Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Couples Constantly Facing Off

Light side and Dark side of the mountain

modern གཏན་ཞལ་ > སྟངས་ཞལ་ > ancient སྟངས་དབྱལ་?

This བློག་ is for Dorji over at Philologia Tibetica. We share an incurable disorder known as Logophilia, among its symptoms an immediate and spontaneous impulse to do funny things with words.  For us, logos and Legos are cultural equivalents. Our best excuse for having this fun is, anyway, that words have always been doing funny things with themselves. Sometimes we can catch them in the act. Today I produce one of the smoking guns.

To start with, Tibetan language has a strong tendency to make pair compounds, in which two substantives are simply crammed together to make a new word (often dropping 2nd syllables altogether in the process). Sometimes this is just an 'and' type of compound, sometimes a way of making abstract nouns. These are often contrasting pairs, forming what we might call antonym compounds. For example, the term hope-fear, or re-dogs (རེ་དོགས་) just comes out meaning everything on a scale ranging from the highest hopes to the darkest fears. We can fairly well translate a pair compound such as this with English anxiety, perhaps more accurately meaning levels of anxiety about what good or bad thing might happen in the future. But we could, and this is my point, simply translate it as hope[s] and fear[s]. Take your pick.

Something occurred to me while I was getting some expert help from PD ironing out problems in a very long translation I've been working on for what seems like forever now. This minor revelation was: That the modern Tibetan tongue has a word that has evolved in its spelling at certain stages in its history until we get the modern word gtan-zhal (གཏན་ཞལ་). Gtan-zhal is a word of very doubtful etymology even if the individual syllables may mean constant and face. It is nowadays a word for couple, used in relatively formal contexts in the meaning husband and wife. I suppose constant face makes some kind of sense, or could be made to make sense, in the sense that your partner could be a person who is constantly in your face about this or that, or something similar, which may ring true, even if that doesn't necessarily make it the truth.

The real story is that the form gtan-zhal is preceded, in early times, by the spelling stangs-zhal (སྟངས་ཞལ་),* with this spelling found a number of times in the Pillar Testament, a history of imperial Tibet of the 7th century that seems to date from the 11th century more or less. Tradition tells that it was extracted from a pillar in the Jokhang in the mid-11th century.
(*I'm ignoring an entry for btang-dpyal [བཏང་དཔྱལ་] in Btsan-lha's dictionary, a word he finds in the biography of Pho-lha-nas, dated 1733, where it could be a conscious archaism.  We really must ignore it since it threatens the smooth flow of historic change we want to chart out here.)

The form stangs-zhal demonstrates continuity, it's our  "missing link." Preceding it by centuries is the form stangs-dbyal, found in the most famous historical source of all the Old Tibetan documents in Dunhuang, the Old Tibetan Annals, in its entry for the year 710 CE, as well as in the inscription on the old bell at the temple of Samyé. Not only that, but perhaps this is the point I most want to stress: the literature of the Bon religion continued to use this term without a break for the last thousand years at the very least. (I'd give some more examples of such words, but perhaps we'll leave it for now.)

We find ourselves in a peculiar situation here, since the word itself in a certain sense remained constant through time. Its pronunciation changed somewhat, probably due to dialect influences, and the pronunciation change had its effect on the spelling... Until it became virtually unrecognizable, both syllables re-spelled as if to thwart meaningful etymologies.

Old Tibetan has another very interesting pair compound, gdags-sribs (གདགས་སྲིབས་), which means the lighted and the shadowed sides of the mountain, very much like the ancient idea behind yin-yang in Chinese culture. The syllable srib[s] is related to a number of other Tibetan words with related meanings like sgrib-pa. Here it means shadowy (night) side of the mountain. The explanation of the syllable gdags is a little more obscure, since it usually means designation or labeling. I think it's related to an Old Tibetan word for the sun, gdugs, preserved in the modern word for parasol.

Following Emel Esin, I would ask, If Bonpos are preserving this ancient proto-Tibeto-Sino-Turkic idea that seems to go back before the days of Buddhism in any of those countries, what other such truly pre-Buddhist archaic cultural features might they be preserving? A question for another day.

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For the early Turkic concept of kararig and yaruk, see Emel Esin's book, A History of Pre-Islamic and Early-Islamic Turkish Culture, Ünal Matbaasi (Istanbul 1980), p. 97. Esin's idea that this cosmological pair concept may go far back in history as a kind of areal phenomenon is believable, but of course questionable. It could belong to more recent times, the Turkic and Tibetan ideas reflecting one-way influence from the Sinosphere. This needs a lot of thought, especially since Stein has pointed out textual translations from Chinese where the Tibetan terms are used to translate the Chinese concept... meaning what? That the Tibetan term had no existence prior to the translation event? How can we know one way or the other?

For the discussions of these terms by Rolf Stein, see his Rolf Stein's Tibetica Antiqua with Additional Materials, tr. Arthur P. McKeown, Brill (Leiden 2010), pp. 21, 61, 63.  Today I learned the words adret and ubac. For enlightenment, look here.  Stein pointed out the two-time occurrence of the stangs-dbyal in a Nyingma scripture, the famous Guhyagarbha Tantra. Going over to RK&TS, I couldn't locate a single further scriptural occurrence in the entire Kanjur and Tanjur.  If I had searched through the Bon scriptures (as if that were even possible) I could have come up with hundreds, even thousands.

I haven't discussed medical usages of the pair gdags-srib. To follow the dictionaries, in the examination room the physician is regarded as gdags, while the patient is srib; in pulse examinations, the upper part of the pulse-taking fingers used to diagnose problems in the five solid organs is gdags, while the lower side of the same fingers used to diagnose the six container organs is srib; in respiration the outward flowing breath is gdags while the inhalation is srib.

For the word stangs-dbyal in the inscription of the bell at Samyé, there is a remarkable discussion in Hugh E. Richardson, A Corpus of Early Tibetan Inscriptions, Royal Asiatic Society (London 1985), p. 35, and this the curious are encouraged to look up. Here Richardson even connects it to the modern term gtan-zhal. This virtually means I discovered nothing at all, and this entire blog has been a completely unnecessary sacrifice of digital ink. No, please, not again!?


  1. just for curiosity;my ex husband is from mukum, where, as in ngari, they preserve some of the older forms of tibetan in common speech ,elsewhere now only used in the honourific.

  2. Does that mean in western Tibet they still use the term stangs-dbyal? or gtan-zhal? (or are the two pronounced similarly there?). Today I noticed in a different manuscript of the Pillar Testament the spelling steng-zhal, as if it were referring to the Emperor's 'upper [3] faces' when it actually means the Emperor with his two Queens making altogether three. But it's a very badly spelled manuscript in general, so it's hard to think how seriously to take this. Ask you husband if he knows a word for lock (or key) that sounds like tha-ram[s]? I've heard some Bhutanese dialects have it. And Darma language (not all that far from Mukum) has tarum meaning 'key.' Tha-ram is regarded as a perfectly ordinary Tibetan word in Bon scriptures.

  3. Dear D, many thanks for your contribution. Would you not consider the orthography stangs dpyal at all? What about steng zhal mentioned in the Tshig mzdod chen mo (s.v. stangs dpyal)? Warmly, D.

  4. Dear Dorji, Welcome to our guest of honor! Nice hearing from you. I'm more than ready to consider the dpyal spelling, just that it also would be a word of quite obscure meaning and etymology. And, I'm more than likely biased by the readings in Bon scriptures dbyal, as well as the Old Tibetan inscriptions carved in stone. I'm reasoning (although I'm no linguistic expert) that the more modern spelling zhal represents a western Tibetan pronunciation of the dbyal ("yal" in CT) as, well, zhal. And for steng-zhal, or *Upper Face*, I would tend to see that as a conscious or unconscious interpretation of the unfamiliar bisyllabic word, an effort to 'normalize' it and give it a semi-intelligible etymology. How would you make sense of these alternative spellings? It's interesting to pop those spellings into the eText repository at TBRC and see which sources use which one. Anyway, it's fun (in a Tibeto-logical kind of way).


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