The fun continues. I’ve learned the alphabet, which is no small task, as it turns out. There are 30 consonants and 4 additional vowels, but although the written word is read left to right, it turns out that many of the letters can be stacked on top of each other to create new sounds. We’re on to basic grammar and vocabulary now, so I thought I’d sum up some of what I’ve learned about getting the hang of the alphabet (for English speakers).
- The language is read left-to-right, and letters are aligned at the top (ours are aligned at the bottom).
- The alphabet consists of 30 consonants; vowels are separate. English letters have names that are only sort of related to the sounds they make, but Tibetan letters (we’re talking consonants for now) are named with the letter’s sound combined with an “ahh” vowel. For example, the English alphabet includes “jay, kay, el, em, en…”. The Tibetan equivalent would be “ja, ka, la, ma, na…”. Much easier.
- When you’re learning the consonants, you’re getting them with “ah” built in. This really is a lot easier and makes a lot more sense, when you think about it. There are four vowel marks that can be added above or below the consonant to change the “ah” to an “eh, ee, oh, ou”
- In general, when consonants get stacked, you pronounce either the one on the bottom or a different sound altogether.
- There are a lot of sounds in English that are almost identical, but we hear them completely differently. For example: “pa” and “ba”, “ka” and “ga”, “cha” and “ja”, and “ta” and “da”. Recognizing that has made it easier for me to wrap my mind around the Tibetan letters that seemed indistinguishable at first.
- Learning a pitch-based language seemed impossible to me when I started. As a musician, I couldn’t completely get my head around it. Do you speak in a key? Does everyone speak in the same key? Can you change keys in the middle of a sentence? Turns out it’s a lot easier than all that. From what I can tell, it’s not exactly a different pitch, but more a different overtone series that creates a feeling of higher/lower. For example:
- a pitch considered high sounds like a taut, well-tuned drum–basically it *has* a pitch
- a pitch considered low sounds much breathier, airier, less tuned–there’s a lower pitch implied but it’s more of the absence of a higher pitch
- there are also letters that imply a pitch change from low to high–which is actually pretty easy to handle as it just sounds (to English-speaking ears) like a question
- There are names for stacked letters, and they’re kind of fun–the English equivalent would be “g with an r-head” or something like that.
- There are a couple of different styles of written letters, sort of like our cursive and printing. The formal one you see on signs, and the one that’s most commonly taught, is Uchen (and that’s the one I’ve been learning). The less formal one is Ume and is characterized by a lot of vertical lines and sweeping curves above/below the main letters. There’s a third, Khug, but I don’t know much about that.
There’s a free Tibetan font that was programmed by a Sera monk. His website is in Tibetan, so here’s an English-language web page about him and the font: http://www.tibetangeeks.com/geeks/lobsang_monlam/
Another thing that’s been helpful for me is listening to, and looking at, Tibetan-language news broadcasts. There are a couple of good sources for those: Radio Free Asia and Phayul (which means “country” in Tibetan). I’ve been downloading broadcasts from RFA to my iPod and falling asleep listening to them. Since I spent some time in Tibet and heard plenty of Tibetan while I was there, maybe there’s something stored in my brain that I’m not fully aware of. If not, just hearing the sounds and beginning to recognize a word here and there certainly can’t hurt.