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Voice of the Fort

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 [1962], the Royal Government decided to develop Dzongkha as a modern languageviii.”

Contributed by  Tshering Tashi

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  1. The previous commentator appears not to understand that a romanization is a system intended to represent the phonology of the language. Haphazard spellings in Roman script do not make a system of romanization.

    Romanizations in use for the national languages of other Asian nations, such as Japan, China, Malaysia or Indonesia, all have a phonologically consistent structure. The success of Bahasa Indonesia as a national language and medium of communication in spoken and written among the multiple ethno-linguistic groups of Indonesia (far more than in Bhutan!) or the success of Mandarin Pin Yin romanization- for example in teaching Chinese to foreigners- can largely be attributed to the phonologically adequate and consistent romanization.

    In no system of romanization can the initial sound in Tatsha “Tiger’s Nest” be written with the same letter as the initial sound of Trashigang or the initial sound of shaw ‘deer’ be the written with the same digraph as the initial sound of Zhemgang because a romanization must respect the phonology of our national language. If your name is Trashi (bkra shis) you do not want foreigners who don’t know Dzongkha to call you tashi (e.g. sta shis) with the same initial letter as the Buddha’s name Tönpa (ston pa)- although you must have realized that most foreigners do just that, exactly because your romanized name is written with a t (an alveolar plosive) and not tr (a retroflex plosive)!

    Dzongkha Romanization is not intended to replace Bhutan’s national script, merely as a tool to accurately represent pronunciation.

  2. Many thanks to Mr. Tshering Tashi for writing this informative and educative article in the prestigious national newspaper. “Voice of the Fort” to my view is right topic under which the subject is discussed. There is enough provision of disputes from the very beginning as seen from presentation of facts. When Dzongkha is understood to mean singular lingua franca as in present terms, it presents historical contradictions. Dzongkha in those days (before September 1971) meant multiple, indicating as many as the active/functional Dzongs in the country. But that signified only major regional languages practically. The mention of there existing “no linguistic nationalism and widespread prejudice against Dzongkha” in other regions remained true till 1985, 14years after the birth of singular Dzongkha by decision/command of the Royal Government meant/understood to be plural earlier and not opined against by unlearned citizens for any perceived inconveniences that would be encountered.

    From mid 1985 onwards, there were expressions of murderous zeal to destroy the nation’s rich diversity of linguistic and cultural heritage that existed in harmony portraying the image of Bhutan as tolerant, multi-cultural, sovereign nation in favour of singular Dzongkha. Literal practice of this policy have over the period turned substantial portion of Bhutanese into APES overnight. It is on its way continuing the marauding conquest of Bhutan in a more visible form even in the DEMOCRATIC era, muzzling the voice of the citizens forbidding the use of other major regional languages. Practice of DEMOCRACY is subjected to constrain by restricting the freedom of expression in enforcing the use of singular Dzongkha.

    Temparabgey’s response to the point that speakers of other languages had no prejudice against the language spoken in West Bhutan is a 50 years old reference made by a British Education Officer that does not stand valid in present context. It is so because at that time language spoken in West Bhutan was thought similar as their own, just spoken language without script. Who in right mind could think against the truth? Nobody felt the force of conquest by the language spoken in West Bhutan then. Although many learn the national language now under subjection of the POWER of CONQUEST, many unfamiliar users display the tune of “foreign accent” of their regions and suffer marginalization or cannot express themselves at all and suffer deprivation by national law. That is how so many Bhutanese have turned into APES overnight in front of their neighbours that got their language “NATIONAL” status while others are considered THREAT TO UNIQUE nationality… This is the GIFT that Dzongkha brought to rest of the Bhutanese inhabiting the regions beyond west.

  3. …as well, stating that “Tshangla speakers inhabit east Bhutan, and have no prejudice against the language spoken in West Bhutan” is a highly subjective statement, particularly given that the reference to it is from 1961. A 50-year-old reference made by a British education officer….??? I think that any statement of that sort needs to be put into the proper context. In 1961, almost no one in eastern Bhutan went to school so the role of Dzongkha was much different then it is today. So a statement like that should not be included as a point of fact over fifty years later as if it still holds true today. I’m not suggesting either that nowadays eastern Bhutanese have any “prejudice against the language spoken in West Bhutan”. In fact, because of modern education, many more easterners now speak Dzongkha with relative fluency. But an article worthy of publication in 2013 needs to have more up-to-date references than that, otherwise readers who don’t bother to look at footnotes (which is probably most) won’t understand that it was said by a foreigner about Bhutan over 50 years ago and could have little or no connection to current reality.

  4. Tshering Tashi provides a solid history of Dzongkha’s predominance as Bhutan’s national language. One event missed, however, was the re-doing of certain place names, on the recommendation of a foreign linguist, who insisted that the correct spelling using roman script (A, B, C, etc…) for names like Tashigang, Tongsa and Shemgang should be ‘Trashigang’, ‘Trongsa’ and ‘Zhemgang’. Tashi is a common name in Bhutan. When you speak to someone with that name, do you call them “Trashi”? Of course not. While the actual sound for the first syllable in Dzongkha in the name ‘Tashi’ might not have an exact equivalent letter in roman script, it was nonsensical to change all the place names like that because of a navel-gazing linguist 7,000 miles way who thought he knew better.

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