The Classical Tibetan Language

The Classical Tibetan Language

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Item Code: NAC242
Author: Stephan V. Beyer
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Edition: 1993
ISBN: 8170303575
Pages: 527
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.6 Inch X 5.5 Inch
Weight 570 gm
Back of the Book

Among Asian languages, Tibetan is second only to Chinese in the depth of its historical record, with texts dating back as far as the eighth and ninth centuries, written in an alphabetic script that preserves the contemporaneous phonological features of the language.

The Classical Tibetan Language is the first comprehensive description of the Tibetan language and is distinctive in that it treats the classical Tibetan language on its own terms rather than by means of descriptive categories appropriate to other languages, as has traditionally been the case. Beyer presents the language as a medium of literary expression with great range, power, subtlety, and humor, not as an abstract object. He also deals comprehensively with a wide variety of linguistic phenomena as they are actually encountered in the classical texts, with numerous examples of idioms, common locutions, translation devices, neologisms, and dialectal variations. “Beyer’s work is the first grammar of classical literary Tibetan that adopts a genuinely fresh approach to the language, abandoning the tired (and often inaccurate) conventions of Indo-European grammar that dominate the available textbooks. Though some of his conclusions and assertions may be controversial, Beyer forces us to think about the distinctive features of Tibetan in a challenging and animated fashion. His many examples, drawn from all branches of the literature, are superb.

“The fields of Buddhist Studies, Asian History, and Comparative Literature have all suffered as a result of the limited access to Tibetan primary sources. Beyer’s book will significantly contribute to rectifying this state of affairs.”

—Matthew Kapstein, Columbia University

Stephan V. Beyer has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies and is author of The Cult of Tara: Magic and Rituals in Tibet and The Buddhist Experience. He is currently an attorney and member of the firm at Sidley & Austin in


The year 1959 marks an abrupt turning point in the history of Tibet. The flight of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to India, where he was followed by close to a hundred thousand of his fellow Tibetans, created a nation in exile dedicated above all to the preservation of the unique cultural institutions of homeland. Not surprising, then, that during the past three decades the academic study of Tibet has been radically transformed. No longer the special preserve of adventurer-scholars able to mount expeditions to the Land of Snows, or of philologically oriented “buddhologists,” searches were almost exclusively confined to the translations of Sanskrit Tibetan studies increasingly came to focus upon the indigenous Tibetan traditions of religion, learning and art that are the primary interests of Tibetans themselves.

Prominent among those whose scholarship reflected the changed conditions for research during the first two decades of Tibetan exile was a specialist in the field of Buddhist Studies, Stephan Beyer, then of the University of Wisconsin, whose superb contribution to the documentation and interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist ritual, The Cult of Tara, marked the first fruits of his wide-ranging researches. After the late seventies, however, Steve increasingly devoted his energies to a career in law, having completely abandoned—or so it was widely rumored—his work in Tibetan-and Buddhist Studies, I was therefore surprised and delight to learn, after I joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1986, that Steve was both in Chicago (with the firm of Sidley & Austin) and that in his spare time he had remarkably completed a grammar of literary Tibetan, which he had begun at the University of California—Berkeley some ten years before. In 1988 Steve sent me a copy of the manuscript. 1 immediately felt it to be an extremely exciting work, reflecting throughout the author’s wide-ranging knowledge of Tibetan literature, in its many genres and forms, ancient and recent.

A distinctive feature of Steve’s approach to the Tibetan language is his almost complete abandonment of the morphological and syntactic categories, borrowed from Indo-European grammars that have traditionally informed textbooks of Tibetan. The “canonical” status of this mismatching was reinforced both by indigenous Tibetan grammatical tradition, which derived 115 own analytic and descriptive categories from India, and by the emphasis, in Western philological circles, on the study of literary Tibetan primarily as an adjunct to the study of Sanskrit Buddhist texts. For those who were inclined to direct their attention primarily to works of Tibetan authorship— epic, history, biography, poetry, and so forth—it has long been clear that Indo-European models were both inadequate and misleading, but the effort to correct the powerful disposition to continue to adhere to them was largely limited, as it was in Jacques Bacot’s still useful Grammaire, to the enumeration of the so-called “particles.” And while it is true that linguists specializing in Tibeto-Burman have generally avoided the sanskritizing inclinations of the philologists, they have by-and-large not addressed their work to those who study Tibetan in order to actually read Tibetan literature. The Classical Tibetan Language, therefore, calls for the student of literary Tibetan to rethink the Tibetan language fundamentally.

In terms of its extraordinarily thorough treatment of the phenomena one encounters in literary Tibetan, and the insights that mark virtually every page, The Classical Tibetan Language is a work without precedent. It is my belief that the rethinking it calls for is essential for the realization of the creative potentialities of contemporary Tibetan studies, and that such controversy as it will perhaps arouse will significantly contribute to the creative growth of the field. Steve gives us a tantalizing glimpse of some possible lines of exploration in his deeply penetrating, yet appropriately playful, remarks on Tibetan poetry and poetics. Our rethinking of the Tibetan language is not to be a linguistic exercise plain and simple: we must inquire into the manner in which Tibetan writers used and thus continually rethought their own language, forming of it a unique medium for a distinctively Tibetan heritage of learning, insight and wit.


In 1975, I accepted an appointment as a visiting associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and I looked around for a nice portable project to take with me. It is a measure of my innocence that I decided to start writing a grammar of classical Tibetan. Now, more than fifteen years later, the project is about as finished as I am ever going to make it. During those fifteen years, I returned to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, abandoned my tenured appointment, and began a career as a trial lawyer with the firm of Sidley & Austin in Chicago. During that time, too, it would be fair to say that my work on this grammar was sporadic. Yet somehow, during all those odd moments, a stack of handwritten notes about two feet high—examples from the classical literature, attempts at theorizing, jumbles of cross-references—became the product you now have before you. My motive was simple—to move the Tibetan language from my head to paper. I hope someone finds the result useful.

I am not a Tibeto-Burman linguist; but I believe that the reader of classical Tibetan texts should have some sense of the place of the language in the speech communities of the world. References in this text to Tibeto-Burman languages other than Tibetan are based on. several secondary sources, chief of which is Paul K. Benedict, Sino-Tibetan: A Conspectus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), as edited and annotated by James Matisoff, and David Bradley, Proto-Loloish, Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series No. 39 (London: Curzon Press, 1979). Comparative citations of Tibeto-Burman forms are largely taken from these two remarkable compilations. In addition, I have relied on the stream of works produced by the Summer Institute of Linguistics on the languages of Nepal, in particular the various works of Warren W. Glover on Gurung and the works in the four volumes of Austin Hale and David E. Watters, Clause, sentence, and discourse patterns in selected languages of Nepal, Summer Institute of Linguistic Publications in Linguistics and Related Fields 40 (Kathmandu: Summer Institute of Linguistics and Tribhuvan University, 1973). In the bibliography at the end of the text, I have tried to include not only the texts upon which I have relied but also the texts that the literary scholar might find enlightening.

In all my reading on the classical Tibet-an language, I have returned again and again to the works of three scholarly pioneers of Tibetan studies—Berth0ld Laufer, Geza Uray, and Rolf Stein. They represent the best scholarship to which I could aspire, and I cannot put forward this book without acknowledging the debt I owe them. I also cannot forebear from mentioning the name of E. Gene Smith, whose work is scattered in introductions and prefaces to the works of others; the collection of these into a single and accessible volume is a scholarly desideratum which is, unfortunately, not likely to occur soon.

I owe a great personal debt to Professor Matthew Kapstein of Columbia University, for his friendship, encouragement, good sense, and extraordinary knowledge of the Tibetan language. No writer could hope for a better or more thorough reader, or for a more discerning critic. Thanks, too, to Professors James Matisoff of the University of California. And E K. Lehman of the University of Illinois for their generous help, encouragement, and suggestions. Finally, I want to thank my friends and law partners Mike Davis, Bill Richmond, and Doug Fuson. Their friendship and support helped me write this book, even though they did not know it.

One final note if you want to learn classical Tibetan, you can do no better than to sit down and read A Tibetan-English Dictionary by H.A. Jaschke, originally published in 1881 and reprinted several times thereafter. Jaschke was a Moravian missionary in Ladakh, and I do not think that any other scholar of Tibetan has ever equalled the linguistic insight exhibited in this dictionary. And if you want to learn how to think about classical Tibetan, you should sit down and read—twice—James A. Matisoff, Variational Semantics in Tibeto-Burman, Occasional Papers of the Wolfenden Society on Tibeto-Burman Linguistics 6 (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978), which is simultaneously one of the most sensible and sensitive books on doing Tibeto-Burman linguistics I have ever read.


Dedication v
Foreword by Matthew Kapstein xxi
Preface xxiii
1. Introduction 1
2. Transliteration 3
3. Tibetan in context7
4. The writing system 39
5. Sounds 55
6. Syllables 68
7. Words 97
8. Inflections 160
9. Phrases 191
10. Simple propositions 252
11. Complex propositions 282
12. Sentences 351
13. Beyond the sentence 383
14. Bibliography 424
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