Monday, June 09, 2014

Flip-flops so to Speak

— Today's blog entry is dedicated to frustrated dissertation writers everywhere.

I’m not sure if the Google-bots aren’t going to build a huge firewall around Tibeto-logic after they’ve finished word-checking the blog entry below. Yeah, so what if they do? My main concern would be the school kids in the Philippines may no longer be able to get to the one about the Monkey and the Turtle/Croc (I sometimes wonder how many school teachers over there have gotten assignments that were simply cut-and-pasted from it). Their interest, an interesting subject all by itself, has made it the most-accessed Tibeto-logic blog entry ever. So it won’t matter all that much if this particular one turns out to be a big flop just because it’s on such an unpopular subject. What you’ll find below is a modified form of a posting to a members-only Ning group on Bon religion several years ago where it remains no doubt to this day inaccessible (I’ve even forgotten my password), so I thought I would bring it out in the open. Given the topic, I couldn’t find a family-friendly photo to use as a frontispiece, so I was thinking I would go with something a little more abstract this time (just remember what they say about Freud's cigar, that it might just be a cigar or then again, it might be a turtle’s head). And I apologize to everyone who would prefer bluntly direct language, since I’ve censored myself somewhat, just not so much as to worry that my meanings might be missed. I think it’s funnier that way. Have fun. Or be offended and disgusted if that's what you're into these days.

Dear Zzists,

As promised, be warned that this communication contains toned-down filth that you can very probably handle...  Well, unless you are overly prudish or fundamentalish.  If so I’m sad for you and will pray that you get better with time. The bilingual Zhang-zhung—Tibetan glossary of Zhu has this delightful bit of doggerel in Zhang-zhung.  He seems to be playing around here in this last part of the glossary, having a bit of fun, perhaps even making the sentences & verses up based on his own knowledge of ZZ language (most of his work is demonstrably extracted from the text of the Abhidharmic Bon scripture known as the Mdzod-phug).  One indication among others this may have been made up by Zhu is just the fact that pad-ma, a Tibetan transcription of Indic padma (the lotus, of course, but here metaphorically used for the 'female sign'), is parading as a Zhang-zhung word, and I believe this kind of misrecognition of Sanskrit as Zhang-zhung is something that happened more and more as time went on:  

cug no ni nam tha wer tse 
wir som (lbir som) tsa med pad ma ra 
di byil sa cim [sa cis?] nyum no ti 
ku ri dhing ning ra pi cod  

and he supplies this Tibetan translation for it:
'dod chags mi rnams pho mtshan che 
'dod log bu med [bud med] mo mtshan dmar 
khrel med ming po sbyor ngan dran 
mi 'dzem sring mo ma legs spyod 

I venture to translate the Tibetan like this:
Lustful men [have] big male genitals. / Women with wrong desires have red female genitals. / The shameless brother thinks about bad union. / The immodest sister practices 'not nice.' 
I think I translated that about as tastefully as could be expected or hoped for. I won’t discuss each Zhang-zhung word. Otherwise we’ll get way off course. I want to just discuss the ZZ word tha-wer, which is the one that was just now (see above) translated into Tibetan as pho-mtshan ('male marker'). I only got into this because years ago (guess it was 1991) when I handed in my dissertation I was chided by one of my advisers for being too prudish when translating the list of the 32 marks/signs of Lord Shenrab (they in large part do correspond to the 32 marks of the Buddha that are much better known to the world, and differ in some remarkable ways, but that’s not my point here), from the Khams-’bring [middle-lengthed version of the Khams-brgyad scripture], the passage in question being bodily mark number 26:  gsang-ba’i the-ber sbubs-su nub-pa rta dang blang po [glang po] ’gra-ba [’dra-ba] lags-so, which I translated "His private the-ber is hidden in a sheath like the horse's and elephant’s."  
For the item in context, look at this Tibeto-logic blog page.  
It still pains me being called a prude, a wound that may never ever heal. I mean, for crying out loud, I actually used the words "d***** d***" later on in the damn’d thing, not that anybody read that far. If they had I’m sure I would have heard about it, perhaps never heard the end of it. It’s not that I’m all that proud I did it. I put something much more outrageous in my dissertation, but took it out at the last minute. In this case, I’m glad I did. I had the crazy idea to test my advisers, to see how far they got into the text, thinking if they saw this doosie, they wouldn’t be able to not say something about it. That way I would actually know if they  made it as far as page 279. I’ve heard of other dissertationitis sufferers doing similar kinds of things, so my craziness was at least not unique, and I’m not as weird as you were thinking, am I? Well, am I?  
Anyway, I simply left the word the-ber untranslated, not out of modesty mind you, but because at the time I wasn’t aware of this word being used in any other context.  Really, I wasn’t even sure if it was supposed to be Tibetan or Zhang-zhung or what. It was just a mystery, its meaning divined from its context. But now in hindsight I can see that Zhu believed it was (with a different spelling) a true Zhang-zhung word, and now I know that Hummel (in his book On Zhang-zhung, LTWA, Dharamsala, 2000, p. 11), who of course based himself on Zhu, has the spelling the-wer, alternative reading tha-wer, with the Tibetan equivalent pho-mtshan, and with a slight attempt at interpretation based on the "wer" element, since it is ZZ for 'arrow,' symbol of manhood, etc.  (Well, yes, OK, but wer could even more likely mean 'king'...)  
At least it is true what Hummel says, that the word occurs twice in Zhu, once spelled tha-wer, and once spelled the-wer, but both times glossed with Tibetan word pho-mtshan, that very literally means male sign, so I'm not sure how arrows or kings would enter into it. Part of my problem is that all the Tibeto-Burman evidence for words for penis that I had been able to locate anywhere seemed to more-and-less resemble Tibetan མཇེ་ / mje (which anatomically speaking would not include the scrotum, but the word-collecting that finally fed into the STEDT database appears careless in this regard). The Chinese points in the same direction, too, since it seems there is nothing like tha-wer/the-ber there to be found. Even taking into account the possibility of genital flip-flop (this is a phenomenon you will have to ask a real Tibeto-Burmanist, not me, to explain to you, or, even if it won’t be nearly as much fun, you could do the 2nd best thing and schmoogle for it;  I know Karen does it [by Karen I mean the language of course, dummy, What did you think I meant?]) I have failed over the years to find a candidate for a cognate word in any Tibeto-Burman (or any other kind of) language.  That is, until yesterday.  
For some reason or another, instead of daydreaming about gorgeous supermodels with outstanding personal assets and minimal fabric over them, I was idly looking through an ancient article by John Avery, "Ao Naga Language of Southern Assam," American Journal of Philology, vol. 7, no. 3 (1886), pp. 344-366. Ao, a Tibeto-Burman language, is spoken by several thousand Nagas in Assam close to the Burmese border. There is an Ao entry in — Where else? — WikipediaSo anyway, what Avery (on p. 347) says is that there is an Ao-language word frequently used to indicate the male gender of persons, and that word is tebur (noticing, too, that a similar word, tebong, is used to indicate male gender of animals).  
Well, that's the only bit I've been able to come up with that could help argue that the ZZ the-ber might have some real honest-to-g-d Tibeto-Burman background. Any other ideas?  I fully realize that looking as far away as the Nagas might be considered a bit of a stretch. 
Badly yours, 

PS: The STEDT database has quite a variety of Tibeto-Burman words for penis on display. It’s interesting — I’d go so far as to say totally relevant — that the syllable the with this meaning is found in the Karenic languages.* 

(*and I suppose it is just barely possible that the the could owe something to a PIE form such as *twen (for ‘tail’). For *twen see Douglas Q. Adams, Studies in Tocharian Vocabulary IV, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 106 (1986), pp. 339-341, at p. 340.)


Postscript: I wish I could say I’ve read this short article with the following title, but I don’t have it. As you can see, it must be exactly on topic: Paul K. Benedict, “A Further (Unexpurgated) Note on Karen Genital Flip-flop,” Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, vol. 6, no. 1 (1981), pp. 103-104.  What the original expurgated note was I have no way of telling. But I do have Benedict's other paper, "A Note on Genital De-Flip-flopping, with an Apology to Tsou boki," Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, vol. 17, no. 2 (Fall 1994), pp. 155-157. If short ones are not to your liking, you may want to read a long paper about Zhang-zhung. If you don’t mind the punishment, look here. And if that makes you too tired to think, and you’re ready to plunge into the lexical materials, look here. A blog here at Tibeto-logic introduced these things in a brief and perhaps for that reason more friendly way, I don’t know. Fyi: My sublimated Freudianism isn’t meant for serious, and anyway, I’m sure if my issues aren't resolved by now, they’re simply intractable. (Or I’m just being resistant to therapy, you decide.)

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