Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

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Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

Post by wisdom » Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:15 am

What is the difference between modern and classical? How does each one give access to different aspects of Tibetan Buddhist teachings? It seems in order to study at some monasteries for example you have to be fluent in spoken and written Tibetan (seems like a daunting task, but probably worth it). While it seems many people who are studying Buddhism will focus on classical. How easy is it to learn one, once you know the other?

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Re: Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

Post by Virgo » Sat Jan 07, 2012 6:28 am

I don't see learning either as a big deal, but I am deluded about this, I guess, because there are so many awesome texts written in Tibetan.

But really, Language is one of the Five Sciences, so yes, you should study languages (related to Buddhism), if you can.

I now realize I did not answer your question at all. Sorry about that. But this raises a question for me too (sorry to post it here). Is language one of the main sciences or is it just Sanskrit, and language in general a secondary art?


Sorry for posting in your thread.


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Re: Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

Post by gad rgyangs » Sat Jan 07, 2012 7:37 am

the odd thing is that modern written tibetan is classical tibetan, the spoken language is generally not written down. this may be changing. the grammar is basically the same, endings are somewhat different, but the difference is the vocabulary. any tibetan can read the classical tibetan used in prayers and simple sadhanas, but of course if you want to read the scholastic philosophy or dzogchen tantras you have to learn the specialized vocabulary for each area. you can learn classical tibetan from books or at universities but the only way to become fluent in spoken tibetan would be to spend a few years in a monestary in india or tibet, or at least be living in a tibetan community where you would be using it everyday.
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This is (possibly) the teaching of Buddha.

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Re: Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

Post by tantular » Sun Jan 08, 2012 10:49 am

The main difference is vocabulary and the verb system. Some classical words have different meanings in modern colloquial (e.g. classical semchen "sentient being", just means "animal" in modern Tibetan), and there are many new words. The classical Tibetan verb system only has 3 tenses and an imperative, modern Tibetan uses a large number of auxiliary and modal verbs to distinguish many different aspects and moods.

Modern written Tibetan isn't the same as classical Tibetan. Modern namthars & commentaries are written in classical dharma language, but newspapers, formal announcements and letters, etc. are written in modern literary Tibetan, which is roughly halfway between spoken & classical Tibetan.

Modern colloquial gives you access to oral teachings, classical gives you access to texts. If you want to study at a shedra in India or Nepal, you will need to become fluent in both, but it's not necessary to start fluent.

Of course, more and more lamas speak English, and more and more texts are translated. Unless you plan on living in a Tibetan community in Asia, I'd say that learning colloquial is less useful. I rarely have problems with lamas teaching directly in English or oral interpreters, whereas---despite the best efforts of excellent translators---English translations of Tibetan texts are often very confusing.

If you often find yourself staring at a sentence in an English translation and wondering what the hell it's trying to say, learn classical. If you often find yourself at a teaching wondering if you got the point the lama was trying to get across, learn colloquial.

Either of the two is a great help in learning the other. The script, the syntax, the particles, and a great deal of the vocabulary are the same in both. It's roughly comparable to the difference between the Canterbury Tales and modern spoken English, if English were still spelled exactly the same.

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Re: Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

Post by bloxgros » Sun Aug 26, 2012 12:29 am

Hi, some examples of using written and modern Tibetan is here:

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Re: Modern vs. Classical Tibetan

Post by conebeckham » Sun Aug 26, 2012 2:41 am

I was advised to learn the literary classical form, first, as the modern written form, and the spoken form, would be relatively easier with the classical form under my belt. I think I agree, but have limited experience in all forms, truthfully.

"Absolute Truth is not an object of analytical discourse or great discriminating wisdom,
It is realized through the blessing grace of the Guru and fortunate Karmic potential.
Like this, mistaken ideas of discriminating wisdom are clarified."
- (Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, from his summary of "The Ocean of Definitive Meaning")

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