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Karma of the Tongue

Tenzin Gelek

Monday 2 November 2009

It is said that there are many levels of Karma (le) or what is more conveniently translated into English as the law of causality. I have often struggled with this philosophy of Buddhism; of not being able to comprehend a power above us enforcing (for the lack of a better word) this law. However, my confusion is confined within that sphere of the subtlest form of Karma that lies beyond the spectrum of our mortal imagination. What I am certain about though, is the form of Karma that relates to my tangible destiny, either acquired or obligatory. Here, I am talking about the karma of my speaking tongue. I am a Tibetan refugee born and raised in India. Like many first generation Tibetan exiles, I have inherited a cultural legacy that is uniquely Tibetan. And I consider the language as being the metaphorical custodian of that cultural heritage.

Before I delve deeper into this, I have to clarify that I have never seriously pondered on the significance of Tibetan Language in my own life until recently. And as is apparent, I am no expert on this subject by any measure whatsoever. In fact, I have even once been guilty of abandoning my mother-tongue in the pursuit of a more romanticized language, namely English. However, events in the past few years, both meditated and unplanned, have led me to assess this often discussed but hardly resolved topic.

In my selected readings on this subject, I haven’t found a more profound argument than the one put forward in this excerpt from world renowned socio-linguist Prof. Joshua Fishman’s essay appropriately titled "What do you lose when you lose your language?" He writes "The most important relationship between language and culture that gets to the heart of what is lost when you lose a language is that most of the culture is in the language and is expressed in the language. Take it away from the culture, and you take away its greetings, its curses, its praises, its laws, its literature, its songs, its riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its prayers. The culture could not be expressed and handed on in any other way. What would be left? When you are talking about the language, most of what you are talking about is the culture. That is, you are losing all those things that essentially are the way of life, the way of thought, the way of valuing, and the human reality that you are talking about." As insightful as it is, what struck me most about this extract was how every word of it speaks to me of the urgency that our culture is facing in light of the Chinese government’s calculated hard-line policies and the exile communities’ unintentional neglect.

I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Prof. Fishman along with various other prolific linguists and three dedicated lecturers from Tibet at a Trace Foundation event "Vitality and Viability of Minority Languages". Prof. Fishman spoke on "Reversing language shift" and throughout his talk, he emphasized on starting close to home. He called "home" the biggest strength a community can have towards sustaining its language. And this holds so very true for us Tibetans in exile. Creating a favorable home environment for mother-tongue language should not just be treated as a fad but an essential ingredient of early childhood. Another speaker at the event, Prof. Arienne Dwyer talked on the absolute necessity of inter-generational transmission of a language. And how much ever we try to shy away from it, the responsibility to do that in the exile community falls largely on us, the first generation exile Tibetans. History can attest to the fact that it takes just one or two generational gap for a language to disintegrate into extinction.

Now, when we talk about the preservation and sustenance of the Tibetan language, the elephant in room is, of course, the standardization of the spoken language to one major dialect group. My personal belief is that these are healthy dialogues but I would like to bring that topic in a later blog. This blog’s objective is merely to translate the significance of our language.

To present another perspective on this, few months back, I came across this inspirational story of a quiet revolution going on in Tibet. A group of individuals committed a day of every week to living and celebrating various aspects of Tibetan culture like speaking only in Tibetan, eating Tsampa and everything else that rejected any form of cultural invasion. I have also heard personal anecdotes of Tibetans from Tibet, who imposed fines/mild punishments for any accidental slip of Chinese words in their conversations. Now, one might argue that this is a tad too extreme but according to Prof. Jaye Trabu, one of the speakers from Tibet, the deterioration of a language begins initially with the casual substitution of random terms, which then ultimately leads to the permanent replacement of the term. So, such an enforced mindfulness could just be our way out of this quicksand.

For when I say karma, I mean an inescapable destiny; an inevitable responsibility of each one of us as a community to appreciate and revive the vitality of our mother-tongue. My good friend and college mate, Bhuchung D Sonam, always made this conscious effort to speak unadulterated Tibetan during his two years in the US and through his example, I know its possible to do so. In the recently concluded North American Tibetan Professionals’ Conference, many of us (and you know who you are) made a pledge to improve our Tibetan, starting with the speaking. This, I hope, is the beginning of a movement that marks a moment in history when a generation truly embraced its karma.

4 Forum messages

  • Karma of the Tongue 21 December 2009 at 14:59

    Great point made. But you are not alone, we Indians have a need to live in Sanskrit to keep up our culture and heritage. I greatly respect the Tibetan drive.

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  • Karma of the Tongue 11 January 2010 at 12:26 , by Tibetan Mastiff

    Well said in indeed.
    I personally had come the urge to not mix with other tungs when speaking in Tibetan and similarly with other language as well.
    I see it’s only not losing one’s own language and culture , but also it is very annoying to hear such a neither goat nor sheep language.
    For Tibetans, It is also very important to have uniformed phonics about our language.

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  • A Wake Up Call 26 May 2010 at 12:01

    Excellent article!! A wake up call for me! From today I am not going to try but instead I WILL SPEAK Tibetan at home.

    Reply to this message

  • Karma of the Tongue 17 September 2011 at 05:32 , by save culture through language

    Its very pragmatic and every household must make an effort from the begining of a child’s conscience.Certains parents say children will speak their mother tongue automatically when an age is reached,I think that is bit untrue.In my case,I speak about five language includes Tibetan of course without any proficiency.I dont know whether my english here is readable or understandable.My tongue get mixed up speaking one sentence correctly.Anyway all I wanted to say here is make an effort and we will save our culture through language.Thanks to the authuor by posting this such an interesting and important peice.

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