shifted in exactly the same way in every region of Tibet, with the result that the same written word may be pronounced quite differently in the east of Tibet from the way it is pronounced in the west and the central region. The University of Virginia system of indicating pronunciation captures the dialects of central Tibet, which have shifted the greatest distance from the pronunciations of a millennium ago. Consequently, many combinations of letters are not pronounced at all as they once were, and numerous letters have become silent in modern central Tibetan dialects. Given all these changes, the pronunciation of some Tibetan words can be surprisingly different from what one might expect from their spelling.
Many single letters and combinations are pronounced about as in Sanskrit, as described above; so k, kh, g, ṅ, c, j, ñ, t, th, d, n, p, ph, b, m, y, r, l, s and h can be pronounced as described there. The pairs of letters ‘ts’ and ‘dz’ represent single letters in the Tibetan alphabet and are pronounced as they would be in English ‘cats’ and ‘adze’ respectively. The letters ‘tsh’ represent a single Tibetan letter that is pronounced like an aspirated version of ‘ts’. The combination ‘sh’ is used to represent a Tibetan letter that is pronounced about like ‘sh’ in ‘show’. Some combinations of Tibetan letters are no longer pronounced as they were when spelling was fixed. Examples of this are ‘kr’, ‘tr’ and ‘pr’, all of which are now pronounced the same way, approximately as the ‘tr’ in ‘trick’. Similarly, ‘gr’, ‘dr’ and ‘br’ are all pronounced about like ‘dr’ in ‘drink’. When the letters ‘g’, ‘b’, ‘m’, ‘r’, ‘l’ and ‘s’ occur at the beginning of a syllable and are followed immediately by any consonant other than ‘r’ or ‘l’, they are usually silent. The letter ‘s’ at the end of a syllable is usually silent. Thus ‘bsdigs’ is pronounced somewhere between English ‘dig’ and ‘dick’.
The Tibetan script does not have upper-case and lower-case letters, so there is no custom of writing proper names any differently from ordinary words. In roman transliteration, however, it is customary to capitalize the first pronounced letter of a name. In the name ‘rGyal tshab’, for example, the silent ‘r’ is not capitalized. Similarly, in ‘mKhas grub’ the silent ‘m’ is not upper case.
Tibetan consonants are pronounced with no trace of aspiration or with heavy aspiration. To the English ear attuned to hearing aspiration about midway between that used in Tibetan consonants, Tibetan ‘t’ can sound like English ‘d’ and vice versa. Similarly, Tibetan ‘k’ and ‘p’ can sound like English ‘g’ and ‘b’ respectively. At the end of words, Tibetan ‘g’ and ‘b’ may sound like English ‘k’ and ‘p’ respectively. It is for this reason that the Virginia phonetic system renders ‘Tsong kha pa’ as ‘Dzong-ka-ba’ and ‘rGyal tshab’ as ‘Gyel-tsap’. In the name ‘mKhas grub rje’ we can see many of the principles discussed above represented in its Virginia rendering as ‘kay-drup-jay’.
Hayes, Richard P.. Pronunciation of Tibetan words. Indian and Tibetan philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F086-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/indian-and-tibetan-philosophy/v-1/sections/pronunciation-of-tibetan-words.
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