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Melvyn Goldstein, The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 2001.

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Note I haven’t located a copy of the print review, but the editor sent this to me. Review, of Goldstein, Melvyn (2003), The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan, Berkeley: the University of California Press. In Geolinguistics, vol. 29.

The Review

Melvyn Goldstein, The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 2001. 1,195 pp. $49.95 in hardcover.


Reviewed by David Germano University of Virginia


Tibetan in its contemporary sense begins in the eighth century, when it appears that the Tibetan script and literary language was created with support from the Tibetan empire based upon precedents that are still poorly understood. Of course lexicography generally involves the written analysis and documentation of language, so it is not surprising that the birth of Tibetan as a literary language was quickly followed by the birth of Tibetan lexicography. During its first two centuries, literary Tibetan was utilized by the military-government for administrative purposes, and by the burgeoning Buddhist movement for sacred purposes, including the massive translation project of bringing the pan-Asian Buddhist canon into the Tibetan language and the rising body of indigenous compositions. Lexicography during these initial decades was bound up with government religious institutions, which were concerned to set orthographical and grammatical standards for the new literary language. Following the gradual disintegration of the Tibetan empire in the latter half of the ninth century, a process of first chaos and then revival resulted by the eleventh century in the rise to ascendancy of religious forms of literacy and literature. From that point onwards, Tibetan lexicography tended to have a strong linkage with Tibetan religious and philosophical literature, communities and goals. Literary Tibetan thus can be defined very broadly into three phases:

+ Old Tibetan from the eighth to tenth centuries + Classical Tibetan from the eleventh to the present (still used by religious scholars) + Modern Literary (newspapers, new genres of creative literature, essay writing, etc.) that has been under intensive development over the last century

Orthography has been extraordinarily conservative over the centuries across all three phases, with a series of standardizations creating significant differences between Old and Classical, and the hesitant rise of vernacular literatures over the last century producing irregular differences between Classical and Modern based upon the incorporation of modern and dialectical pronunciations.

Modern literary Tibetan has been subject to rapid changes as literally thousands of new words have entered the lexicon both in the form of neologisms coined for new technical vocabulary and loan words from Chinese, English, Nepali and Hindi (depending on the location of the Tibetan community in question). In addition, the problem of Tibetan dialects has increasingly come to the fore. Tibetan "dialects" are really separate languages at the spoken level, even if their speakers have historically tended--when literate--to utilize a shared trans-regional literary language. The old adage about a dialect being a language

without an army, and a language being a dialect with an army comes to mind. The term "Tibetan" describes a language family, but the specific languages--with the exception of Dzongkha in Bhutan--never achieved political autonomy in the 20th century nor gave rise to corresponding vernacular literatures such as happened with the rise of Romance Languages in Europe. The actual historical origins of these different spoken languages continues to be a contested point as to whether they might all descend from an imperial period proto-Tibetan, or share resemblances from centuries of common interaction and influence. In contemporary times with the rise of secular education and breakup of traditional patterns of interaction, regional forms of literacy have begun to emerge, threatening the centuries old dominance of classical Tibetan as a touchstone for trans-regional unity.

Because of the large body of pre-modern Tibetan literature and its importance for Buddhist studies both in terms of its canon of translated Buddhist classics and indigenous compositions, most English-language lexicography of Tibetan has focused on pre-modern classical literary sources until recently. Melvyn Goldstein has been a stellar exception as the preeminent English-language lexicographer of modern Tibetan over the past three decades with a series of groundbreaking dictionaries. His major published work began with the Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan (editions in 1975, 1978 and 1983 published by Ratna Pustak Bhandar (Kathmandu, Nepal). With over 40,000 entries, this quickly became a standard for

scholars dealing with spoken Tibetan, modern literary Tibetan, and indeed even classical resources that were narrative or political in character. In contrast to most previous reference works for Tibetan with their focus on classical literary Tibetan and religious terminology, Goldstein provided reliable documentation of modern spoken Tibetan in the proto-standard Lhasan, and focused in terms of literary on modern forms. The dictionary was particularly notable for its coverage of government and political terminology, newspapers, and post-1959 neologisms reflecting the changed circumstances of Tibetans under Chinese

rule. This was followed by the English-Tibetan Dictionary of Modern Tibetan with Ngawangthondup Narkyid, first published by the University of California Press in 1984, and later in a revised edition with Tibetan script by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 1999. This immediately became, and has remained, the standard English to Tibetan dictionary in the field. While other such works have appeared, none possesses the accuracy, consistency, and wealth of sentences for illustration.

With the publication of The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan by the University of California Press, Goldstein's work has culminated in a landmark dictionary of over 80,000 entries and 1,195 pages. Simply put, this new edition is the best English language dictionary available for reference for modern literary Tibetan and spoken Central Tibetan. The dictionary's format is that head terms are provided in Tibetan script, followed by a phonetic

transcription in parentheses, the grammatical type indicated by abbreviations, definition(s) and then illustrative sentences in Tibetan script with English translations to demonstrate usage. The illustrative sentences are particularly extensive in number and highly authentic, such that they constitute an invaluable contribution in and of themselves.

Goldstein's dictionary represents a major expansion of his previous work through drawing extensively from modern publications ranging from newspapers, magazines, novels, folktales, histories, and biographies. It thus offers the best documentation available of the sprawl of new neologisms, loanwords, and contemporary revisions of traditional vocabulary that have dominated the secular literary landscape of Tibetan culture. It is indispensable for reading post-1959 Tibetan newspapers, academic writing, creative fiction and other secular literary products. It often is the only reliable source for understanding new technical terminology. However, it also offers an outstanding resource for spoken Tibetan in the Lhasan dialect, a modified form of which has increasingly

emerged as a proto-standard across Tibetan communities (though still with relatively limited extension in Eastern Tibet). As such, and with its detailed coverage of everyday social terminology including proverbs and sayings, just like its predecessor it also constitutes a valuable lexical resource for reading narrative types of classical literature, such as the huge body of biographies, histories and other such literature. Finally, special note should be made of its coverage of "government language" (gzhung yig) utilized in pre-1959 Tibetan government documents, based upon the detailed analysis of handwritten government manuscripts.

There are, of course, clear limits to the dictionary's coverage as indicated by the author himself. The dictionary in no way attempts to be adequate for classical literary Tibetan, and its coverage of technical terminology does not extend to common philosophical and religious vocabulary that permeate classical literature. For these materials, other dictionaries are required, such as the contemporary Tibetan-Tibetan-Chinese Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo (general

editor, Krang Dbyi Sun, Beijing: Nationalities Publishing House, 1993). Its coverage of spoken Tibetan is limited to Lhasan/standard forms, and is not adequate for spoken dialects elsewhere in cultural Tibet, nor for their influence on the rise of more vernacular forms of modern literature in the corresponding regions. Thus while the dictionary's detailed coverage of modern neologisms is relevant across the vast extent of cultural Tibet, there are modern forms of literature based upon non-standard dialects which point to important tasks for new generations of lexicographers of modern literary Tibetan.

Because of its pioneering character, there are some not unsurprising gaps. A fair amount of standard terms found in modern Tibetan are omitted, or when given, do not clearly provide definitions for common patterns of usage. In addition, the definitions are in general brief; this comes as a welcome relief to the sprawl of some other English-language dictionaries of Tibetan, but at times fails to give enough context to understand precisely how the term is used in modern Tibetan. In addition, given the great number of new neologisms documented and the way in which Tibetan syllables tend to have relevant etymological meanings,

it is unfortunate that there is no attempt to explain the etymological roots of terms by simply giving the root meaning of each syllable. Such simple etymological analysis can be of great use in helping researchers unpack the distinctive semantic field of the term, and how families of such terms are formed around the use of specific syllables. It would also be helpful to have Chinese equivalents added, especially since so many of the modern terms are straight neologisms fashioned direct from modern Chinese. There are also some editorial problems with cross-references that are circular in character, or even missing

altogether. To his credit, Professor Goldstein has begun posting additions and corrections with regular updates promised at http://www.cwru.edu/affil/tibet/ (to go directly to the addendum on the Internet, use: http://www.cwru.edu/affil/tibet/addendum_new.pdf). One might argue that this points to the importance of new digital technologies as a mode of delivery for dictionaries, especially those in such pioneering areas.

These are minor caveats, however, for a monumental contribution that will benefit researchers in many fields for years to come. One can only hope that younger lexicographers will be inspired to continue the impressive scope and quality of Professor Goldstein's contributions.



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