A look into the Dzongkha language

Mountainous. Isolated. Intriguing. This country is so isolated, it only allows visa-free access to citizens of Bangladesh and the Maldives, and freedom of movement with India. Straddling the Himalayas, its elevation can range from just under 200m to over 7000m, with climates ranging from sub-tropical, to alpine or even polar. Known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and perhaps the only country in the world with a dragon on its flag today (sorry Wales), this is Bhutan.

There are several languages spoken in Bhutan, but it recognises Dzongkha as its official language. There are a total of around 640 000 speakers of Dzongkha, among which around 171 000 are native speakers as of 2013, primarily in the western parts of Bhutan. It is a Sino-Tibetan language, the language family that includes languages like Mandarin Chinese, to Karen (spoken in Myanmar).

The Dzongkha language is written in the Tibetan script, which is perhaps the most difficult writing system to read and write today. Details on how to read it could very well deserve its own post covering it, with a whole bunch of rules on how to match characters to sound.

The issue about learning languages that use the Tibetan script (like Tibetan and Dzongkha), the transcriptions do not really make sense. Orthographies generally get new standards at certain points in time, dictating how letters or characters could be linked with sounds. The Icelandic alphabet we use today developed from a standard established in the 19th century, with the most recent ‘update’ in 1973, when the é (previously je) was introduced, and z was replaced with s. However, the Tibetan script got its last update in…

the 9th century.

Standard orthography had never changed since then, and as languages evolve, there was a large divergence between what was written which was meant to represent what was said back in the 9th century, and what is said today.

But imagine. A lot of things have happened since between the last standard orthography of the Tibetan script and today. Viking conquests, the rise and fall of the Mongol empire, the Hundred Years War, the rise of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British empires (and their declines), the industrial revolution, both World Wars, the Cold War, and many other events. And all this time, the writing system has not really budged or gained any update patches. To put it bluntly, it is bizarre.

Now, back to the Dzongkha language.

The Dzongkha language shares several features with the Tibetan language, but in terms of classification, this relationship is more distant than other languages spoken in the region. Sikkimese, spoken mainly in Sikkim in India, is known to be closely related to Dzongkha, and also partially intelligible. Other Bhutanese languages like Chocangaca, Brokpa, Brokkat, and Lakha are also more closely related to Dzongkha than Tibetan is to Dzongkha. Another notable close relative of Dzongkha is the J’umowa language, which is spoken in the Chumbi Valley in South Tibet.

Like several other languages in the region, Dzongkha is a tonal language, with four tones — high, low, rising, and falling. It also has five short vowels and eight long ones. In addition to its system of 24 consonants, one must really wonder how the writing system actually suits the sounds of Dzongkha (it probably does, but very difficult to pick up). For instance, the Tibetan script supports five vowels, probably fully accommodating the short vowels of Dzongkha, and indicating that several other orthography rules are needed to support the full range of vowels.

Dzongkha uses two systems of numerals, a base-20 known as vigesimal, and a base-10 (aka decimal). While the decimal system came to be more recently, the traditional base-20 system is still in robust use. In the base-20 system, the number 10 is known as cu-tʰãm, while the -teens are formed with ten (as cu) and the numerals 1-9 (so 11 is cu-ci). 20 is translated as kʰe ciː, while factors of 20 are formed using kʰe.

But what if you want to say 30? Is it 20+10? Or something else?

It turns out, in Dzongkha, 30 is interpreted as 20+ (0.5 x 20). It uses the word pɟʱe-da, translated as “half to”. So 30 in Dzongkha’s base-20 system is kʰe pɟʱe-da ˈɲiː, or half to two 20s.

Interestingly, larger units of numerals in Dzongkha follow the powers of 20. Think 20^2, 20^3, and so on. So 100 is still translated as 20 x 5, and 1000 is probably interpreted as 400 x 2 + (0.5 x 400), or half to three 400s. 400 is ɲiɕu ciː in Dzongkha, while 800 is ɲiɕu ɲi, or 400 x 2. Higher powers like 8000 and 160 000 are translated as kʰecʰe and jãːcʰe respectively.

The decimal system, on the other hand, is more, well, normal. The tens are constructed as n x 10, while hundreds, likewise, are n x 100. 100 is translated as ɟa-tʰampa or cik-ɟa, while subsequent units use the suffix -ɟa. I could not find sources detailing the situations in which each number system is used, but it could be related to counting certain objects. The main source consulted is in French while I will cite below.

You may also realise the transcription of Dzongkha numerals is not as wild as transcription of texts in the Tibetan script. One reason is, it could be transcribed from speech instead of interpreted from Tibetan letters. Another plausible reason could be that the source I got had a better transliteration system compared to the Wylie transliteration in terms of representing sounds of Dzongkha. The Wylie transliteration is widely used in transcribing words from languages using the Tibetan script, but also produces wild results that definitely indicate that the Wylie transliteration is not meant to represent how words are pronounced. One notable one is a particular Tibetan Buddhist sect known as Kagyü (བཀའ་བརྒྱུད།), Ka using the low tone, and gyü with the falling tone, transliterated as Bka’ brgyud. The first reason is more likely, however, since the Wylie transliteration is accepted in academic literature and publications.

This has been a little dive into a language of one of the less known countries on Earth, but simultaneously, one of the most interesting ones. I hope you have learnt a thing or two about Dzongkha, and I will see you next Saturday for another language or linguistic exploration.

Further reading

Mazaudon, M. & Lacito., C.N.R.S. (2002) “Les principes de construction du nombre dans les langues tibeto-birmanes”, in François, ed. La Pluralité, pp. 6 ff.

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