How Dzongkha became the National Language.
It was in 1971 that the third King declared Dzongkha to be the national language. Of the 18 languages spoken in the country it is one of the few languages with a written script.
Before this declaration, visiting expertsi thought it to be the natural choice. “Already Dzongkha is used for many official purposes. A certain amount of official paper is cyclostyled in Dzongkha. Dzongkha is, I am informed, already understood by senior government officials all over the country and by many village headmen in East Bhutanii.”
Because of its written script, Dzongkha was a natural choice as the national language. “Except for differences of accent, spelling and grammar, Dzongkha maintains the basic standard set by Chöke [Classical Tibetan] and lends itself readily towards a written standardisationiii.”
Lhoyig-the Southern Script
Historically, Dzongkha script was known as Lhoyig. It literally means ‘Southern Script and was used in Bhutan for writing Chöke.
According to Bhutanese scholar Lam Nado, the origin of the script could be traced back to 8th century AD with the arrival of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) to Bhutan.
The Bhutanese scholar claims that at the time of the visit, there was no written language in the country. So the Tibetan scribe, Denma Tshemang developed a script called Lhoyig.
It is said the scribe had travelled to Bumthang as part of Guru’s entourage. The scribe is supposed to have written down some of the important preaching’s of his master and taught the Bhutanese how to read and write in the new script.
The scribe is a legend and oral stories in the Buddhist scholar world are told of how he could write numerous texts in a very short span of time.
According to late Lam Nado, the legend wrote down the majority of the terma, or hidden treasures, which were then concealed in Bhutan. All of these texts were recorded in the then new Dzongkha script.
“Moreover, the manuscripts found at Dunhuang appear to bear the same similarity to the Dzongkha script of today as those of Denma Tsemangiv.”
Lhoyig is different from the ‘Ucen script used for Classical Tibetan. The simpler form of Lhoyig is Juyig and this is used for ordinary correspondence. The Dzongkha Development Commission supports Juyig as the Dzongkha script.
“Between the form of writing used by Denma Tsemang and the actual Dzongkha script in use today, there is a striking similarity.” Lam Nado said,
“This can be used as evidence that the writing of Denma Tsemang is the model from which today’s Dzongkha script originated.”
The Dzongkha script differs only slightly from the ancient Tibetan script used for writing Chöke. “It seems, therefore, that the difference between ‘Ucen (formal script) and ‘Ume (cursive script) did not exist when the Tibetan alphabet was invented, and that the ‘Ume script resulted from the quick handwriting style of ‘Ucen lettersv.”
The different Tibetan scripts such as ‘Ucen, ‘Ume, Lentsa and Wartu are basically variants of the same Tibetic writing system as the ‘Southern Script’.
George van Driem pointed out that essentially the same script was also used in the tenth century to write Classical Tibetan in the northerly Tangut kingdom. Lhoyig is therefore not really a southern script. Lhoyig is not a language, but a script.
Voice of the Fort
The language spoken in the Dzongs, which served as administrative centres, came to be known as Dzongkha or the voice of the fort. In this way Dzongkha came to be used throughout the country as the language of government. The tongue resembles the vernacular speech of Punakha, where the head of the government was based.
Linguistically, Dzongkha belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family. It is similar to the Dranjoke language spoken in Sikkim and bears resemblance to the J’umbi dialect once spoken in the Chumbi valley of Tibet. It is more distantly related the language spoken in central Tibet.
Dzongkha is today widely spoken and is taught in schools as a language where the medium of instruction is in English. The native speakers inhabit eight dzongkhagsvi. The other widely spoken languages are Lhotshampa in the southern districts and Tshangla in the eastern districts.
Tshangla speakers inhabit east Bhutan, and have no prejudice against the language spoken in West Bhutan. “There is little linguistic nationalism in East Bhutan and therefore no strong or widespread prejudice against Dzongkhavii.”
“It is against this linguistic background that when five-year economic and social development plans were launched to modernize the country two decades age , the Royal Government decided to develop Dzongkha as a modern languageviii.”
Contributed by Tshering Tashi