Although widely spoken, Bhutan’s national language is difficult when written.

Professor George van Driem on the second day of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival discussed on Dzongkha script, and its phonological characteristics that changes over time.

Professor George van Driem is the chair of historical linguistics at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

Professor George van Driem said that when the first two secular schools were opened in Bhutan, Hindi was chosen as the medium of instruction because of the ready availability of inexpensive textbooks. “Chöke remained the medium of instruction in the lamasery schools.”

During the reign of the third king, the number of secular schools was increased to five. A nation-wide school system was set up with 61 secular schools at which the instruction was also provided in Chöke, and English in addition to Hindi.

Then in 1961, the third king decreed that Dzongkha was the national language of Bhutan.

Professor George van Driem said that at one level, the decree formally recognised the status quo.

“At a deeper level, the real intent was vernacularisation, which meant moving away from Chöke to living Dzongkha. Until 1971, the “Dzongkha” taught in the schools was, in fact, Chöke.”

However, he added that Chöke and Dzongkha are different just as French and Latin.

Following the decree in 1961, new English medium textbooks were developed for Bhutanese schools, which replaced the Hindi textbooks 1964.

However, in 1960s in the minds of the people, Dzongkha was still construed to mean the written language, which was essentially still the liturgical language Chöke, Professor George van Driem said.

He added that the perception was not true. Two famous Bhutanese scholars-Lopon Pemala and Nado understanding that the two languages were different proposed innovations to Dzongkha spellings.

“From the beginning they challenged the usage of Chöke spelling for Dzongkha. At the time in 1970s the same thing was going on in Sikkim. These new spellings were not accepted for example, by the central monk body as it perceived that the changes were going to affect the spelling of Chöke. You cannot change the spelling of the historical language.”

But the spelling of the modern spoken language is a different case.

Professor George van Driem said that learning Dzongkha is not difficult. “People speak, sing, and rap in it all the time. The national language is easy to speak. However, the problem arises when we want to write it. Why? Because of the spelling.”

Dzongkha is one of about 22 languages in Bhutan.

Professor George van Driem narrates that Thu-mi Sam-bho-ta, a linguist from Tibet, in the 7th century travelled to India to be schooled by other linguists in linguistic tradition. With the phonological knowledge, he developed a script based on the sound system of the living, spoken language of the 7th century.

He said that there are many languages that are called Tibetan, Tibetan dialect, or Bodish. Baltistan in Pakistan speaks about three dialects of Tibetan.

The Tibetan spelling was formed under king Thride Songtsen who ruled from 804 to 815. During the reign of Lha ’Lama Yeshê Öt, a second spelling reform was carried out by Lochen Rinchen Zangpo in the 11th century. The spellings then were viewed sacred and therefore not allowed to change since.

Professor George van Driem in 1995 developed a Roman Dzongkha dictionary for foreigners. The dictionary was introduced to Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC). In the same year phonological Dzongkha was shelved.

“We thought that the people were not ready for this, and we had the phonological Dzongkha dictionary in the archieves of DDC. In 1999, two DDC staff visited me in Kathmandu and said to campaign for this Roman Dzongkha. But I said no. A linguist can only prepare and present alternatives but not to make decisions for the people.”

The grammar of Dzongkha, revised and expanded with a guide to Roman Dzongkha and to phonological Dzongkha will be published this year.

Phurpa Lhamo