Controversy in the Tonal Analysis of the Tibetan Language
The Tibetan language is spoken by around five to ten million people worldwide, mostly by ethnic Tibetans in the country of Tibet where it is the official language. As with many other languages, the Tibetan language is full of tones which can lead Westerners struggling to pronounce individual words.
The issue of tones has been a matter of controversy for scholars. As early as 1881, one scholar introduced the terms high and low tones as a feature of Tibetan dialects. He states, “A system of tones has been introduced. … I am told by European students of reputation, who have made the Tonic languages of eastern Asia their special department, that only the first principles of what are known as the high and low Tones, have made their way into Tibetan. … Here, as in the languages of Farther India, generally, which possess an alphabetic system of writing, the Tone is determined by the initial consonant of the word”.
Around 50 years later, Chao Yuen-Ren translated the love songs of the sixth Dalai Lama in phonetic transcription. Although there are many similarities between his and original scholar’s work, he distinguishes two tonemes, ‘the high (falling) tone (53) and the low (rising circumflex) tone (131). However, this has cause debates in linguistics as it is “so rare is it for the pitch of a high-toneme syllable to be the same as the pitch symbolized by the toneme symbol ‘ 53’ that almost every such syllable would have had to have both toneme mark and pitch mark”.
In 1954, a scholar by the name of Sprigg made ripples in the tonal analysis of the Tibetan language with his distinguishing two tones for Lhasa Tibetan on the basis of a distinction in register pitch. “What distinguishes Sprigg, from the two earlier analyses is that it precedes the tonal analysis with a junction analysis: ‘ a two-term junction system ‘ to delimit units within the sentence (” words “)”.
His work has caused controversy because one word limitations have been rigorously bordered, distinctive trisyllabic pitch designs can be accredited to the style of trisyllabic word selected for examination in that piece, in agreement with variations in tone and intonation.
Even at the phonological level, there seems to be conflicting views amongst scholars as to the tonal analysis of the Tibetan language. This argument carries on today.
Sprigg, R. K. (1993) Controversy in the Tonal Analysis of Tibetan, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies.