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 3 of 13

THL Phonetics

To address the lack of a pronounceable and regular system for rendering Tibetan phonetically, THL has established a phonological transcription system for use throughout THL with the aim of making its collections accessible to and user-friendly for the broadest possible audience. We refer to this as the “THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription System” (“THL Simplified Phonetics” for short), and we employ it throughout THL, including all cataloging as well as search functions. This simplified system employs a set of standard and consistent rules to produce phonetic renderings of easily pronounceable Tibetan words. We hope that it may eventually become a broader standard that will establish user-friendly and regular phonetic renderings of Tibetan terms for academic works as well as magazine articles, popular books, maps, and the like.

We have created this system on the basis of the following principles:

  • Avoid the use of most special “diacritic” marks (such as “ṅ,” “ś,” and “ñ”) that are offputting for the non-specialist reader and difficult to use in many computer environments (where it has been necessary to use them for computing reasons, they can be dropped without disrupting the phonetic rendering)
  • Enable easy generation of phonetic renderings that do not require the application of complex rules and phonological understandings
  • Maintain continuity with the Wylie transliteration system so that the two systems can be used complementarily
  • Provide clear rules for generating phonetic spellings which result in unique and unambiguous renderings of Tibetan words
  • Follow the pronunciation of the Central Tibetan dialect based upon the Tibetan spoken in Lhasa
  • Base the phonetic rendering on English pronunciation. Thus “ch” corresponds to the ch of chair, “j” to the j of jazz, and “w” to the w of win
  • Despite the preceding principle, also try to accommodate an international audience that may pronounce the roman alphabet differently than English pronounces it, though keeping in mind the impossibility of doing so adequately
  • When possible, accommodate idiosyncratic but semi-standardized conventions for phonetic representation of Tibetan (particularly for personal names)

We are aware that this simplified scheme is not perfect and contains elements liable to mispronunciation by various speakers. In addition, we fully realize that individuals may disagree with particular points of the scheme. However, on the whole, it is clear that the system is a vast improvement over Wylie transliteration in facilitating the pronunciation, use and retention of Tibetan terms for an international audience. In addition, it is not difficult to use and can be implemented by a computer. Most importantly, while it may not be perfect for all users and all Tibetan terms in all contexts, its rigorous use within THL – and we hope by others outside of THL – will yield tremendous benefits for computer search capabilities and also the general reader’s recognition and retention of Tibetan names and terms. We feel these benefits far outweigh any minor problems relating to divergence from current spelling practices, personal proclivities, or enduring tendencies towards mispronunciation.

Our intention within THL is to allow users to view Tibetan terms in three forms: Tibetan script, Wylie transliteration, and phonetic transcription. Our long-term plan is to allow users to specify which of these three (or a combination thereof) they want to view at any location within THL. To make this possible, we are building a computer routine that will take a single underlying form of the Tibetan – either Wylie or Tibetan Unicode encoding – and, in accordance with the user’s preference, automatically generate either Tibetan script, Wylie transliteration, or phonetic transcription. Thus, Tibetan terms will be input strictly in properly spelled Tibetan, from which phonetic renderings can then be machine generated. We are using XML (eXtensible Markup Language) to implement this, with the goal that users can select either a “Tibetan” view that displays Tibetan words in Tibetan script, a “Tibetanist” view that displays Tibetan words in Wylie transliteration, or an “International” view that displays Tibetan words in THL Simplified Phonetics.

As we work toward full implementation, we are employing a variety of strategies to ensure that we maintain data integrity and utility for specialists (using full Tibetan spellings) while also serving a broader audience. One such strategy is employed in the image database, where we use THL Simplified Phonetics for Tibetan words in captions but also have a special “Tibetan keywords” field providing the full Tibetan spelling for such words (as well as for Tibetan words translated into English in a caption). In addition, the system has the capacity for a Tibetan-language caption as well, which would be rendered in transliterated Tibetan with the complete spelling.

In other parts of the image database that have more text, such as extended descriptions, we employ the following convention: at the first occurrence of a Tibetan word, the THL Simplified Phonetic rendering is enclosed in { } (curly braces), within which the translation is enclosed in ( ) (parentheses) and the Wylie transliteration is enclosed in [ ] (square brackets), with each element of the string separated by a space. All subsequent occurrences of the term are then rendered in phonetics alone. For example, the first occurrence of “Degé Publishing House” would be marked up as: {degé parkhang (Degé Publishing House) [sde dge par khang]}.

While this will result in a cumbersome display in the short term, once the database has been exported into XML this system makes possible the display of a Tibetan term in phonetic form, Wylie transliteration, Tibetan script, English translation, or a combination of these – without the braces, parentheses, and brackets – according to user-determined criteria. The same system is also employed in other THL databases such as the audio-video database. Thus, once the databases are exported to XML they will mirror the system of rendering Tibetan terms employed for essays within THL as described above.

THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan, by David Germano