THL Toolbox > Places & Geography > THL Place Dictionary > THL Place Dictionary Help
This application is part of a “universal navigation” system that provides integrated access to the Place Dictionary, Media Management System, Tibetan Dictionary, and Knowledge Maps. Please read the documentation on the universal navigation to better understand how it functions.
The THL Place Dictionary allows users to easily find information on Tibetan places and geographical features through searching, browsing, or use of a THL Feature ID. Once a feature is identified, you can then view the basic general information, view it on an interactive map, consult possible extended descriptive information, and see associated THL resources relevant to the feature (images, audio-video, texts, etc.).
To search for a feature entry, put your search criteria into the search box on the top. There are two radial buttons - "global" (the default option) and "contextual.” Global will conduct a search in all records; contextual will only search the place records contained in the region currently selected in the table of contents.
You can search in any script (Tibetan, Chinese, etc.) that is used in the corresponding feature entry for the feature you are seeking. In other words, for the city of Lhasa, you can use Tibetan script, Chinese characters, or Roman letters if those languages and scripts have been used in detailing the various names of Lhasa. All non-Roman scripts should be entered using Unicode.
Each feature documented in the THL Place Dictionary has a unique identifier beginning with the latter "f" - f45, f567 and so forth. This can be used to easily call up a feature, and thus should be used for reference purposes in formal citations. If you are looking for a given feature entry for which you have its ID, just enter the complete ID in the search box - including the letter "f" and with no space between the "f" and the number - and it will bring up the corresponding entry.
The Place Dictionary home page provides browsing on the left hand side through reliance upon contemporary nation state administrative units. In the future, we plan to offer other perspectives to browse with - cultural regions, historical polities, and more.
The browsing initially shows the top level categories - which for the contemporary nation state perspective is nations. Categories that contain subcategories indicate this with a left hand side + sign. If you click on that category, the + sign changes to - to indicate it is expanded, and its contained subcategories are detailed in an indented list below it. At the same time, the corresponding feature entry for the expanded category is given to the right. This provides a convenient way to explore a given perspective from which places are grouped together.
A feature entry for any place begins with a top header that says "THL Place Dictionary Entry for PLACE NAME.” Under this, it indicates the location of that feature in terms of contemporary administrative units beginning with the nation in question (India, China, Nepal, etc.), and then giving the full series of administrative units from larger to smaller, with each separated by a >. These end with the administrative unit that immediately contains the feature in question.
The remainder of the feature entry is divided into 8 sections, each with a header indicating the section label. All information has time values associated with it to indicate the time period during which that information is valid for the feature. In addition, sources are usually specified for all information, whether that information is oral or a formal bibliographical citation of written sources.
This provides a short paragraph to page description of the feature's basic characteristics, contemporary situation, and history.
In addition, if there is a Place Encyclopedia entry for this feature providing richer descriptions according to a structured specific to this type of feature, a link to it is provided here. The wording is "View the XXX Place Encyclopedia entry for this feature.”
This provides a link to view the feature on interactive maps. The wording is "View the feature on an interactive map.” Further instructions for using the interactive map will be posted here in the future.
This indicates the type of feature as drawn from THL's Feature Thesaurus. The time period for that type is specified, in case the feature changes type over time. Multiple feature types may thus be indicated. Each feature type is hyperlinked back to the corresponding entry within the Feature Thesaurus as well.
This presents the various names for the feature over time and language. For each name, it indicates the language and writing system in use, the time period for which the name applies, and the type (official, popular, etc.). It also indicates the relationship between names when one name is primary, and other names are derivative of it. An example, is the Tibetan language name for Lhasa is primary, while "Lhasa,” "Lasa,” and the Chinese character name for Lhasa are all alternative names derived from it.
This details any identifiers or codes used for this feature in any source. The most important is THL's own feature id, which begins with the letter "f" and then consists of a numerical string. The THL feature ID should be used for citation purposes, and can be used on the Place Dictionary's front page to immediately retrieve the corresponding entry through searching.
This details any information pertaining to the location of the feature, including latitude and longitude, altitude, address, and any narrative comments about the location.
This details all features related to the given feature and the nature of their relationship. A feature can be contained by another feature, contain another feature, be near by another feature, and so forth. You can then click on any one of these features to see the corresponding feature entry.
The entirety of THL's resources - images, audio-video, bibliographies, etc. - are gradually being indexed by the feature IDs of the THL Place Dictionary to the extent they involve places. This section of the feature entry provides an exhaustive list of resources thus indexed by the feature in question, and allows users to directly view them.
Geographical features, or places, are generally named by the people who live there, visit there, or know of them by other means. A “toponym” is thus simply the name of a place or geographical feature, whether that be a natural feature such as a mountain or a lake, a cultural feature such as a county or city, a constructed feature such as a city hall or temple, or an element of the transportation infrastructure such as a road, bridge, or trail. A geographical feature can be a point – a very specific spot on the landscape, or a polygon – a broader region, or a line, such as a river. Of course these classifications are arbitrary – any point is a polygon of sorts, even if a very small one; and any polygon could be considered a point depending on the scale; and a line – even a narrow stream – can be seen as a very slender polygon as well. The point, however, in this context is that all of these are named by the communities that live there, visit there, or simply know of them from afar. It should also be noted that usually there will be an “official name,” which is a name that has been accepted by the government in question, or other types of authorities. But there are often also “alternative names” or “variant names,” which might have more of a popular or folk character.
At times the names we give such geographical features can appear to be simply descriptive – “Red Rock,” or “South Bend,” which derive from a description of the geography of the site; others are nakedly ideologically, such as when a city is named after a political leader, or a mountain is labeled with a political slogan. Regardless of whether a toponym is whimsical, poetic, or strident, however, toponyms on the whole always reflect the cultural assumptions, ideological agendas, and general practices of the individuals and communities that create them. The names themselves can be deceptively simple, but they link into a complex semantic network within the cultures in which they originate and are used. They link to mythologies, historical self-understanding, and other narratives, to religious traditions and beliefs, to political agendas, and potentially any other aspect of the culture.
In addition, toponyms are intrinsically linked to issues of power, as the authority to name a place, and exercising that authority, is a direct expression of power, and often reflects the domination or control of one group over another group. Thus military victory is often followed by the renaming of places in conjunction with the language, beliefs, and agendas of the victory. Conversely, the process may be a slow one as a new culture, or simply a new faction, gradually become more dominant in a given area. Thus toponyms change over time as languages change, as new cultures and language communities come into an area, but also as cultural changes transpire and new groups or factions come into power. Such shifts can be blatantly obvious, but they can also be subtle, such as when an new group simply alters the spelling of a name but not its pronunciation, so as to invest it with a new explanation linked to that spelling.
Indeed, often it is the etymological explanation of names that becomes a source of contestation and alteration of how place names are understood. It is not at all uncommon to find that a single place name is explained in terms of its meaning, or the meaning of its syllables, in widely divergent ways over time, or even at the same time by different members of the community. The history of toponyms is thus a great subject for understanding the changing nature of the human inhabitation of a given region. In the names of places, and the explanations of those names, we find a rich set of conversations and contestations that have unfolded over time. Because of the long history of place naming that characterizes many parts of the world, often the original meaning of a place name is long forgotten; indeed, we often cannot even be sure what language originally gave rise to a place name. The linguistic archaeology of place names can thus be a fruitful line of research. But in many cases no one remembers any longer, and linguistic analysis bears uncertain or no results. In such case, the name may indeed simply be a neutral label without any clear meaning; though such neutral labels may later again be reinvested with meaning with a new spelling, or an inventive association.
In addition to the names produced and used locally, people visiting a place, or external people who know of the place may have quite different names for the place. However, such distinct names are usually limited to very prominent geographical features, such as a famous palace or the name of an entire people, whether a premodern kingdom or modern nation state. For example, in English we talk about “Tibet” or “China,” neither of which are the terms used by Tibetans or Chinese. However, for most places, outsiders tend to simply adopt the name used by the local community, though often it is pronounced somewhat differently and often abstract parts of the name will be translated – thus “Sera Monastery” instead of “Sera Gompa,” or “Tibet Autonomous Region” rather than “bod rang skyong ljongs,” and so forth.
Because of all of these factors, our Place Dictionary is set up to precisely analyze the relationship between all the various place names that have applied, or do apply, to a given geographical feature. The first issue is to determine which of the various names are “original,” i.e., which do not derive from any other known toponym via a recognizable linguistic transformation. It is important to realize that while at times we may know very precisely when such a name was given – and even who gave it – often the origins of names are not clear. Thus “original” in this case does not indicate our assumption that the name in fact was an original name not derived from any other name, but rather only that we don’t know of any name at present from which it is derived. Even with recent names, for example in Tibet, it can be unclear whether a new name was first hatched in Chinese or in Tibetan, especially when the name clearly reflects Chinese interests and terms. In such cases, we assume that the original name is Tibetan, or, as a general principle, it is the name that comes from the language of the community that lives in the region in question. Finally, the “original” name is specified not only in terms of its language, but also in terms of its writing system. In this case, also, the writing system that is mostly widely used and has the longest historical roots with the community is privileged. Thus, for Tibetan place names, it is the Tibetan script version of the name which is “original,” not its spelling in latin script transliteration, or in any other written script.
In conjunction with discerning which names are “original” in this sense, we also analyze which names are derivative representations of those “original” names. As outlined above, we start by classifying the “original” name as the name written in the script that is specific to the language and community with which the name originates. We then identify how that name gets rendered in other languages through a series of transformations. The most standard derivation is to simply represent the original place name in the other language through either orthographical transliteration, or phonemic transcription. Both of these preserve the original words, in contrast to the approach of translation.
Orthographical transliteration perfectly represents the spelling of the original word, but in a different script. In such a system, the focus is on spelling rather than pronunciation. An example of this is THL Extended Wylie, which represents each letter in the original Tibetan word with a one or two letter combination in latin script. Thus a Tibetan name that sounds roughly like “Trashi Ling” is spelled “bkra shis gling.” Because many spoken forms of Tibetan are so divergent from the spelling due to the conservative nature of Tibetan spelling (which has effectively not changed in a thousand years), such transliteration tends to create forms which are very hard to pronounce accurately. Phonemic transcription, in contrast, is focused on reproducing the sound of the word, without concern for reflecting the spelling of the word. Thus, for example, THL Simplified Transcription would render “bkra shis gling” as “Trashi Ling.” While this would be easy to pronounce for non-Tibetans, it would be impossible to reconstruct the original spelling of the Tibetan except that the sounds could of course enable someone to recognize the word, and then spell it out by virtue of knowing how that word is spelled. Thus the characteristic of Tibetan is that its spelling can be precisely rendered in other languages, but such transcription is impossible to accurately pronounce for most, such that quite different phonemic renderings are necessary.
Nepali place names, as well as those in Hindi or Sanskrit, are a quite different situation. The spelling is far more closely connected to the pronunciation, such that there is no need for marked divergent renderings of the word. Instead, the standard orthographical transliteration – Indological Standard Transcription – uses diacritic marks such as a dot under a t, or line above the a – to indicate precisely the original spelling. Indian Standard Transcription then for the most part simply removes the diacritic marks and in places converts the single letter with diacritic mark into a two letter combination (“ng,” “sh,” etc.). Thus there are standard transliteration and phonemic renderings in latin script, but they are far closer in form to each other than in Tibetan. In many cases they are identical, such as in the word “Buddha”; in other cases they only differ slightly.
Chinese place names are yet again marked by quite different characteristics. Chinese is written in hundreds of distinct characters and lacks any alphabet from which one could build words, unlike Tibetan or Nepali. Instead, characters are built around many, many radicals - sort of root characters that you have to commit to memory. Thus it is not possible to accurately represent its “spelling” in another language, but rather you can only render the pronunciation. The standard phonemic transliteration system currently used is “Pinyin,” which is the official system of China – it can be represented with tone marks or without tone marks. But even with tone marks, it is in no way sufficient to reconstruct the characters in question. Pinyin is a complete, internally coherent, standardized system that provides a clear designation for every possible phoneme in standard Mandarin Chinese. Thus with Chinese, there is only phonemic renderings of the character in latin script.
It should be noted that the standard latin script renderings of Tibetan place names in Chinese publications is actually the pinyin rendering of the Chinese character rendering of the original Tibetan – it is not a direct rendering of the Tibetan name. A final issue in relationship to Chinese is that there are two types of characters – traditional and simplified. The traditional are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, and are historically the characters used in mainland China for centuries. The simplified were introduced in the 1950s in communist China, and were adopted as a standard. As you would expect from their respective labels, simplified characters involve less lines and shapes for each character.
In contrast to transliteration and transcription renderings of toponyms, both of which preserve the original word, place names can also be translated into a different language. In this case, the sound of the original word is not preserved, but rather the semantics of it are rendered in the target language. An example is the “lho kha” district of Tibet – which literally means “the south” - which gets translated into Chinese as “Shannan,” which literally means “southern mountains.” Such translations can be precise, or can modify the meaning somewhat, as in this case. In addition, at times one syllable of a place name may be translated, while another syllable is phonemically rendered. An example is “New York” and “Nuevo York,” where the first syllable is translated, but the second syllable is rendered phonemically (or identically in this case, since both are using latin script). Translation of toponyms is far less frequent than phonemic transcription or orthographic transliteration as a way to represent place names in other languages, but is probably more common than you might think. This does not even consider the very frequent practice of translating abstract aspects of a place name, such as “County” or “Monastery.”
Most Chinese place names for Tibetan places are in fact phonemic renderings of the original Tibetan in simplified Chinese characters. Unfortunately, in contemporary China, there is no standard practice for how such phonemic transcriptions get produced. This has produced multiple versions of the same Tibetan names in Chinese characters. The first reason is that a standard, formal system is not being deployed, such that different people and agencies will at times follow somewhat different principles. The second reason is that Tibetan is a language family rather than a language, such that it is pronounced in very different forms in different regions of the Tibetan plateau. Thus the resultant phonemic renderings into Chinese characters will naturally be quite difference, since they are literally representing very different pronunciations. The third reason is that Chinese itself is also characterized by many different dialects, or languages, each with very different ways of pronouncing the same Chinese characters and pinyin. Thus their phonemic rendering might make perfect sense for their dialect, but from the stand point of standard or Mandarin Chinese, will look very curious.
As discussed above, there are also a number of Tibetan toponyms which are translated semantically into Chinese characters that share a meaning, rather than sound, with the original Tibetan. In still other cases, the resultant Chinese characters are a hybrid combination of a partial translation and a partial phonemic rendering. Finally, the Chinese may just be an entirely different name which has no direct relationship to the Tibetan toponym. An example is “bod” for Tibet, which the Chinese call Xizang. While many have understood the Chinese to mean “western storehouse,” others have argued it actually means “zang to the west,” with “zang” being a phonemic rendering of “gtsang,” the standard Tibetan term for the western part of Central Tibet (dbus gtsang). In English, of course we also have an alternative name – “Tibet” – which bears no direct relationship with “bod,” though historical analysis of the name’s origin shows possible indirect derivations.
As outlined in the above, every place name is first specified in terms of “language.” Language has nothing per se to do with the writing system being used. In other words, if a Tibetan language place name is rendered in another writing system through either transliteration or phonemic rendering, the “language” of the place name remains Tibetan. Thus “lhasa,” “lha sa,” “lasa,” or the Chinese characters for it are all Tibetan language names. Only if the place name is translated into the other language, or partially translated, do we then change the language specification to the other language. Thus, with regards to the example of lho kha/shannan, “Shannan” is a Chinese language place name, while “lhoka” in latin script is still a Tibetan language place name. The former is a semantic translation into Chinese, while the latter is a phonemic rendering into Latin script.
The second step is to specify the “writing system.” Tibetan is written in many different scripts specific to the Tibetan language, but for the present purposes we only care about the standard block print script and refer to that as “Tibetan script.” We also use “Tibetan script” for the writing system used in Bhutan, though there are certain conventions about syllable formation that are different. Chinese then comes in “simplified” and “traditional” characters, which we treat as different writing systems because they have developed into competing systems. Devanagari is the standard script used for representing Nepal, Hindi and Sanskrit. Finally, Latin script is the standard script used for English, French, Spanish, German, and so forth. When used with diacritics – special marks common to certain languages, or used specifically for transcription purposes in representing other languages such as Nepali, and so forth – this is still classified as “Latin script.” Thus, for example, “lha sa” is a Tibetan language toponym, but represented in Latin script writing system.
The third step is to specify the relationship of a name to its “parent” or “original” name, if it is linguistically derived from another name. We do this by specifying the following:
- is it a translation?
- is it a phonemic transliteration? (and if so, specify the specific system used)
- is it an orthographical transcription (and if so, specify the specific system used)
- is it an alternative spelling (and if so, specify the type of alternative spelling)
The types of orthographical transcription systems are:
- Indological Standard Transliteration: for representing the spelling of Nepali, Hindi and Sanskrit words from the Devangari script in Latin script through the addition of special diacritic marks.
- THL Extended Wylie: for representing the spelling of Tibetan words in Latin script.
- Traditional to Simplified Chinese: for converting traditional Chinese characters to to simplified Chinese characters.
The types of phonemic transliteration systems are:
- Chinese in Tibetan: for representing the sound of Chinese words in Tibetan script.
- English in Chinese Characters: for representing the sound of English words in Chinese characters.
- English in Tibetan: for representing the sound of English words in Tibetan script.
- Indological Standard Transcription: for representing the sound of Nepali, Hindi and Sanskrit words in Latin script without special diacritic marks.
- International Phonetic Alphabet: a highly precise and technical system used by linguistics to represent sounds in spoken languages which uses special script that is based upon Latin script but highly modified.
- Pinyin: for representing the sound of Chinese characters in Latin script. This is currently the standard in China.
- THL Simplified Tibetan Transcription: for representing the sound of Tibetan words in Latin script in very simplified if imprecise fashion.
- Tibetan in Simplified Chinese: for representing the sound of Tibetan words in simplified Chinese characters.
- Tibetan in Traditional Chinese: for representing the sound of Tibetan words in traditional Chinese characters.
- Wades-Giles: for representing the sound of Chinese characters in Latin script. This was an important system before Pinyin displaced it.