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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Tangut in Tibetan

Perhaps the core problem of Tangutology, which has directly and indirectly involved most of the effort of most Tangutolgists most of the time, has been the reconstruction of the pronunciation of the extinct Tangut language. Modern reconstructions of Tangut are largely based on the evidence provided by a few surviving Tangut lexico-phonological works such as the Homophones and the Sea of Writing, although the phonetic glossing of Tangut characters by means of Chinese characters in the Pearl in the Palm has also provided important evidence for the pronunciation of Tangut. However, it is necessary to first reconstruct the pronunciation of 11th century Chinese before the Chinese glosses can be used to try to reconstruct the pronunciation of the corresponding Tangut characters, and furthermore, as Chinese characters are notoriously incapable of accurately representing the phonetic systems of other languages, even if the pronunciation of the Chinese characters can be accurately reconstructed, they may only give an approximation of the actual Tangut pronunciation. For these reasons, phonetic glosses in Chinese characters are inferior to phonetic glosses given in phonetic scripts such as Tibetan or Phags-pa. Luckily for us, a number of Tangut Buddhist manuscripts with phonetic transcriptions of Tangut characters in the Tibetan script are known, and have been the subject of considerable interest to Tangutologists ever since the existence of such manuscripts was first reported by Nevsky in 1926.

A Tangut manuscript with Tibetan phonetic glosses : British Library Or.12380/3495

I recently started a project to transcribe the known Tangut-Tibetan manuscripts and collate the readings of the Tibetan glosses by various scholars. So far I have only covered the five Tangut-Tibetan manuscripts collected from the Tangut fortress city of Khara-Khoto by Aurel Stein during his expedition of 1913–1916, and now held at the British Library in London. Thanks to the wonderful International Dunhuang Project these manuscripts are available online for all to see. The following pages are currently available, but I hope to add more manuscripts next year :

As I have only just started this project, it would be premature to attempt an analysis of the way Tibetan is used to represent Tangut pronunciation in these manuscripts, but it is worth making a few general observations.

Firstly, many of the manuscripts are in poor condition, with tattered edges and tears, resulting in many illegible or only partially legible Tangut characters and Tibetan glosses. The poor legibility is exacerbated by the often hard to read Tangut and Tibetan handwriting used in these manuscripts. The Tibetan glosses are particularly difficult (for me at least) to read as they are generally written in an untidy, cursive, headless script in which many letterforms are very similar to other letterforms (e.g. the letters ng , d and ra all look almost identical in some hands), and without context it can be difficult to be sure exactly what letters are intended. For this reason, in many cases the identification of the Tibetan gloss can only be determined with certainty by reference to the reconstructed reading of the corresponding Tangut character. Thus the Tibetan gloss for the 3rd character of the 1st line of Or.12380/3495 looks identical to the Tibetan gloss for the 3rd character of the 1st line of Or.12380/1842, and they could both potentially be ngu, du or ru. In the case of Or.12380/3495 Tai Chung Pui reads it as ru because it fits the Tangut reconstruction of L5130 (*rjur), but in the case of Or.12380/1842 Tai Chung Pui reads it as ngu because it fits the Tangut reconstruction of L0508 (*ŋwu), whereas in the latter case Berthold Laufer, who in 1928 did not have any reconstruction of the Tangut text to refer to, reads it as du.

Secondly, Tibetan is a writing system that is particularly well-equipped to represent a wide range of phonetic values, and we could hope for a very accurate transcription of Tangut pronunciation using the Tibetan script. However, this does not seem to be the case. Although most Tibetan glosses do approximately correspond to the modern phonetic reconstructions of the corresponding Tangut characters, the correspondence is disappointingly poor, with only a very few characters showing an exact correspondence between Tangut reconstruction and Tibetan transcription (e.g. L2098 𗧓 "I, me" which is reconstructed *ŋa and glossed ŋa ... which also happens to be the Tibetan word for "I, me"). In most cases the Tibetan glosses miss out what should be essential phonetic features, for example transcribing *mja as ma, *ŋwu as ŋu, *ɣjɨ̣ as rgi, *war as wa, *lew as li, and *lhjwịj as lhi. Either the modern reconstructions of Tangut are seriously flawed (a possibility I can't reject) or the Tibetan scribes were content to provide a very approximate representation of Tangut, so approximate that it is hard to imagine that a Tangut speaker could have understood much that a Tibetan reading the Tibetan transcriptions of Tangut was saying. So what was the purpose of the Tibetan transcriptions? My theory is that they were intended for Tibetan monks to be able to chant in unison with their Tangut colleagues, not knowing what they were chanting or needing to chant perfectly, but just vaguely correct enough to be able to chant along without sticking out like a sore thumb. Maybe the Tibetan monks who made the transcriptions did not speak a word of Tangut, and they just wrote down what they thought they heard, which would explain why the transcriptions are so imprecise.

Thirdly, the Tibetan glosses utilise prefix letters (g, d, b, m and ') and superfixed letters (s, r and l) in a way that suggests they might have been intended to indicate a particular pronunciation of the corresponding Tangut character, but it is not immediately obvious what this might have been (it has been suggested that these nominally silent letters may have been intended to represent tone in Tangut, but I am not convinced), and they are used inconsistently (e.g. L1245 ·jij is glossed as either ye or Likewise, the glosses frequently use a final letter -'a, seemingly to indicate a long vowel, but again it is used inconsistently (e.g. L1278 ·jɨ is glossed as either g.yi or g.yi'). Perhaps the oddest feature of the Tibetan transcriptions is the use of prefix letters in front of letters that do not allow prefix letters in standard Tibetan orthography, for example d.wi དཝི and' གརུའ. This feature occurs across different manuscripts, and could suggest that the scribes were actually using a formally defined orthography for transcribing Tangut, and not just putting down what they could hear, as I suggested above.

Addendum [2011-12-26]

Marc Miyake has posted a series of commentaries on this post :


Tangut | Tibetan

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