Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unique to Bhutan - The Languages

In Bhutan, the official language is Dzongkha meaning "language of Dzong" meaning "language of fortress-like monastery". Originally used as the language of popular communication since the 17th century, especially in western Bhutan, it was only declared the country's official language in 1971. Linguistically, Dzongkha is a South Tibetan language. Although spoken Dzongkha and Tibetan are very different, the literary forms of both are highly influenced by the liturgical Classic Tibetan language, known in Bhutan as Chöke (choekey). 

Besides Dzongkha, there are around 18 other local languages in the country, including Nepali in the south. Visiting Ura located in the middle of the country I had dinner with a local family and my Bhutanese colleagues were sitting like me equally unable to understand a word of the conversation in local dialect.

File:Languages of Bhutan with labels.svg
Languages of Bhutan (Wikipedia)

Although English has no official status, it is taught at schools and widely spoken, especially in towns, where some people even speak better English than Dzongkha. It is also fairly common to hear educated people casually mixing the two languages when speaking. In Mongar I heard a minister discussing his itinerary with his team in this mixed way. Currently, there is intensive public discussion about the use of two main languages and how to preserve the role of Dzongkha when experiencing greater and greater English influence. The government even set up a development commission to pursue this goal.

Other interesting thing about hearing English spoken in  Bhutan is the use of the word "la" at the end of the sentence as a sign of respect. A typical phone conversation could be something like that:

"Kuzuzangpo-la"     (Good morning)
"Where are you going, la?"
"From Thimphu to Paro, la. I'll be back to Thimphu tonight. We can have dinner, la."
"Okay, okay"

What I have also noticed is that most people just suddenly end the phone conversation when they feel everything has been discussed without saying something like 'bye' or 'see you'. For the first time it sounded a bit rude to my chilip ear (chilip = foreigner), but now I'm used to it.

The last thing I would highlight is the habit of covering one's mouth when speaking to a person of perceived higher status or giving offering at temples. I heard that the reason is to prevent bad mouth smell from spoiling the environment.

To hear people speak Dzongkha, listen to the online radio, Kuzoo FM.

To read more unique things in Bhutan, click here:  NAMES  or  DRESS, DOMA, ETC  or PENIS

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