Ladakh Skad and Bhoti: A Middle Way Between Colloquial and Written Language

After nearly two months of researching, writing and constant rounds of editing, we have produced drafts of nine of the twelve stories that will compose the heart of our storybook. While all fitting to our general theme of “secular ethics,” the stories were written specifically for Ladakh, addressing what social issues we deemed most pertinent based on our research. The other three stories are currently being composed and will be ready for editing by the end of next week.

Once we determined the topics and how we would represent them through stories, we came to the question of how the stories should be written. Those familiar with controversies concerning how to write colloquial Tibetan/Tibetic languages will know this was no small issue to be addressed. Prior to very recently, “Bhoti” textbooks were essentially a hybrid of classical and standard Tibetan, with strong divergence from spoken Ladakhi. Students complained the language they were learning in schools had little resemblance to that which they spoke at home and with their friends; classes supposedly taught in their own language felt like they were in a foreign one.

On the other end of the spectrum, some Ladakhis started writing the language just as it sounded to them phonetically, ignoring the complex rules of spelling and grammar that have guided Tibetan language writing for more than 1,300 years. This effort faced fierce criticism and resistance among Bhoti scholars, who argued such work degraded the richness of the written language and created a barrier to understanding Bhoti/literary Tibetan.

For our book, we decided on something of a middle way. As much as possible, we are using written forms of the colloquial language (ཕལ་སྐད), as spoken by 10-12 year old Ladakhis. While I can easily read books of this grade level written in standard and classical Tibetan, there are many passages in our stories that I cannot understand due to being in colloquial Ladakhi, reassuring me that we are on the right track.

However, we are maintaining the spelling and grammar rules of written Bhoti. Gen Takpa feels adamantly that the supposed divide between spoken and literary Ladakhi is much less vast some perceive it to be; he estimates 70-80% of the words in Bhoti are also in spoken Ladakhi. Furthermore, the more people read Bhoti, the vaster their spoken vocabulary naturally becomes. Unlike some more conservative scholars, who believe colloquial Ladakhi should remain only a spoken language, we are determined that the colloquial language should be written, printed and promoted. However, we also believe this should not be done at the expense of a very rich written language. Just as in English the word “knowledge” loses its meaning if it is written as it sounds, “noledj,” so too Bhoti will degenerate if it is written exactly as Ladakhi sounds orally.

Essentially, our book seeks to demonstrate the continuum between spoken Ladakhi and written Bhoti. We do not want to neglect the spoken language and force modern standard or classical Tibetan on the youth, but neither will we present Ladakhi and Bhoti as two totally separate languages that require discrete systems of grammar and spelling. By engaging in this slow, difficult work of finding a middle way, we hope we are a small part of an effort to standardize colloquial Ladakhi in the written form. This will help in developing a corpus of modern Ladakhi literature, crucial in its own right, but which can also serve as an important transition for those aspiring to read the classical Tibetan literary cannon.

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