MODERNIZATION OF CLASSICAL TIBETAN GRAMMAR

Another important initiative ITC has taken on, primarily through the efforts of Thupten Jinpa, is the modernization of classical Tibetan grammar. Although rich grammatical tradition took root in Tibet early on based on the two primers attributed to Thonmi Sambhotra (seventh century), this Sanskrit-based classical Tibetan grammar never underwent large-scale revision. As a result, the acquisition of literary Tibetan remained a major challenge and the purview of few educated elite. Like the development of indigenous grammar in English in the seventeenth century that lead to widespread literacy among the general public, a similar process of modernization is required for Tibetan, leading to the development of a modern grammar that captures the natural grammar of the language in a more comprehensive manner.

After years of critical reflection and research, the Institute of Tibetan Classics published the result of this study as Brda sprod gsar bsgrigs smra sgo’i lde mig (Modern Tibetan Grammar: A Key Opening the Gateway of Speech), Institute of Tibetan Classics, 2010. The book is aimed primarily at Tibetan teachers to help them appreciate classical Tibetan within a new perspective so that they could adapt their teaching methods. The book could be used also as a primer on Tibetan grammar by students from high school onwards (i.e. from the ninth grade). The pdf of the entire book can be downloaded free here.

The Institute now plans to organize intensive 5-day residential workshops for Tibetan teachers on this modern Tibetan grammar. These workshops will be held in Dharamsala, as well as south India, including the Tibetan monastic universities in the Karnataka State.

Currently, Thupten Jinpa is working on the systematization of Tibetan verbal forms. Because of the complex nature of written Tibetan, with its prefixes, superscripts as well as suffixes, standardization of the verb stems for the three tenses – past, present and future – as well as the imperative has posed a great challenge. This meant that, other than making broad observations concerning some very general patterns, in practice, writers have been forced to rely heavily on verb tables where they are organized only according to their alphabetical order. The Institute’s aim is to produce an equivalent of the French Bescherelle on the conjugation of verbs for Tibetan verbs, based on a systematic classification of the morphology of Tibetan verb stems. The results of this study will be published as a companion volume to the grammar book, under the tile Bya tshig gi rnam gzhag smra sgo’i rigs lam gsal byed (Systematic Presentation of the Tibetan Verbs: Illuminating the Path of the Logic of Speech).

With these two studies in place, it’s hoped that the understanding of the grammar of literary and spoken Tibetan will be in tune with the world’s major languages. The result of this would be to make both the teaching and the learning of literary Tibetan much faster as well as easier.