Rare Languages #7: Dzongkha

By | April 2, 2023
Bhutan, a country known for its rich cultural heritage and the use of Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan.
Bhutan, a country known for its rich cultural heritage and the use of Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan. Image: Ming Zimik

Nestled in the Himalayan Mountains lies the small, landlocked country of Bhutan, where the national language is Dzongkha. With around 250,000 speakers, Dzongkha is not one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Dzongkha is the official language of Bhutan and is also spoken in India, primarily in the neighboring state of Sikkim. Dzongkha is the mother tongue of the majority of the population in western Bhutan. Apart from Dzongkha, at least 18 other languages are spoken in Bhutan, but there is no absolute majority language.

Dzongkha is a South Tibetic language closely related to Sikkimese and partially intelligible with other Bhutanese languages and Tibetan. The writing system employed to transcribe Dzongkha, which is the Tibetan script, includes 30 fundamental letters, also referred to as “radicals,” to represent consonant sounds. The word “dzong” refers to fortress-like structures that are scattered throughout Bhutan, and the word “kha” means language. The name Dzongkha therefore translates to “the language of the fortresses,” reflecting the importance of these structures in Bhutanese culture and society.

Dzongkha has been used by Bhutan’s royal court, military elite, educated class, and government since the 12th century. It was officially recognized as the national language in 1961 and is now used as a lingua franca throughout the country. Hindi was initially used as the medium of instruction in government schools, but Chöke (classic Tibetan) remained the language of instruction in monasteries. As more schools opened, English and Chöke were also taught alongside Hindi. Dzongkha replaced Hindi as the medium of instruction and efforts were made to bring the written language closer to the spoken language. In 1971, the Dzongkha Division of the Education Department was created to develop teaching materials in Dzongkha, and a committee was formed in 1986 to promote and provide spelling advice. This committee was later merged with the Dzongkha Division to produce high-quality textbooks. The commission now coordinates linguistic research and has the authority to introduce new words and change spelling. Roman Dzongkha, a system for phonological romanization of Dzongkha, was developed and accepted as the standard system in 1991.

The spelling and actual pronunciation of Dzongkha often do not match because the writing system is very conservative while the pronunciation has changed. To address this issue, George van Driem created a system for phonological romanization of Dzongkha called Roman Dzongkha, which was introduced as the official standard in 1991. It shows the accurate pronunciation rather than a transliteration, which can result in significant differences.

Dzongkha distinguishes between singular and plural, but the plural does not function like in English: the plural marker in Dzongkha is not obligatory even when indicating a plural. The Dzongkha plural suffix is used more to emphasize that there are many.

Another notable feature of Dzongkha is its extensive system of honorifics, which is used to show respect and deference to others. There are different levels of honorifics, depending on the status and relationship of the speaker and the person being addressed. This system can be quite complex and difficult to master, even for native speakers.

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