Dzongkha: More than just a language

In the talks that I gave in schools last month, I briefly touched upon the importance of Dzongkha. And since it was not the central theme of my talk, I just made a mention of it. So through the marvel of my blog, let me elaborate on this.

A discussion on Dzongkha preservation is a non-starter. Any attempt to further it is often met with a resounding should-we-abandon-English-then response. The question need not be answered with an either-or solution. Both can be mastered together. There are many who do. And so let me make it clear that I am not asking to choose between Dzongkha and English. My piece here is more on what would happen if we lose our local languages.

Well, first, the inconvenient truth. Dzongkha promotion or development has been reduced to another political and bureaucratic rhetoric or lip service – or a combination of both. As Bhutan increasingly becomes a Networked Society, which is predominantly in English, the situation of Dzongkha is only set to get worse. The future generation will be a linguistically-alienated generation of Bhutanese with devastating consequences.

My renewed concern, for our national language in particular, and for our local languages in general, stems from reading established works in socio-linguistics and anthropology. For example, according the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an individual’s thoughts and actions are partly shaped by the language that individual speaks. In other words, while we know that a thought produces speech or action, the opposite seems to be equally true. Speech also determine our thoughts. Now, what does that mean?

Whorf’s concept of linguistic relativity argues that individual languages encode information about the world differently and subsequently influences the world view of the speakers. This perhaps explains the Three World-views propounded by our own Dr. Karma Phuntsho.

What is linguistic relativity? To put it bluntly, it means that if we speak only foreign language, our thoughts will also become foreign*.

Other recent studies in this field have even concluded that the words we use determine how our brain gets developed – with long-term influence on individuals and societies. Isn’t that bit scary? What is, then, the use of jealously preserving Dzongs and temples if people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviours become alien to our country. Shouldn’t we be doing more to preserve, promote and develop our own language – and languages?

To put it into better context, when Bhutanese meet and ask each other how life was treating them, a standard reply would be halam chi in Dzongkha and shama thur in Tshangla. Both literally means ‘somewhat’, ‘almost OK’ or “almost not OK”. I argued in one of my papers that this expression is probably derived from the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of middle path** where we avoid veering into the extremes – in thoughts, actions and words. If Bhutanese pose the same question in English, How is life? the answer will be quite different. It won’t be, halam chi or shama thur but rather a very direct reply such as ‘fine’, ‘not too good’, ‘very bad’ – all with very little consideration to middle path approach. In the long run, I assume that this directness could breed extremism because we will slowly lose the concept of moderation and modesty. That’s what is happening in the US right now where neoliberals and right-wing conservatives cannot find a middle ground.

The other important difference that I observe in our society is the use of pronouns. English-speaking Bhutanese tend to start the sentence with “I”, while in Dzongkha, and especially in Tshangla, the plural “we” is the norm. We say more “ngache” in Dzongkha or “aiba” in Tshangla in our group conversations. “I” promotes individualism while “we” embraces collectivism. Not only. In official meetings, if participants speak in Dzongkha, there is more mutual respect and cordiality through the use of honorific terms while in English the atmosphere gets more relaxed and direct – at times lacking respects or decorum. I am not saying which one is better here. It depends on the situation and context what is more important: respect or informality.

In one of my own study I have asked why Sharchops cherish large family network (I have close to a thousand) and found out that it is perhaps because of the rich set of vocabularies used to address every member of the clan. For example, instead of the generic and all-purpose ‘uncle’ in English, in Tshangla (the biggest language group among the Sharchops) we have ‘aku’ (father’s younger brother, stepfather), ‘aapchi’ (father’s elder brother), ‘ajang’ (mother’s brother). Even the highest local authority, Gup, is referred to as Azha Gup. The most powerful figure in the history of Tashigang, Dzongpon Thinley Tobgye, was addressed as Sey (son) Dopola. There are over 30 terms in Tshangla as opposed to less than 10 in English.

I argue that Kinship terms not only serves the referential purpose but also establishes and sustains a more intimate relation among the users. They define one’s personhood and place in the community – an important aspect of sense of belonging, identity and confidence. So, people from my village often refer to my siblings as Jangchu’s ‘tshow’and ‘tshowmin’ because my aunt is a head of our family. Likewise, no one referred to me with my official title (even when I had one very high) but with what I was to that community member: ata, khotkin, ajang, aku or apchi. This practice keeps the community bonded because somehow somebody will be always related to everybody.

As more and more Bhutanese not only migrates to other countries but also moves to bigger cities of Thimphu where usage of ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ has replaced the proper kinship terms, we can expect the traditional family networks to slowly drift apart and go tangential.

A bigger tragedy, however, would be the fact that as the national language and vernacular languages decline and English becomes the dominant language, our thoughts, attitudes and behaviour will see a dramatic shift from close-knit and collective communities to a society advocating for more individual freedom, rights and equity – if it is already not happening. Arrogance, materialism and indifference will follow and no one will listen to anyone. This absolutely does not augur well for a small country like Bhutan.

What’s the solution? Well, everyone knows what needs to be done. What is not to be, is to force people to speak the language or to promote it at the expense of English – or point fingers or expect the Dzongkha Development Commission to do the miracle. Dzongkha will flourish only when people take full ownership and embrace whole heartedly instead of being forced, coerced or made to choose. Much has been achieved through popular culture and broadcast media. More can be done in terms of research and development to enhance teaching pedagogy and tools besides encouraging and financing books, publications and social media apps.

Maybe then there is hope that our national language will thrive.


* In some other studies, the benefits of speaking multiple languages have been more pronounced. Fluency in multiple languages is possible and should be the way forward in case of Bhutan. My own daughters are perfect in three – Dzongkha, English and Japanese – written, spoken and reading.

** Middle path approach is the core philosophy in Mahayana and Vajrayana that sets it aside from the older Theravada tradition. It is a very important philosophy that has given birth to social, cultural and linguistic traditions of Bhutan.

With my only non-navy gho because it is inauspicious to wear dark ghos in an inauguration
I encouraged the Dzongkha teachers of Yangchen Gatsel to take note of this Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

4 thoughts on “Dzongkha: More than just a language

  1. Jigme Tenzin

    This piece interesting like many other of your posts and the discussion is profound and food for thought for us, Bhutanese. I have always tended to think in English and found difficulty in articulating my thoughts in either Sharchop or Dzongkha, the former being my mother tongue. “Ro Kha ma shey, Rang Kha Jang,” the apt Dzongkha saying is true because there is always difficulty in articulating things in Dzongkha or Sharchop or for that matter in English and I should add I am expert in neither of those languages. Kudos to your children for being a polyglot. I have a son of one and half years old who is picking up a language and I have tried searching for Dzongkha resources, rhymes and others alike but the resources are minimal and sometimes non-existent, adding to parents woes. So where does this lead us – resort to English rhymes and alphabets, right? Now, we have social media which can penetrate far and wide and it’s high time that DDC or Educational institutions take advantage and produce educational materials that can be introduced to preschoolers. _ Jigme


    1. Being able to articulate is a communication skill – not a linguistic disability. When do you pray in which language you make your wish? That’s probably the language you are most comfortable with – and probably your first language.


    1. The article suggests something like standardized testings and requirements of Dzongkha for certain jobs and higher education, just as IELTS is required for university admissions in many Anglophonic countries


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