Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan
by David Germano and Nicolas Tournadre
December 12, 2003
Section 2 of 13


While multiple systems are currently used for transliterating Tibetan words with the roman alphabet in ways that precisely render the Tibetan spelling, one system has emerged as a de facto international standard: the Wylie system. However, no such standard has emerged for the phonetic rendering of Tibetan, and in fact there is no single phonetic system in widespread use. Because Tibetan spelling practices are extremely conservative – they have remained essentially unchanged for ten centuries – there is an unusually broad discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation. Tibetan punctuation chiefly divides Tibetan words into syllables, each of which may have up to four horizontal positions (prefix, root letter, suffix, and post-suffix). Additionally, the root letter can have as many as four vertical positions (the root letter consonant, superscript consonant, subscript consonant, and vowel). In contemporary spoken Tibetan, however, many of these components are silent (although some silent elements do influence the pronunciation of the root letter and vowel). Because of this, transliterations of Tibetan words that render the standard spellings into the roman alphabet – for example, bsgrubs – are virtually impossible for the general reader to pronounce (bsgrubs is pronounced “drup”). Compounding this difficulty is the fact that, while Tibetan spelling is standardized across the entire Tibetan cultural region, the pronunciation of a given word can differ markedly from one spoken dialect to the next. Because general readers cannot decipher Tibetan words in transliteration (e.g., bsgrubs) it is impossible for them to know how to pronounce the words, and as a result they have an extraordinarily hard time remembering Tibetan personal names, place names, terms, and so forth. Thus, the use of such transliteration systems significantly restricts the utility of the resulting materials for anyone who does not know the Tibetan language.

Because of this situation, the use of phonetic systems for rendering Tibetan words in non-Tibetan publications (journals, monographs and the like as well as maps and other non-text media) to facilitate their use by non-specialists is common. A plethora of phonetic systems have emerged, most of which are specific to the author who created them and many of which are far from systematic. Further complicating matters is the lack of standardization. In fact, none of the myriad phonetic systems has developed into anything resembling even a proto-standard, and no system has gained widespread acceptance or use. As a result, the reader is confronted with a dizzying array of phonetic renderings. For example, the personal name that is transliterated as don grub is rendered in various phonetic systems as Dondup, Döndrup, Dondrup, Dhondup, Dhundup, Tondup, Tondub, Thöndup, and so forth. The same is true of the name of Tibet’s second city, spelled gzhis ka rtse in transliteration, for which the following represent some of the phonetic renderings in current use: Shigatse, Shikatse, Rigaze, Xigaze, Zhigatse, and Zhikatsé. In addition, authors will often render words phonetically according to their pronunciation in a specific Tibetan dialect, which creates a second level of complexity and divergence. The result is that readers cannot recognize Tibetan names and terms across different publications due to the widely variant systems of rendering Tibetan phonetically. An additional negative consequence is that computer search routines for Tibetan words are greatly hindered by the lack of standardization.

Because IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is highly technical and therefore difficult for most people to either write or read, THL employs a relatively precise phonological scheme for transcribing Tibetan for linguistic purposes. This scheme, created by Nicolas Tournadre, is referred to as “Tournadre Phonetic Transcription” (“Tournadre” for short). However, this scheme is still too technical to be of use for representing Tibetan words in easy-to-pronounce forms within non-Tibetan publications oriented towards a wide readership.

THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan, by David Germano