This brief research note is for the Tibetology linguists and scholars, but also for those readers who have ever wondered about the commonly used ‘anglicised’ transliteration systems (often called Wylie) for the Tibetan script, used by scholars and translators. In it, I ask the question: why are we still using transliteration for Tibetan in the 21st century? Moreover, is the system itself (due to its cumbersome and exclusive, anglo-centric nature and origin) liable to accusations of spurious redundancy and Anglo-American/Eurocentricity?
First, I compile a brief overview of the Wylie/transliteration system itself and why and how it came into existence. Then, I consider the Sanskrit/Hindi system of transliteration also developed by 19th Century European scholars.
Finally, I tentatively conclude that not only is the Wylie/transliteration of the Tibetan script no longer needed or useful, but also worse an archaic, anglocentric system that makes no sense (is gobbledegook) to its native speakers or even to the majority of readers of the Anglo-Roman script. Leading to the comical, but also tragic situation, where even native Tibetan speakers are forced to (or unquestioningly) adopt the Wylie convention when publishing their own scholarly work. Rather like insisting a native English language speaker transliterate their words for those who do not read the Roman alphabet.
In summary, if one needs to know the Tibetan words and their spellings, one should study and learn the Tibetan script. If one does not need that level if understanding, and only needs to know the standard pronunciation of the words, use the phonetics. So, the ideal combination for writers and readers of both an academic and general audience (that respects native Tibetan speakers and the Tibetan script) is to use the Tibetan script together with the phonetics, and not transliteration, and will be doing so in future.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 20th August 2022.
TRANSLITERATION OF TIBETAN: WYLIE – ITS ORIGIN AND PURPOSE
Wylie transliteration is a relatively new method, developed in the 1950s and 60s, for writing the Tibetan script, using only the letters available on a typical English-language keyboard. The system is named after the American scholar Turrell V. Wylie, who created it and published it in a 1959 Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies article. It has subsequently become a standard transliteration scheme in Tibetan studies, especially in the North America and Europe.
The reason or need for it, was based on the dilemma of whether to accurately reproduce the sounds of spoken Tibetan (phonetic) or the spelling of written Tibetan, which like English, differ widely. Wylie transliteration was designed to precisely transcribe Tibetan script, which led to its acceptance in academic and historical studies. However, it does not represent the pronunciation of Tibetan words and so when read by a non-scholarly or native Tibetan audience, looks like gobbledegook nonsense.
WHO INVENTED THE SYSTEM AND WHY? WYLIE, NEBESKY-WOJKOWITZ AND LAUFER
Even though Wylie is generally credited with the system, the origins can actually be traced back to a German scholar, Herman Laufer. As Nathan Hill states in his interesting short article on Wylie in (2012):
“The ‘Wylie’ system of Tibetan transliteration, although it has gained some currency in North America, has achieved nowhere near the universal employment which Wylie had envisioned for it (1959: 263). Many self-ascribed users of the Wylie system do not themselves consistently employ it. Wylie put forward two principles for his system: that it use no diacritics and that it employ no syllable internal capitalization. The second proposal has attracted subsequent practitioners less than the first. Wylie himself makes clear (1959: 267) that this criterion of capitalization is the only difference between his system and that used by René de Nebesky Wojkowitz (1956: xv).
Although Nebesky-Wojkowitz does not mention any antecedents to his system of transliteration, the responsibility for the diacriticless system of Tibetan transliteration, with anglocentric warts and all, rests not with Nebesky-Wojkowitz but rather Heinrich Laufer. In his 1900 inaugural dissertation Beträge zur Kenntnis der Tibetischen Medicin Laufer employed a system which differs from that of Nebesky-Wojkowitz predictably only in the treatment of the 23rd letter. H. Laufer uses a small circle for Nebesky-Wojkowitz’ apostrophe (1900: 6)….His dissertation was Heinrich Laufer’s only contribution to Tibetan studies. His better known brother Berthold Laufer is in contrast one of the major figures in the history of our discipline. Berthold Laufer in his own works was content to use a system of Tibetan transcription laden with difficult diacritics. In his life cut short by suicide, Berthold Laufer made major contributions to the study of Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, and anthropology, in a volume and quality that is hard to fathom. It appears that even at his time diacritics were not so cumbersomeness or time-consuming as Wylie feared.
In the land of its greatest success the Laufer-Nebesky-Wojkowitz-Wylie system is steadily losing ground to systems of transcription which claim to be ‘phonetic’. Little notice seems to have been taken of the fact that Khri Srong brtsan is a perfectly accurate way of reflecting the pronunciation of the name of the emperor frequently called Songtsen Gampo, in a manner the emperor himself would have recognized, i.e. Tibetan spelling already reflects Tibetan pronunciation as it once was. The only transcription system that can legitimately claim to be phonetic is the International Phonetic Alphabet, of which the vast majority of Tibetologists are ignorant. The system which Nicholas Tournadre proposes (Tournadre and Dorje 2003: 475-478) accurately reflects the pronunciation of Modern Standard Tibetan and is quite easy on the American eye. However, for authors such as Tuttle (2005: xvii) and Kapstein (2006: xvii) among others the symbol ‘ä’, although it represents a sound in Modern Standard Tibetan quite distinct from ‘e’, is too confusing and ugly (Tournadre and Dorje 2003: 431). Such authors replace ‘ä’ with ‘e’, rendering the system no longer phonetically accurate. Inexplicably, the symbols ü and ö, just as familiar from German and just as odd looking in English, these authors embrace.”
NEW TRANSLITERATION SCHEME BASED ON PHONETICS
There are notable flaws in Wylie’s original scheme, in that it cannot transliterate all Tibetan-script texts. For example, there are no correspondences for most Tibetan punctuation symbols, and it lacks the ability to represent non-Tibetan words written in Tibetan script (Sanskrit and phonetic Chinese being the most common cases).
The Tibetan and Himalayan Library at the University of Virginia developed a standard, EWTS—the Extended Wylie Transliteration Scheme—that addresses these deficiencies systematically. It uses capital letters and Latin punctuation to represent the missing characters. Several software systems, including Tise, now use this standard to allow one to type unrestricted Tibetan script (including the full Unicode Tibetan character set) on a Latin keyboard. The THL also have kindly provided a very useful phonetic converter (for the standard pronunciation of Tibetan) for those who wish to convert the actual Tibetan or Wylie/transliterated script into the sound of the word in the Roman anglicised alphabet, see here.
Also, since the Wylie system is not intuitive for use by linguists unfamiliar with Tibetan, a new transliteration system based on the International Phonetic Alphabet has been proposed Guillaume Jacques (2012) in his article “A new transcription system for Old and Classical Tibetan”. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area. 35 (2): 89–96. This system would replace Wylie in articles on Tibetan historical phonology. Jacques writes that the system is in fact cumbersome and ‘highly misleading’:
“Tibetan is nowadays almost universally transcribed using Wylie’s (1959) system or modifications thereof (Imaeda 2011). Given the fact that Wylie straightforwardly represents the letters of the Tibetan script, it may not be obvious why anyone would ever consider devising a new transcription. The Wylie system is indeed perfectly suited for philologists working on Classical and Old Tibetan texts. However, as a tool for linguists working on Tibetan dialectology and comparative linguistics, this system presents several inconveniences, and is highly misleading for non-specialists. This has the unfortunate consequence that works on Tibetan historical phonology are difficult to read not only for general historical linguists specialised in a different language family, but also for Sino-Tibetanists working on a different branch of the family. The Wylie transcription has four main defects to be addressed.
Jacques makes the same point as I do here regarding the invention of Tibetan type fonts, stating that:
“Given the fact that Unicode-compatible systems are available on nearly all computer systems, there is no need anymore for a type-able ‘practical’ transcription, as may have been the case in earlier times (Hill 2012). Since the pronunciation of Old Tibetan is relatively better known in comparison to that of many other old languages (Hill 2010), it seems more sensible to represent the Tibetan letters by their IPA equivalents. This system has the advantage of limiting to the minimum the preliminary explanations when discussing Old Tibetan data in articles dealing with historical phonology.”
SANSKRIT/HINDI VS TIBETAN TRANSLITERATION – 18th- 19th CENTURY ANGLO-EUROPEAN SCHOLARSHIP, IATS AND THE HUNTERIAN SYSTEM
Tibetan is of course not the only non-Roman script language to be transliterated by scholars from Europe and North America. The Sanskrit Devanagari script is another example. The International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) is a transliteration scheme that allows the romanisation of Indic scripts that use Sanskrit and related Indic languages.
The scheme emerged during the nineteenth century from suggestions by Charles Trevelyan, William Jones (who developed the Hunterian system used by the Government of India), Monier-Williams and other scholars, and was formalised by the Transliteration Committee of the Geneva Oriental Congress, in September 1894.
However, the IAST scheme, which represents Sanskrit script in the Roman alphabet, accurately reproduces the phonetic pronunciation of spoken Sanskrit, and so is less problematic than the transliteration of Tibetan script. It is that accuracy to the original scripts that accounts for its continuing popularity amongst scholars.
As for the transliteration of Hindi and other Indic langages, the Indian National Library at Kolkata romanization of scripts is an extension of IAST. The Hunterian system is the “national system of romanization in India” and the one officially adopted by the Government of India. The Hunterian system was developed in the nineteenth century by William Wilson Hunter, then Surveyor General of India. It was sometimes also called the Jonesian transliteration system because it derived closely from a previous transliteration method developed by a British man, William Jones (1746 – 1794).
However, the Hunterian romanization system has also recently faced criticism from opponents working in other fields. For example, in 20016, during a United Nations group of experts Meeting of the Working Group on Romanization Systems (in Tallinn, Europe in October 2006), a paper called The Romanization of Toponyms in the Countries of South Asia, accused the system of being ‘spurious’:
“The Hunterian System was unashamedly geared towards an English-language receiver audience, principally of course in Britain. It was based on a principle of uniform transliteration, irrespective of the language of origin. All the various types of consonant occurring in the languages of this region were reduced to a single form, conforming to the standard straightforward consonants present in the alphabet of the English language. The only sign alien to this alphabet was the macron, utilised to indicate vowel length. This sign could potentially be present on any vowel, though in practice it was usually limited to a, i, and u where these were long (and it was not employed on a long vowel occurring in word-final position). The resulting transliterated name forms are very easy to read, and very easy to accommodate within contemporary digital structures, though of course they normally lack the facility of reversibility…. But, as this present paper has demonstrated, these systems are not implemented in practice in any of the relevant countries; they are wholly spurious.”
CONCLUSION: TIBETAN TRANSLITERATION IS ARCHAIC, REDUNDANT AND ANGLO-EURO CENTRIC
As someone who reads and writes for both an academic and general audience, I know all too well how cumbersome and archaic the Wylie/transliteration system can seem. While there is no denying the remarkable Anglo-European scholarship in making Tibetan, Chinese and Indic languages available to readers in the Roman script, the Wylie system, unlike that of the Sanskrit IAST system, is no longer tenable to use for the following reasons.
First, I agree with Jacques (2012) that Wylie/transliteration of the Romanized spellings of Tibetan is no longer necessary at all, since Tibetan fonts are now available for use in electronically published material. Scholars can now use the Tibetan script itself (for Tibetan language readers, speakers and scholars) followed by the phonetic spelling of the word (for those who do not read Tibetan nor understand Wylie and have no need to do so).
Furthermore, I suggest that the transliteration system itself could now be accused of some kind of Euro/Anglocentricity, in which predominantly non-Tibetan scholars and translators from Europe and North America have forced everyone, including native Tibetans, to use a system that on paper makes little, to no sense anymore.
For example, one can only wonder what a native Tibetan reader and speaker makes of it all when they see this Anglicised nonsense. The closest parallel example I can think of is someone writing English words as they are spelt in Tibetan or Chinese for a non-English language speaking audience, most people would find that utterly ridiculous, right? Most people would think, if you want to read and understand English then first learn to read the Roman alphabet and then learn to pronounce the words and so on.
The continued used of the Tibetan transliteration had also led to the comical, but also tragic situation, where even native Tibetan speakers are forced to (or unquestioningly) adopt the Wylie convention when publishing scholarly work. Rather like insisting a native English language speaker transliterate their words for those who do not read the Roman alphabet.
In summary, if one needs to know the Tibetan words in terms of their actual spellings one should learn the Tibetan script, as one would learn the Roman alphabet to read and write English. If one does not need or have that level of Tibetan language understanding, and only needs to know how the word is pronounced, use the phonetics. So, the ideal combination for both an academic and general audience (that respects native Tibetan speakers and the Tibetan script) is to use the Tibetan script and the phonetics, and not Romanized transliteration.
Das, Sarat Chandra (1915). An introduction to the grammar of the Tibetan language. Darjeeling: Darjeeling Branch Press.
Hill, Nathan W. A note on the history and future of the ‘Wylie’ system in Revue d’Études Tibétaines, Number 23, Avril 2012. pp. 103–105.
Imaeda, Yoshiro 2011. Towards a Comprehensive and Unambiguous Transliteration Scheme of Tibetan, in Yoshiro Imaeda, Matthew Kapstein and Tsuguhito Takeuchi (eds) New studies of the Old Tibetan Documents: Philology, History and Religion. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 39-44.
Kapstein, Matthew (2006). The Tibetans. Oxford: Blackwell.
Laufer, Heinrich (1990). Beträge zur Kenntnis der Tibetischen Medicin. PhD thesis. Friedrich Wilhelms-Universität zu Berlin.
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, René de (1956). Oracles and demons of Tibet : the cult and iconography of the Tibetan protective deities. ‘s-Gravenhage: Mouton.
Tournadre, Nicolas and Sangda Dorje (2003). Manual of standard Tibetan: language and civilization. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications.
Tuttle, Gray (2005). Tibetan Buddhists in the making of modern China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wylie, Turrell (1959). “A Standard System of Tibetan Transcription.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 22: 261-267
 “First, the phonetic value of several letters and digraphs can be unclear, especially the alveolo-palatal obstruents c j zh sh. Second, the problematic letter འ (sometimes incorrectly called ɦa-tɕʰuŋ) is transcribed by the apostrophe ‘, a symbol that does not reflect its real pronunciations, and which cannot be capitalised in person or place names. Third, the two clusters - gya- and གཡ- g.ya- have to be distinguished by the addition of a dot. Fourth, the last letter of the alphabet, ཨ, is not represented in the Wylie transcription.”
 When it was proposed, it immediately met with opposition from supporters of the earlier practiced non-systematic and often distorting “Sir Roger Dowler method” (an early corruption of Siraj ud-Daulah) of phonetic transcription, which climaxed in a dramatic showdown in an India Council meeting on 28 May 1872 where the new Hunterian method carried the day. The Hunterian method was inherently simpler and extensible to several Indic scripts because it systematized grapheme transliteration, and it came to prevail and gain government and academic acceptance. It is said that: “Opponents of the grapheme transliteration model continued to mount unsuccessful attempts at reversing government policy until the turn of the century, with one critic calling appealing to “the Indian Government to give up the whole attempt at scientific (i.e. Hunterian) transliteration, and decide once and for all in favour of a return to the old phonetic spelling.”