Those of us learning how to read in Tibetan often face very large hurdles. The script and its letters are totally foreign. The sounds they represent are unfamiliar. The grammar is sparse.
But perhaps the biggest difficulty, so obvious that it’s easily missed, is that there is no spacing between units of meaning. While the “tsheg” separates syllables, there is nothing that separates “words”.
It is surprising to learn, too, that old western scripts also had no spacing! Until they were transcribed by Irish scribes in medieval Europe, Latin and Greek were written in a continuous style: scriptura continua. They shared this feature with another Indo-Euopean language, Sanskrit, whose influence shaped the trajectory of Tibetan writing.
What’s important to realize about these early writing traditions is that they were heavily centered around the roots of writing: their oral traditions. (This topic of the Tibetan oral tradition is one we covered in a previous post here on Esukhia’s blog). As such, it was unimportant that texts had to be read aloud to be understood. They were being read aloud anyway.
Texts were read aloud. They were memorized. They were active participants in living, oral traditions. Reading was an expert’s work, an elite skill. The average person did not read, and had no reason to know how.
Writing changed after spaces were introduced. The work of deciding where one word ended and another began was no longer the work of the reader. That work had been done by the writer.
This allowed for reading as we know it. Because readers could easily see each word, they were able to automatically recognize each word. Instead of reading syllable by syllable, readers could read word by word. They could see much more information. Reading became fast and easy. Almost anybody could learn how to do it.
And now it seems like second nature to us to sit silently with a book. We very neatly divide “reading” and “writing”, things we often do alone, as totally separate activities from “listening” and “speaking”, things we do with others. This is one way to see reading. But it is not the only way.
So as students of the Tibetan language, we have to realize we are not just learning literature in a foreign language. We must learn how to approach literature itself in a new (from our point of view) way. We must realize the importance of written language’s connection to its oral roots.
And I’ll finish with a quote from Tournadre to bolster this point:
“It should be emphasized that prosody and accentuation are extremely important for reading Literary Tibetan, whether verse or prose. Even from a grammatical point of view it is essential to make the right pauses and these follow some prosodic rules. If those rules are not applied, the text becomes incomprehensible” (p. 479 of the Manual of Standard Tibetan).
Please see: “Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading,” by Paul Saenge, for more details on the invention of spacing and its effects on the traditions of reading and writing.