Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This presentation describes the complicated, vexed relationship between written and spoken Tibetan language varieties, demonstrated through Storybooks Himalaya, a new addition to the open educational resource project Global Storybooks (https://globalstorybooks.net/). Foreign linguists assert that the language group called “Tibetic” includes as many as 25 mutually unintelligible languages and 220 dialects that share a single sacred literary language (Tournadre 2008). In addition to translating stories from English into Central Tibetan (dbu skad), which has a standardized written form, the Vancouver-based Storybooks Himalaya team also translated the stories into a variety of Amdo (amdo skad) and Kham (khams skad) respectively, two spoken varieties that do not have modern orthographic and grammatical standards distinct from literary Tibetan. While many members of the local Tibetan community supported the project, others were deeply critical, insisting that writing vernacular language would make something new (gsar bzo) that would only distance readers from the sacred language of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. This conservatism derives from the intimate connection between written Tibetan and Buddhism; Tibetan scriptures specify that in this era, the Tibetan letters are themselves the living presence of the Buddha (rdza dpalsprul rinpoche 2010). According to this logic, any written rendering of spoken language that deviates from the grammatical and orthographic standards of literary Tibetan degrades the sacred Buddhist language. Such conservative language ideology poses significant obstacles for those seeking to revitalize distinctive spoken varieties. This presentation explores these complex sociolinguistic dynamics and speaks more broadly to tensions between classical and vernacular, written and spoken, language.